A conceptual analysis of livelihoods and resilience: addressing the ‘insecurity of agency’

Research reports and studies
November 2012
Adam Pain and Simon Levine

Much of the aid world is debating how aid investment can be reoriented towards supporting the resilience of people who face crises. Resilience is usually being framed in terms of risk, and of people’s ability to cope with the shocks that they are at risk of experiencing.

Although there is an intuitive clarity about the importance of focusing on resilience, this paper finds that symptoms of resilience can too easily be mis-identified, and that there is a real danger that many of the structural factors that prevent people from living with security about their futures may be hidden and thus missed.

‘Resilience’ is sometimes promoted because of its positive perspective about what people can do for themselves. This paper agrees that people’s ‘agency’ – their ability to develop and see through their own choices for their lives – should be the central focus of analysis, rather than any  predetermined set of indicators about assets, income, education, etc. However, the paper argues that to do this, it is better to retain a focus on what constrains people’s freedom to act and that vulnerability, rather than resilience, remains the most useful way of analysing this.

The paper suggests ways in which people’s ability to invest in their futures can be analysed, and how this could form the basis for more useful ways of monitoring any interventions. This would ensure that efforts to support resilience remain grounded in the reality of people’s lives and their context, rather than being pre-designed according to simple generic indicators and formulae.