Explaining the EU’s Resilience Turn: A Not So Special Tool of a Somewhat Special Actor

Author: Jonathan Joseph, University of Sheffield

The idea of resilience has become a popular idea across a range of policy areas and in the fields of international development and disaster risk reduction (DRR) in particular. Simply put, resilience, at least in this policy area, can be defined as our ability to withstand, adapt to, and recover from external crisis such as environmental changes, natural disasters and human-made conflicts. In contrast to strategies that prioritise prevention and response, resilience’s key notions are preparedness and adaptation. The European Union (EU) has been quick to embrace the idea, launching pilot projects in The Sahel and Horn of Africa regions. It is also prominent in new strategy documents on international aid and development. But why has the idea become some popular in these areas in such a relatively short space of time?

The EU’s resilience turn is characteristic of a broader shift in the discourse of global governance and good governance. This shift seeks to govern at arm’s length by setting out various forms of good practice. The European Union has a long history of assisting with disaster management and humanitarian response in developing countries and coordinates this work through the Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (DG ECHO). ECHO takes the lead in formulating policy and managing aid to those non-EU countries suffering from natural or human-made disasters. The commission helps coordination between the various EU member states with the aim of ensuring the most efficient and effective operation and delivery.

Resilience thinking is meant to help bridge the gap between humanitarian aid and development with an approach to emergency aid that links it to longer-term preparedness for risks from natural disasters and other exceptional circumstances. In actuality, the EU approach is divided between short term intervention and longer-term programmes with different departments and mechanisms. The rhetoric points to a more unified approach, but underneath are growing inconsistencies and divided interests over whether the humanitarian aid and development aid can or should be kept separate. This is reflected not only inside ECHO, but also between ECHO and the European External Action Service (EEAS) and Development and Cooperation (DG DEVCO).

I suggest, therefore that there are dual reasons for the EU’s recent resilience turn. The first is this very clear perception that the EU needs a far more coordinated strategy to disaster management and humanitarian aid. Second, resilience-building strategies fit with how the EU sees itself both in terms of its identity and role. It fits, first of all with the perception of how the EU and commission should function with a more facilitative and advisory role being advocated. Moreover, it fits with how the EU sees itself as an actor that exercises civilian power in a ‘soft power’ way, serving as a useful identity marker as the EU struggles for a global role.

Following Walker and Cooper I suggest that resilience has an intuitive ideological fit with a neoliberal philosophy of adaptive systems (2011: 144). This understanding of neoliberalism follows Foucault’s work on governmentality and places emphasis on the liberal and reflexive mechanisms of governance. Resilience’s philosophy of adaptation places the focus on the responsibilities of the governed. Governance works from a distance through notions of partnership and local ownership. While appearing to devolve power to local actors, it is more accurately understood the devolution of responsibility which is supported by a complex array of techniques of monitoring and assessment. While it appears that local actors are now in control of their own development strategies and DRR plans, in fact they are expected to implement the strategies that have been devised by international organisations, but which are now being implemented as less direct forms of governance.

The EU’s 2013 Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries reflects recent state-building approaches that focus on local capacities. It talks of people-centred approaches that address individual life-cycle risks (European Commission 2013: 3). This places emphasis on the need for individuals themselves to address their resilience strategies in order to make themselves less vulnerable and prone to poverty. At another level up, the plan talks of country-ownership and states that it is primarily a national governments’ responsibility to build resilience and to define political, economic, environmental and social priorities accordingly’ (ibid).These national strategies require firm political commitments and accountability, and may require not only technical support but institutional change. It is clearly stated that ultimately individual countries have responsibility to progress towards resilience (based on meeting key development standards that are decided by the international community) (European Commission 2013: 3).

