Community Resilience: An Untapped Resource for Sustainable Development


Communities have inherent in their systems, means of survival and a tenacity that has seen them through very difficult times. There is a heart in communities that keeps pumping and keeping people alive even in the midst of poverty and adversity. Am I saying communities don’t need development interventions? Not at all, but the issue at hand is how development workers can harness these “in-built” community strengths. How can community resilience lead to sustainable development?

Resilience in Action

The process of continuous survival and coping even in the hardest of situations is called “resilience.” Masten (2009) defines it this way: “Coping may result in the individual ‘bouncing back’ to a previous state of normal functioning, or simply not showing negative effects [from shocks].” In Sub-Sahara, especially in Swaziland, we have seen the principle of resilience in action in rural communities. Sub Sahara is in trouble, but there is a remnant that continues to survive and thrive in the face of all these challenges.

Irrespective of government or development practitioner intervention, the elderly in Swaziland tend to demonstrate a high level of resilience in the face of perpetual poverty and HIV. In Swaziland, because of the high HIV prevalence rate (26%) the country is faced with an orphan challenge, the burden of which falls on older relatives, often female. Modeling by the U.N. SPECTRUM indicates that by 2015 there will be about 110,000 children who will have been orphaned as a result of AIDS in Swaziland, a kingdom of just over 1 million people. In the absence of a state organized social security system, the burden of care is accepted because of emotional bonding, duty, guilt and/or the lack of other available services in the community. It has been acknowledged for some time that the traditional homestead has long ago ceased to offer the social safety net it once did, but to understand how these systems functioned in the past is key to building a brighter future.

Are typical development interventions at odds with resilience?

As development workers continue to design interventions on behalf of communities, the question I ask myself is, “How can development workers harness people’s resilience and use it for sustainable development?” Here I am not referring to a sustainability that just focuses on the workers trying to keep their jobs by getting more funding to replicate a program so that it can be called a best practice. Rather sustainability is largely to do with a program being able to continue generating benefits for the community even when donor funding has been finished. When communities are empowered to do more—that I call sustainability.

For development workers to facilitate sustainable development by using people’s personal strengths, there is need for a shift in their mindset, especially where their approach is concerned and how they integrate the views of the communities. At the end of the day, communities must be able to integrate bottom-up development programs into their daily routine.

What seems to matter to us as development practitioners is we want change the way we perceive it. From where I stand this push for change is usually service provider and/or donor driven, and less about the lived realities of the people we are serving. In effect, we forget who really matters. If we push the agenda of development from our perspective and forget that communities have survived and continue to survive in spite of our efforts, then we are bound to fail in any attempt to bring about sustainable development.

Meaningful consultation with communities must become a “must-have”

Sustainability is asking ourselves what is really the change that we want to see during and after an intervention, beyond outputs. And there is no way we can ask this question and get an answer without proper consultation with community members. Often the argument of practitioners against consultation is that the cost is too high. I have seen a few projects designed on behalf of communities that have done well. However, the cost of consultation versus the cost of a white elephant or an ineffective program means its long-term dividends cannot be overlooked.

To properly consult with communities is banking on the fact that communities are a resilient lot that will survive, even without interventions. Lessons learnt from my work is that inherent in community systems already is development—communities know what they need and what to do to come out of their poverty situation, but simply lack technical know-how and resources.

So as an outsider coming into their system, development workers need to develop a mentality that will appreciate who people are, rather than just disrupting the way they do things with a short-term intervention. Systems approaches allow development workers to understanding how things influence one another and see communities as a whole, i.e. the forest rather than the trees.

Households survive in hard times without technical expertise provided by the development community.  The act of care giving has continued to sustain families even in the face of perpetual suffering, disease, sickness, unemployment and high levels of poverty. Tapping into community individual, family, and community resilience is one of the ways countries like Swaziland can achieve sustainable development.

At the heart of resilience, there is an underlying ability for human beings to sustain themselves and push for development. It is internal strength that pushes rural communities to fight for survival and development workers need to find ways to better leverage these strengths.

Masten, A. S. (2009). “Ordinary Magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development”. Education Canada 49 (3): 28–32.
UNAIDS/UNICEF/USAID, (2004). Children on the Brink, A Joint Report of New Orphan Estimates and a Framework for Action.
UNDP (2012). Africa Human Development Report (2012) – “Towards a Food Secure Future”. United Nations Publications.
Vaddadi, K.S. (1997).  Burden of care in the home: issues for community management. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (1997), vol. 3, pp. 246-253
World Commission On Environment and Development (1987). The Brundtland Commission Report “Our Common Future”. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1987)<

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