The global “resilience” agenda is exciting – and overdue. The idea that aid should invest not just in responding to crises, but also in preventing, mitigating, and helping people adapt to them, has been around for a long time. Yet for too long, the global aid architecture has been stuck with a basic split between relief and development camps. The relief side responds to the effects of major shocks (droughts, wars, economic calamity, etc.) but has struggled to address why so many people are so vulnerable in the first place. The development side has in turn steered clear of shock-prone populations and focused most of its resources on (relatively) safe and stable populations.

Villages that have received Mercy Corps training and initial seeds to build community gardens are faring much better with a wide variety of produce to feed their families and sell in local markets. Photo Credit: Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corp

Dating back at least to the early nineties there have been repeated – failed – attempts to move past this divide and find ways to apply developmental tools to chronic humanitarian problems. We have seen some incremental improvements – practices like using cash and vouchers to work within local markets during a humanitarian response – rather than destroying those markets with floods of free imported commodities. But the global aid system at large still retains the relief-development split – in targeting, practices, architecture and funding streams.

So resilience is exciting not because it is a fundamentally new idea – it is not – but because where past efforts to move the global aid architecture past the relief-development divide have failed, the global resilience agenda frames this idea in a way that is compelling – to donors, aid providers, and critically, to the governments and citizens of at-risk countries.

But this exciting agenda remains tenuous, and realizing its potential will be hard work. Resilience transcends many of the basic organizing principles that have long characterized the relief and development worlds; it challenges all of us to make major changes to how we do business. Major reform of entrenched systems, practices and norms is never easy. This new USAID policy on resilience represents a very important starting point for tackling that challenge.

The policy gets some important things right. In Mercy Corps’ experience, interventions that build resilience have to be highly flexible and closely tailored to the specific context that they target. It is good to see USAID affirm that resilience interventions must bring together activities that have traditionally operated in silos – economic development and livelihoods, natural resource management, water and sanitation, health and nutrition, conflict mitigation, governance, risk reduction, and so on. The policy’s focus on joint planning and design of programs across different parts of USAID “turf” is a big step forward, as is the mandate that USAID’s country planning processes must consistently build in a focus on resilience.

Mercy Corps believes it’s vital to invest in ways to stop the cycle of hunger from recurring. Their cash-for-work projects allow people to earn money, buy food locally, and prepare their fields for a better harvest season. These crescent ditches will allow rain water to soak into the land rather than running off and causing flooding and erosion. Photo Credit: Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps

At the same time, talking is easier than doing. This policy is a strong step forward but it does not – at least not yet – guarantee a major shift in USAID’s own practices, structures and systems, which still largely reflect the basic relief-development divide. This policy takes an approach of working within the existing USAID architecture, rather than seeking to alter it. This is an easier lift – but will it be enough? The policy notes that leadership within the agency will be critical to pushing through roadblocks and ensuring that entrenched habits evolve. And the current leadership of the agency deserves tremendous credit for having done just that with the responses in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. But as with any government agency, leadership will eventually change and priorities will change with it. The major test for this policy – as for the global resilience agenda more broadly – will be whether it will have staying power to remain relevant even after the current buzz around resilience subsides.