SSN’s key takeaways from the Resilience Evidence Forum

Empowering Communities: Defining and Demonstrating Resilience from Within

Blog written by Olivia Venter, Knowledge Management Hub, SouthSouthNorth



SouthSouthNorth (SSN) attended the Resilience Evidence Forum (REF) 2023, co-hosted by the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) and USAID, from the 20th to the 22nd of June. REF 2023 saw more than 200 participants from civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governments and the private sector coming together in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss what works (and what does not work) in building resilience. 


While SSN was involved in multiple parallel “tracks”, with our Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA) and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) programmes moderating and speaking at various sessions, we would specifically like to highlight our key takeaways from the Communities track. This track captures a strong theme that kept surfacing during the Forum: 


Building real resilience in climate-vulnerable communities requires evidence that is produced and usable by the communities, as well as context-specific solutions that address their (self-defined) needs.



Key takeaways from REF: Focusing on communities


Communities can and should be allowed to identify their own needs.  


The Forum illustrated the necessity (and capability) of communities to identify and voice their own needs, as opposed to having a top-down approach of funders deciding what communities need. Communities understand the complexities of their contexts in a way that external observers cannot, and they can take a system-wide approach to identify holistic solutions that will truly improve their lives. This approach encourages and allows communities to self-organise and take ownership of their solutions, making these solutions more sustainable and impactful. 


The role of external actors (e.g. NGOs, funding partners) can then become one of support, for example, by facilitating discussions within communities and introducing innovative approaches to ensure that all voices are heard within a community, or providing information to fill technical knowledge gaps.   


Communities need to co-lead evidence generation, and evidence should be available to and usable by communities.  


Joseph Muturi (Chair of the Board, Slum Dwellers International (SDI)) highlighted their success in working with communities in equal partnerships, and the benefits of this approach.  For instance, when trying to address the issue of evictions from informal settlements, SDI worked with communities to identify knowledge gaps and provided training for the communities to fill them. They also involved governments to identify what information was required for service delivery. The data was co-produced and co-owned by the communities and governments, which led to greater mutual trust and benefit for all parties. 


This was just one of the examples demonstrating that it is possible, and ultimately more beneficial, to involve communities as equal partners in the generation and use of evidence. It also highlights the importance of viewing communities as users of evidence, rather than merely a source of data that are extracted, processed and used elsewhere without benefitting the communities.   


Community involvement should be sincere and respectful.   


Although community involvement is often a part of development initiatives, these engagements are not always effective. Dorothy Muroki (Chief of Party, Abt Associates) made an insightful comment that communities are often squeezed into ongoing discussions between stakeholders who are already familiar with each other. The result is that the communities may not feel comfortable voicing their needs, concerns or ideas as outsiders to the discussions, and, even if they do, they may not be listened to if the conversation between the other stakeholders has already been set upon a predetermined course. 


It is important to be mindful of when and how the communities are involved in discussions, and that stakeholders are sincere in their approach and willing to adjust their ideas based on communities’ inputs. It is incumbent upon the stakeholders to involve the communities early enough to ensure that their thoughts can guide the design of projects/initiatives.


Language should not be a barrier to communication.


Dr Shehnaaz Moosa (Director, SSN) highlighted that there are many languages that do not have a word for “resilience”, but the people nonetheless show examples of resilience in practice. It is important for us to make our “resilience language” and discussions inclusive, to enable communities to be part of conversations that are relevant to them and share their stories showing resilience in practice, even if they do not call it resilience as such. This requires stakeholders to understand communities’ contexts and be mindful of the language that they use, rather than expecting communities to fit into pre-existing frameworks that purely look for particular terms. 


Resilience evidence should include qualitative information (“stories”).


There is a tendency, especially in project reporting frameworks, to reduce information to numbers. While quantitative data can be useful, including a space for stories and lived experiences is important. Why?

  • Stories provide valuable context that gets lost in numerical data. Indicators may show that work was done, but stories show whether the desired impact was achieved. This can provide a valuable feedback loop to show whether our assumptions of certain actions or outputs leading to desired outcomes are valid.  
  • People connect to stories. An example provided at REF by a USAID-funded project’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) specialist showed that report reviewers engaged more with the stories than the numerical data that was provided in the report. 

Indigenous knowledge is valuable and can be complemented by scientific knowledge.


Rhea Shah (Founder, Aranya Design Lab) provided an example of the value of indigenous knowledge in India. In her community, she realised that the generational gap and schools’ emphasis on data meant that the youth did not value indigenous knowledge. She designed fun activities that allowed children to learn from their parents and reconnect with their environment. As a direct result of their work, during a community forum, one of the young people called attention to the community’s plans to dredge the lake and how it would negatively affect the community, since they depend on lotus roots as a food source, and the lotus plants can only survive if the lake is at a certain level.  


Another example of the importance of indigenous knowledge in Zimbabwe was provided by Cinderella Ndlovu (Founder, Green Hut Trust). She explained how farmers of rainfed agriculture looked at the behaviours of tree and bird species to predict rainfall and inform their planting cycles. Unfortunately, changing climate conditions and biodiversity loss disturb this system, making it difficult to rely on these practices alone. In these cases, meteorological data can complement indigenous knowledge; however, this approach also requires some innovation: Meteorological data must be made sufficiently granular and should be easily accessible to provide useful, localised information to farmers.     


Resilience – at what cost? 


A question to keep in mind when thinking about resilience is: “Resilience – at what cost?” Dr Shehnaaz Moosa highlighted that resilience often comes at a cost for those who are expected to be resilient, especially in marginalised groups. It is important for stories of resilience to be told by communities, in their languages, so that they can highlight the cost and context of being resilient.  



What comes next?


GRP and USAID will produce a report from this event, and we look forward to reading their broader findings. We are also excited to see how the discussions from this three-day event encourage and enable all participants to improve our approaches and affect change within our spheres of influence. 


In September, SSN will attend Africa Climate Week in Nairobi, Kenya, and we hope to see the African-based constituencies that attended REF at this event as well. We would love to reconnect and build on our REF discussions by sharing our progress and experiences from the intervening months.  


In November/December, SSN, together with the Atlantic Council (AC) Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, Fundación Avina, GRP, International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), Resilience Rising and SDI, will host the Resilience Hub at the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP28). We are currently planning for and building up to this event and will integrate the discussions and thinking that emerged from REF into the planning and programming of the Resilience Hub. Find out more here.