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Take the Blue Line to social resilience

Margaret Arnold's picture

Ever wonder what the subway map of Seoul, Korea has to do with social resilience? A group of policy makers, insurance experts and development practitioners wondered the same thing as they mapped risk management strategies and political economy issues onto the subway line maps of different cities. While it seemed absurd, the exercise forced them to think about connections and relationships they may not have considered before.   The exercise was part of a retreat recently held at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to advance a study led by the Social Resilience Cluster on Financial Innovations for Social and Climate Resilience (FISCR). The FISCR initiative is assessing the impacts of index insurance on the welfare and risk management strategies of poor households (for more details on the study, see here).

The format and structure of the Bellagio retreat and was co-designed by the Bank team and by faculty and a student from the trans-disciplinary design program of Parsons the New School for Design. The study team’s partnership with Parsons is a key innovation that integrates design thinking throughout the study’s design, implementation, and dissemination in order to increase its impact. Index insurance and social resilience are complex topics that are challenging to communicate. Working with designers from the beginning of the study allows us to view the issues in different ways and consider the ways to engage and empower the target audience throughout the entire process of the study. 

The FISCR study is unusual as well in that it examines insurance through a social lens. Index insurance schemes (mainly targeting poor farmers and in a couple of cases herders) have been piloted in a number of countries for more than 10 years now, as a way to help the poor protect their livelihoods.  Its proponents speak of great promise: engaging the private sector in the protecting the assets of the poor from climate shocks; enabling the poor to make more productive investments, and encouraging investments in disaster prevention. With these promises, index insurance and other market-based risk financing mechanisms have received a great deal of attention in the global discussion on adaptation financing, including the possibility of developing a climate risk insurance facility (see related Cancun agreement).

What is missing, however, is evidence regarding their impact on poor households. So far no study has assessed the role of index insurance in the broader context of poor households’ risk management strategies; their potential to transform poor people’s livelihoods; and how they compare to other risk management options in terms of value for money.  And while a longer time period is needed for rigorous impact evaluation, the FISCR initiative aims to highlight emerging lessons and identify leading indicators that can assess the likelihood that they will contribute to social resilience. 

Defining and measuring social resilience is no easy task. Various definitions exist, depending on the disciplinary foundation and approach of the user. The disaster risk management community, for example, has traditionally defined resilience as the “flip side” of vulnerability, or, the ability to resist, cope with, and recover from hazard shocks. While this is a useful conceptualization in some ways, it keeps the focus on maintaining the status quo. And while poverty is certainly a resilient state, it is not a desirable one.

The group in Bellagio benefitted from the Rockefeller Foundation’s work on resilience thinking. In addition to conversations with Bellagio’s “scholars in residence,” a number of whom are working on resilience from different perspectives, including mental health, international security, climate change, and inclusion of older citizens in society. The group in Bellagio felt that development interventions needed to help communities deal with risk while living the lives that they value (i.e., defining their own vision of resilience). So while social resilience may be extremely contextual and even personal, the group will continue to work together to identify some core properties of social resilience and assess the likelihood of index insurance in strengthening these.