Resilience is about people, not technocrats

How to translate resilience theory into actions within urban contexts?

This was the main question addressed by Resilient Cities 2016 first Subplenary on “Advancing global frameworks through local action”, which took place on 6 July at 2.30 pm.

Matthias Garschagen, Head of Vulnerability Assessment at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), facilitated the session, starting from three questions to the panel:

  1. How is urban risk addressed in the Paris Agreement, the Habitat 3 Zero Draft and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Response?
  2. To what extent does resilience take into account transformative change in the political economy of risk, particularly in the Global South?
  3. What are the opportunities and risks associated with resilience? How can we assure that city level commitments to resilience address broader concerns around poverty, well-being and social justice?

Garschagen offered a provocation, noting that “the urban risk discourse is increasingly framed as a technocratic problem. It lacks a critique of the deeper political economy of risk production under conditions of urbanization, modernization and development”. Most of the following remarks from speakers and the audience addressed this issue from different angles.

Jerry Velasquez, Chief of Advocacy and Outreach at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), focused on the new positive features of the Sendai framework, especially highlighting the need for political accountability and inclusiveness.
“Being inclusive and tapping into the innovation potential of communities at risk is the only way to address urban resilience”, he said. “Banning the concept of vulnerable communities, Sendai empowers them to be partners of those trying to help them build resilience”.

Robert Kehew, Unit Leader of the Climate Change Planning Unit at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, (UN-Habitat), explained how the New Urban Agenda, currently discussed in the form of the Habitat III Zero Draft, approaches resilience: the need to shift from reactive to proactive mode; the need to enable households, communities, institutions and services to resist, absorb, adapt to and rapidly recover from stresses; the need to build back better and have an “all society” approach.

Laureline Krichewsky-Simon, Associate Programme Officer of the Adaptation Programme at the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC), illustrated what the Paris agreement says and what it doesn’t say about resilience.
Although the Agreement makes no specific mention to urban resilience, it addresses the framework in which resilience needs to be planned and the challenges it encounters.
Krichewsky-Simon acknowledged that without non-Party stakeholders, including local governments and civil society, “the Paris agreement would never have happened in its current form”.

Christoph Graf von Waldersee, Program Finance Director of The Ecological Sequestration Trust (TEST), made clear that “safe water, clean air, good health, basic education and green space cannot be replaced”, calling for “a new social contract -or “Grand Bargain”- on social well-being achieved through transparent and sustainable public services”.

David Dodman, Director of the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), addressed the importance of inclusive engagement processes and pointed out that “citizens can use politics as a way to take ownership of action on a local level, judging candidates based on their commitments and holding them accountable when they’re in elected office”.

Among the questions and remarks from the audience were those of Ofelia Bagotlo, of the Homeless Federation of the Philippines, and Dr. Pusadee Tamthai, Deputy Governor of Bangkok, who both addressed the need for concrete channels to boost grass-root involvement and communities’ participation.

The final debate focused on the social and political value of resilience in urban environments. As Mike Bird, Director of WIEGO, put it, “resilience is about people”.