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Quo vadis, resilience? : assessing the application of a contested concept within the uMngeni Resilience Project in South Africa

Lammers, David Mathias LU (2016) In Master Thesis Series in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science MESM02 20161
LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)
Abstract
Over the last 40 years, the concept of resilience has made a journey from the fields of ecology and psychology into the social sciences. By now, it has become a term commonly used in the international climate change adaptation and development spheres, describing the ability of an individual or a community to cope with or recover from harmful events. Critics have raised concerns about this spread, arguing that the unreflecting transfer of the concept and a lack of conceptual understanding in practice have lead to an application that tends to neglect fundamental social questions.

Using the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) in South Africa as a case study, I inductively explored how resilience is operationalized within an actual climate... (More)
Over the last 40 years, the concept of resilience has made a journey from the fields of ecology and psychology into the social sciences. By now, it has become a term commonly used in the international climate change adaptation and development spheres, describing the ability of an individual or a community to cope with or recover from harmful events. Critics have raised concerns about this spread, arguing that the unreflecting transfer of the concept and a lack of conceptual understanding in practice have lead to an application that tends to neglect fundamental social questions.

Using the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) in South Africa as a case study, I inductively explored how resilience is operationalized within an actual climate change adaptation project and what implications this has on the ground. I followed a research strategy that was inspired by grounded theory and supported by sensitizing concepts, and applied a mixed method approach that combined the analysis of policy documents, key informant interviews, a community survey and a focus group meeting.

My findings show that the approach to resilience on all levels of governance (international, national and project) is shaped by ideas of local autonomy and an emphasis on participants’ agency. It further aims to strengthen participants’ economic wellbeing and attaches particular attention to those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. On the ground, this leads to high responsiveness towards local suggestions and high satisfaction among participants. However, the approach of working through local structures also appears to bear the risk that project benefits do not reach marginalized community members, which would undermine the central goal of ensuring equitable access to benefits and in particular supporting those most in need.

This assessment provides various conclusions for the academic debate around resilience. Especially the significance of keeping a constant focus on vulnerability became obvious, as this could help mitigate risks like the one uncovered in this project. Furthermore, it has become clear that the project’s consideration of aspects like agency and vulnerability is not based on a theoretic engagement with resilience, but results from an implicit embeddedness in underlying policies. For the future, it appears meaningful for adaptation practice to make these considerations explicit and central to project evaluation, based on a profound understanding of the problematic nature of resilience as a concept. The Resilience, Adaptation and Transformation Assessment (RATA) Framework shows potential for facilitating this process. (Less)
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author
Lammers, David Mathias LU
supervisor
organization
course
MESM02 20161
year
type
H2 - Master's Degree (Two Years)
subject
keywords
sustainability science, climate change adaptation, adaptive capacity, vulnerability, agency
publication/series
Master Thesis Series in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science
report number
2016:023
funder
German Academic Scholarship Foundation
language
English
additional info
This research has been partially funded by the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes).
id
8879837
date added to LUP
2016-06-10 15:54:29
date last changed
2016-06-10 15:54:29
@misc{8879837,
  abstract     = {Over the last 40 years, the concept of resilience has made a journey from the fields of ecology and psychology into the social sciences. By now, it has become a term commonly used in the international climate change adaptation and development spheres, describing the ability of an individual or a community to cope with or recover from harmful events. Critics have raised concerns about this spread, arguing that the unreflecting transfer of the concept and a lack of conceptual understanding in practice have lead to an application that tends to neglect fundamental social questions. 

Using the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) in South Africa as a case study, I inductively explored how resilience is operationalized within an actual climate change adaptation project and what implications this has on the ground. I followed a research strategy that was inspired by grounded theory and supported by sensitizing concepts, and applied a mixed method approach that combined the analysis of policy documents, key informant interviews, a community survey and a focus group meeting. 

My findings show that the approach to resilience on all levels of governance (international, national and project) is shaped by ideas of local autonomy and an emphasis on participants’ agency. It further aims to strengthen participants’ economic wellbeing and attaches particular attention to those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. On the ground, this leads to high responsiveness towards local suggestions and high satisfaction among participants. However, the approach of working through local structures also appears to bear the risk that project benefits do not reach marginalized community members, which would undermine the central goal of ensuring equitable access to benefits and in particular supporting those most in need. 

This assessment provides various conclusions for the academic debate around resilience. Especially the significance of keeping a constant focus on vulnerability became obvious, as this could help mitigate risks like the one uncovered in this project. Furthermore, it has become clear that the project’s consideration of aspects like agency and vulnerability is not based on a theoretic engagement with resilience, but results from an implicit embeddedness in underlying policies. For the future, it appears meaningful for adaptation practice to make these considerations explicit and central to project evaluation, based on a profound understanding of the problematic nature of resilience as a concept. The Resilience, Adaptation and Transformation Assessment (RATA) Framework shows potential for facilitating this process.},
  author       = {Lammers, David Mathias},
  keyword      = {sustainability science,climate change adaptation,adaptive capacity,vulnerability,agency},
  language     = {eng},
  note         = {Student Paper},
  series       = {Master Thesis Series in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science},
  title        = {Quo vadis, resilience? : assessing the application of a contested concept within the uMngeni Resilience Project in South Africa},
  year         = {2016},
}