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From Principles to Progress

September 21, 2011

A few months ago, frequent reader and self-professed recovery diva Claire Rubin challenged me, or perhaps more accurately encouraged me, to give some serious thought to how we might measure resilience and recovery rather than simply conceptualizing it. Although it has taken a few months, I finally got around to giving it a stab, at least in part. The treatment presented here is intended as a starting point for discussion; a hypothesis, if you will, rather than a theory much less a conclusion.

As I and others in this forum have described it, resilience reflects the capacities of individuals, groups, communities, and even whole societies to adapt to the changing circumstances emerging from the disruptive experience of crisis or disaster. As a corollary to recovery, resilience reflects the degree to which those experiencing a crisis or disaster manage to restore, repair, or replace damaged natural, material and economic resources and renew or renorm their human, social, and political routines to reflect new realities, and by doing so manage to reestablish patterns of activity that allow them to meet their own needs (hopefully sustainably).

This formulation presumes that the experience of crisis or disaster is largely, if not exclusively, a social construct. Natural ecosystems display innate resilience even when individual features and species do not. Economies display similar self-corrective capacities at the macroeconomic level over the long run, albeit at the expense some individuals or activities.

The extent to which systems of material capital promote human welfare and display resilience is, however, largely a function of human capital, social organization and political will. In other words, the degree to which our material environment displays fungibility depends to a significant extent on individual and social capacity to imagine and innovate. How we allocate, employ and ultimately develop our material resources defines to a greater or lesser extent how well we manage the adaptive challenges following a devastating event.

This analysis suggests that the critical elements of resilience are the capacities of individuals to imagine new ways of employing their resources under conditions of constraint. These constraints may emerge from scarcity or complexity. The first, and most important step in this process of imagination and innovation, is the ability to see themselves as part of communities–that is groups of unrelated individuals acting together through systems of formal or informal agreement and organization for a common or shared purpose.

The figure above illustrates the relationships underlying the assessment of individual and community resilience from principles to progress. Principles describe the values that inform individual action. They are exhibited as virtues or vices. The extent to which virtues predominate over vices is our first measure of recovery.

Among the most important virtues exhibited by those experiencing disaster is the capacity of individuals to be physically and emotionally present in their experiences to themselves and others. Action or inaction motivated by past attachments or premature or excessive anticipation of future risks or rewards inhibits adaptive response to one’s emergent needs and those of others, which exhibits itself in the form of anxiety and maladaptive stress responses.

One of the easiest ways to assess presence is the frequency of distinctive contributions of perspective to a shared sense of loss. These days, this often takes the form of tweets, blogs or Facebook posts or photos posted to Flickr, Tumblr or other file sharing sites.

In any community, it should be expected that the proportion of those willing and able to participate in such activities will be limited. As such, the extent to which their contributions are acknowledged and shared with others who do not make contributions of their own gives some indication of the extent to which they accurately reflect a sort of shared experience.

The importance of this is reflected in the degree to which some shared experiences take on a heightened sense of salience. The more salient an experience, the more likely it will shape the recovery priorities that emerge in the form of a community’s post-disaster policy agenda.

In an adaptive environment, the number of priorities reflects a democratic consensus about what’s most important and occasionally what’s not. The viability of any set of priorities on the policy agenda is best indicated by the degree to which individuals partner with one another to influence them.

Since influence can be exerted to advance or impede a particular priority, the number and diversity of partnerships matters. The more atomized or polarized the partnerships are, the less progress a given community can expect to make over any period of time. This progress is reflected by the degree to which competing interests can be reconciled among participants in the form of plans that achieve widespread support.

As communities implement plans for their recovery, the cycle repeats itself. People either attend to the work of implementing the plan and contribute their time and talents to making it a reality or they don’t. The number of competing perspectives or interpretations of the plan’s intent that emerge during implementation influences the pace of progress.

If competing narratives of progress emerge during plan implementation, participation in the process of implementation will often wane or competition to alter policy priorities will emerge. Once again, partnerships will form among individuals to advance or impede the recovery agenda. The proportion of positive, supportive partnerships to opposition coalitions provides a strong indication of progress. Ideally, opponents will step aside or abandon their efforts as people realize rewards or perceived risks diminish.

Finally, since plans cannot readily anticipate and address all contingencies, the degree to which partners can agree to amend their plans while remaining committed to its purpose provides a clear indication of the extent to which communities will achieve the democratic equilibrium required to restore equity to resource allocations.

In the absence of specific performance metrics, some of you will probably wonder whether this proposal represents any real progress from principle to practice. I am prepared to accept that criticism, but also invite contributions from readers that advance our understanding of what it means for individuals and communities to embrace the adaptive work of recovery.

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