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Will the new Communication on resilience help to make EU external action more effective?

28 March, 2017
Volker Hauck (ECDPM)

The European Union is preparing a new Communication on resilience. This concept has played an important role in the EU’s approach to the development-humanitarian nexus but has evolved over the past years. Resilience is now set up to play a key role in EU external action since the publication of the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy. In this blog, Volker Hauck casts light on the term and its implications for EU external action in facing situations of fragility and protracted crisis.

The term ‘resilience’ has increasingly dominated the EU’s external action policies since the publication of a policy document in 2012 – called a ‘Communication’ in technical EU jargon – on resilience entitled “The EU Approach to Resilience: Learning from Food Security Crises“. By 2016, the term made it as one of the five priorities of the union’s external action into the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy.

Following an October 2016 call by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to swiftly translate these five priorities into clear policy initiatives and action, the EEAS, and Directorate General NEAR, DEVCO and ECHO, started a consultative process contributing to the formulation of a coherent policy framework on resilience across the EU’s external action. The new Communication is planned to see the light during the second quarter of 2017.

Given the evolving nature of the term’s use, such a policy framework is indeed needed. However, it provokes questions whether it offers a different way to conceptualise the EU’s external action and whether it can help to drive change in the EU. The use of the term ‘resilience’ has evolved considerably since the Communication in 2012, where it was framed as “the ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country or a region to withstand, to adapt, and to quickly recover from stresses and shocks”.

The strengthening of complementarity between the EU’s humanitarian aid and development assistance in regions affected by a food shortage was a central aim of this Communication. Meanwhile, the resilience term was intensely used in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy and has become a kind of convening concept across sectors to bring policies, initiatives and actors from security, peacebuilding, sustainable development, the fight against poverty, humanitarian assistance and climate action together.

The term ‘resilience’ appears attractive as it ventilates more humility and realism, it does not sound politically threatening and is relatively fresh – and not worn out, like the old buzzword ‘capacity development’. The term ‘resilience’ is also able to hit a nerve-string of our time: it puts the focus on the need of states and societies to take more responsibility and to reform – with different levels of support from the outside – at a time of growing fragility, crisis and conflict in the European immediate and more faraway neighbourhood, and at a time of less financial abilities and willingness of European and other Western countries to provide assistance. Given its ambiguity, ‘resilience’ appears as a perfect fit for several complex EU external policy processes. But will it stick?

A need for conceptual clarification

Convening different actors around resilience requires conceptual clarity. Otherwise, the word risks being used as a “catch-all” or “multi-purpose” term for doing something jointly under EU’s external action, without a clear understanding of its underpinning ideas and purpose. The fundamental notion of resilience should be kept, understood as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, to reorganise and to adapt while undergoing change without a loss of its essential functions”, as described by Brian Walker and Carl Folke. Such systems can be individuals, households, communities, countries or regions, which is very much in line with the understanding of the EU’s Communication from 2012 – a perspective that should be kept but further sharpened.

In fragile and crisis-ridden environments, which display fractures of society that permeate down to the household level – but also pockets of resilience that might need assistance – the engagement from the outside, in support of maintaining or re-building endogenous forms of resilience, needs to be comprehensive and well-informed. An approach that looks at the state and broader societal level only, without digging deep and without connecting to the change or conflict dynamics of the systems and local actors concerned, remains superficial and ineffective. Such an approach also risks overlooking what is already there, disregarding the need to nurture or preserve a system that is functioning or innovating on its own terms, without the need for doing things differently or follow approaches brought from the outside. Endogenous and self-regulating systems should be supported through a “resilience-sensitive” approach, as long as they are in line with the EU’s external action objectives.

What does this imply?

All of the above has several implications for EU external action and should be taken account of in the new Communication on resilience. First of all, resilience should be dealt with in its own terms and not as a new buzzword that simply convenes different actors around the same table. A common language across EU external actors needs to be shaped and lenses need to be provided to let officials more innovatively look and recognise the different forms and expressions of resilience. In-house guidance will be required to make this happen, and will need to connect to a gender-sensitive engagement, as women are of pivotal importance for maintaining and rebuilding resilience.

A resilience-sensitive approach should also help to think differently about whether and how external support can enhance resilience, and how to embrace the complexity of an environment. Second, resilience assessments that build on existing EU guidance should be promoted, in order to create a good situational awareness in terms of conflict dynamics, power relations, the state of fragility, the impact of possible disasters and other external influencing factors. Such assessments should allow access to early warning systems but should not become overly formalised, as this would limit the ability of the system to react quickly to changing dynamics in the partner regions and countries.

Third, context-specific pathways need to be conceptualised on how to transition out of fragility and protracted and/or violent crisis. This needs to be a bottom-up process, spelling out how to engage, where better not to engage and where to engage only minimally. A bottom-up conceptualisation means to start with the problem in the first place, to avoid blueprints and connect with change and reform at the macro-level. Fourth, the apparatus of EU external action needs to become equipped to implement a resilience-sensitive support, to connect with local actors, build relationships and thereby shape an in-depth knowledge of the situation the EU is investing in. The most important link to making EU external action effective are the EU delegations, particularly those located in fragile contexts.

Finally, having incorporated resilience as one of the five priorities in the Global Strategy, the concept has grown out of the more limited domain of humanitarian and development policy. Hence, clear political leadership is required to fill this concept with content and to apply it for making EU external action more effective.

Without creating incentives and setting priorities for a resilience sensitive approach across EU external action and without promoting this approach throughout the different EU institutions, the Communication will likely become another ‘reframing exercise’ which actually changes very little in the way of how EU institutions approach external action.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.


[This article was first published on]

BlogA New Climate for Peace




Tags Europe resilience Global Strategy adaptation security humanitarian development climate change foreign policy


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Environment & Migration

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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