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Resilience for public health: supporting transformation in people and communities

6 Feb 2014 | Fiona Garven

I was recently asked to review a GCPH Briefing Paper and literature review investigating the concept of resilience. Resilience, as the research paper highlights, is the subject of renewed attention, for reasons many of us are now very familiar with.

Global economic and environmental pressures and rapidly changing demographics mean we are experiencing unprecedented times. Many of us question whether the institutions, systems and governance models we have in place to protect and serve our populations are to be trusted and are fit for purpose.

Public sector reforms rely heavily on increasing local participation and engaging community effort in ensuring that we can deliver positive outcomes for all Scottish citizens, in particular, those experiencing life at the hard edge, as public services are reduced and welfare cuts bite. Understanding what builds individual and community resilience is key to supporting people to respond to structural change and to mitigate negative outcomes at both a personal and population level. So, the publication of this research is well-timed.

Also timely is the need to reflect on resilience in the broadest of terms. From a community development perspective, the concept of resilience offers an important lens through which to focus on what is needed to help build our most vulnerable communities to adapt to sudden catastrophic changes we might come to expect, from severe weather to the withdrawal of large scale local employers.

Of equal importance, the concepts discussed in these publications provide a framework for supporting communities to address the slow, but also potentially catastrophic, creep of change brought about by a gradual erosion of welfare, lack of work and growing health and social inequalities.

Individual and community resilience

The research covers a lot of ground, from understanding the concept of resilience to the application of resilience thinking in terms of governance, culture, economy and infrastructure. Two aspects resonated with me most: the links between individual resilience and community resilience; and, how the outcome of a resilient community can be achieved through community development and community empowerment.

The authors challenge the suggestion that resilience is an individual trait, ‘a property possessed by individuals’ akin to an internal toughness or strength; an ability to survive when others fail or succumb to adverse conditions. How many times have we heard “I grew up in difficult circumstances and I turned out alright”?

If this research helps to dispel the notion that individuals are to blame for their own negative circumstances, or their own lack of ability to change their situations, then this will be worthwhile in itself.

The research asserts that individual and community resilience are interdependent. It suggests that individual resilience is underpinned by strong social networks and positive community experiences. Turning this around, the research tells us that “an individual’s ability to participate meaningfully in common issues is imperative for building social solidarity, trust and therefore community resilience”.

The move away from thinking mainly about resilience in individual terms is, in my view, critical – if we accept that individual and community resilience are co-dependent, we can develop the conditions that support resilience, for surely we don’t just need the ability to participate but also the right opportunities?

How can we build resilient communities?

If we agree that we need actions to build resilient communities we inevitably come to the ‘how’ question. All over Scotland there are people ready and willing to act together to provide better chances for young people, improve local environments, or develop opportunities for participation and learning.

In many ways we already have some answers – we can engage the motivation and capacities that already exist and, through properly designing and facilitating resources for neighbourhood work, stimulate and support communities that are less organised to come together to build stronger local networks and to exert influence.

We can reduce the barriers preventing communities from doing good things and we can divert resources away from costly bureaucratic systems to community organisations, acknowledging that they are often the best placed to apply those resources to addressing local needs.

All this would be a start – we have the research evidence, all we need now is the will to make it happen.

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