The problem with glorifying resilience


Avila Kilmurray


A winter’s day in Belfast is grey; the political climate is even greyer reflecting seven months of Northern Irish political breakdown and a serial dysfunctional UK Government. Do I feel resilient? Hell yes, but that is only because I’ve seen it all before and I am determinedly bloody-minded. I survived ‘the Troubles’ by following the dictum: ‘Keep the head down and the ear to the ground!’ Did that make me resilient? Not particularly, but it kept me alive and active. What made me resilient was being part of many highly motivated groups of individuals and communities. That was the magic formula in my case, not pondering the complexities of ‘new paradigms’ or conceptual conundrums.

My heart sinks when I read about conferences contemplating ‘resilience’ as a new paradigm for development. I agree with Ambika Satkunanthan, Chairperson of Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (Sri Lanka) when she warns against a romanticising of resilience in situations where people are clinging to both life and hope with their fingernails. Personally, I feel the urge to consign the first academic paper on Human Capital and Resilience to the bin; I might even picket the first university course (undoubtedly in the USA) on Capacity-building for Resilience! Am I grumpy – you bet.

Resilience as a concept makes perfect sense when used in the context of the climate crisis. Equally, there is a need for investment in activists to ensure that they engage in self-care as a means of defiance. In the face of the current global situation where since 1995, the wealthiest 1 per cent captured nearly 20 times more of the global wealth than the poorest 50 per cent of humanity, and where 252 men control more wealth than 1 billion women and girls in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean combined, then I don’t want to talk about resilience, I am angry. There is an underlying note of patience in my mind associated with resilience, that I find misplaced.

That age-old question remains – What is to be done? There is a need for space and time for activists to be able to meet, reflect, discuss and strategize. Nothing new in that, but increasingly it is difficult to identify the necessary resourcing. It is important to build support structures around activists, especially those that are working in difficult and dangerous conditions. Please don’t celebrate their resilience; offer practical support. At a collective level can we return to talking about how to enhance solidarity, and do so in a cross-sectoral manner? Lurking in silos can all too often generate overly inward-looking debates and fail to see the big picture issues, challenges, and opportunities. A recent meeting of the Foundation for Peace Network (a network of locally based funders working in conflict areas) highlighted how coming together on a transnational basis can provide essential space for shared thinking. One outcome is the forthcoming Foundations for Peace/Open University partnership that is producing an online course on ‘Influencing Up: Working for Change’. There is limited reference to resilience in this 5-module course, but much about power imbalances, the importance of local knowledge and the need for long-term commitment.

So – the plea of an activist that will be welcoming the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Peace Agreement in 2023 over a period that has been a political rollercoaster – refrain from celebrating our resilience and invest instead in strategies that effect progressive implementation and change in whatever context you are working in.

Avila Kilmurray is the Migration and Peacebuilding Executive at The Social Change Initiative.

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Comments (2)

Rosa Gallego

Thank you Avila, it has been great to read your piece, that resonates so much with me in a way I could never aim to express as well as you do. Looking forward to know more about ‘Influencing Up: Working for Change

Gannon Gillespie

Thank you so much for your piece Avila - very relevant questions indeed. Resilience is admirable and very important- but it doesn't function well as a central organizing concept, and carries risks of entrenching broken systems. Thank you for calling us towards language and action that can better incorporate meaningful progress. To that end - based on your experience - what terminology would you center alongside or instead of resilience to best help us move ahead?

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