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What does resilience look like?

Haiti, January 22, 2013

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Marie Lourdes Denzilus received the first round of MiCRO payments in 2011. She used the money to replenish supplies (beans, rice, sugar) and rebuild the foundation of her house that was damaged after a heavy storm. Photo: Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps

I’ve just arrived in Davos, Switzerland to participate in the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. I’ve gone to Davos for four years now, and each time I’m impressed by the tremendous energy that’s created by thousands of leaders — from the private sector, from civil society and from government — coming together to wrestle with the world’s most pressing issues.

This year I’m particularly excited to be here because Davos attendees will do something a little different. Instead of focusing on the problems of today, we will look at how to anticipate problems that will happen tomorrow — and figure out how to get creative and cope with them better. The World Economic Forum calls this concept “resilient dynamism.” I call it smart, bold work.

Resilience is getting a lot of attention these days. The concept is particularly important for the world’s poor, who are increasingly vulnerable to frequent, devastating disasters like hurricanes and droughts.

For example, families in Haiti are battered by stronger and more frequent wind and rain storms every year. Helping these families to guard against flooding, create watersheds in deforested areas, and recoup their losses after a storm — these are all measures that will prepare them to better cope with and bounce back from disasters.

The idea of resilience is catching on. Last year, U.S. and European government funders of foreign aid announced policies that would help build resilience to shocks like hurricanes or stresses like droughts. This focus on resilience is exciting and long overdue.

For too many years, donor countries have maintained a split between funding for relief efforts — which help people survive and recover from disasters in the short term — and the long-term development work that builds markets and infrastructure, and makes services like education and financial services accessible for years to come. The result of this split is that disaster-prone communities rarely flourish or become better prepared to cope with the next storm or earthquake to come their way. It is great to see this changing.

But it is not just government donors and aid agencies that need to change. To be sustainable, resilience needs to be embraced by the private sector as well, and all of us must work together to make long-term, truly ground-breaking solutions stick. That’s why I’m so excited that the World Economic Forum — traditionally a business-heavy group — will take on resilience this year.

For the past several years, Mercy Corps has been ramping up our resilience work to benefit the poor and vulnerable, and collaborating with smart partners along the way. Doing this right is not easy. It is important to be flexible — especially in parts of the world that are plagued by poverty and going through major transitions — because we are constantly learning and circumstances are always changing. It is also vital to tailor our work to specific contexts because there are no cookie cutter solutions. In addition, quality resilience work breaks down siloes. We cannot afford to tackle problems like market breakdowns that hurt the poor, threats to the environment, and lack of access to health and education with separate strategies. We need integrated approaches to help people improve their lives in the long term and become stronger in the face of disaster.

One example of exciting resilience work we’ve done recently is in post-earthquake Haiti. For 15 years Haiti’s largest microfinance lender Fonkoze has provided loans to tens of thousands of Haitian women seeking to escape poverty through entrepreneurship. Sadly, time and again, a single catastrophic event would wipe out a business owner’s entire inventory and livelihood.

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought into sharp focus the extreme vulnerability of the poor. In response, Mercy Corps and Fonkoze co-founded MiCRO (Microinsurance Catastrophe Risk Organization). Far from a traditional aid program, MiCRO aspires to be a profitable company. Together with Swiss Re, a global reinsurer, and the UK’s Department for International Development, we’ve developed a hybrid insurance product that provides small business owners with an economic buffer against natural catastrophes.

This past year, due to Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Isaac, at least 40 percent of Haiti’s harvest was destroyed, causing widespread hunger and hardship. Yet donor response was muted. In contrast, MiCRO paid out claims to 28,000 clients, worth a total of USD $6.8 million. The product is not perfect, but it reduces reliance on foreign aid and increases resilience.

MiCRO is proof that unlikely bedfellows can achieve greater impact for the greater good working together than they could alone. It is also proof that people in an incredibly tough place like Haiti can cope with disasters, adapt to them, and even transform their lives for the better.

Since we cannot stop crises from happening, we have to find more ways to reimagine our roles and align our efforts to help people recover faster and in a more meaningful way. That is “resilient dynamism” at its best.