Paradoxically, an obsession with meeting key standards and ensuring correct application is compatible with the rather vague attempts to elaborate on what resilience strategies actually mean. Behind the resilience discourse is a picture of the world that is decidedly unclear. The more theoretical aspect of resilience thinking embraces the idea of complexity, placing emphasis on multiple states, non-linearity, contingency and unpredictability. The corresponding epistemology is a constructivist one that emphasises complexity of meaning, blurred knowledge boundaries and unknowablity. This would appear to rule out rational planning. At the level of global politics this is indeed the case. As we arrive at the endpoint of the globalisation debates, theorists have embraced the notion that the world is too complex to try to control. Resilience thinking is consistent with this view insofar as it emphasises preparedness and adaptation rather than prevention and intervention. However, preparedness and adaptation still need to be carefully planned and monitored. In effect, as the global picture becomes increasingly fuzzy, with blurred boundaries between the social and natural and the human and non-human, this legitimates greater concern with implementing and following the correct techniques at the micro level. The ontology and epistemology of resilience is uncertainty and diversity, but the methodology is more precise and standardised.

Rather than letting local actors truly do their own thing, the role of the EU, alongside other international organisations, governments and donors is to place local actors, institutions and practices under scrutiny and to monitor their adherence to internationally set norms and standards. Performance indicators are used to assess such things as fiscal capacity, institutional strength, and level of social development. The very vagueness of the notion of resilience at a theoretical or philosophical level acts as a framing device that helps concentrate attention on the more precise application of its methods at a micro-level. As the EU argues, a resilience approach should be assessed in terms of measurable improvements at all levels, particularly among communities, requiring investment in the development of results-based management approaches, with strong baseline data (European Council 2013: 4). The EU may promote local ownership, but accountability is decided according to international norms and standards based promoting transparency, efficiency and effectiveness, and measured through robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks and related measurement tools (ibid.).

While I have argued that the EU’s approach to resilience is consistent with a widely accepted discourse on forms of governance, the reasons for an EU strategy in this area are more distinctive in the sense that they relate to existential and organisational problems faced by the EU as an actor. Firstly, the adoption of resilience-building as a strategy reflects both the actual weakness of the EU and an awareness of this among key actors. The EU position appears to be contradictory. The documents analysed above reveal an obsession with developing a more integrated, better coordinated, more connected and better engaged approach. Yet at the same time the resilience approach is part of a scaled-back, less interventionist strategy. Resilience gives the impression of being part of an integrated and holistic strategy without there actually being one. The resilience discourse is paradoxically more holistic and less engaged.

The EU is better able to do this because it is possible to hide its inability to act coherently on military matters behind more plausible claims to be exercising civilian or normative power. This leads to our second point concerning the appeal of the humanitarian aspect of resilience building which allows the EU to project itself in a particular way. It gives the impression that EU is exercising a form of civilian power that is consistent with its own nature as an entity. Even if not true, it can give the appearance of being a form of soft power that differs from US approaches.

Finally there is one other, not to be underestimated reason behind the turn to resilience which is the need for greater austerity measures. Resilience is a cheap option. The EU’s own assessment concludes that investment in resilience is cost effective and that preparedness and planning is not only more effective than disaster response, but cheaper. Putting emphasis on resilience is a more pragmatic or realist approach with downscaled goals based on ‘best fit’ solutions.


The conservative nature of the idea stems partly from its relationship to neoliberal forms of governance. In the operations of EU foreign policy, resilience does not stand as an ‘approach’ in itself, but as an idea heavily influenced by a wider context. Part of that context is political and is shaped by debates about neoliberalism and more generally about what is governance and how should one govern. Two conservative implications follow from this context. One is that resilience emphasises preparedness rather than protection or prevention. The other is that it emphasises adaptation rather than transformation. These are conservative because they reject the ideas of social planning, regulation and intervention in favour of acceptance of our wider context as unalterable. It is neoliberal in shifting responsibility back on to the subject and away from the state (as protector and provider). However, it would be reductionist to say that neoliberalism provides the whole explanation. Beyond these political issues is the geo-strategic question of what an organisation like the EU is actually capable of doing. Resilience not only fits with a neoliberal governance agenda, but also with the real limits of EU capabilities and evident divisions over strategic aims and ambitions. In promoting resilience and strengthening local capacities, the EU can be presented as exercising a special form of power that is in line with the existing norm of concentrating on civilian missions. This would seem to fit with the comprehensive security model outlined in the Lisbon Treaty while causing fewer tensions between member states. Ultimately the resilience turn is all about projection. It helps project an image of the EU as a special actor while hiding underlying divisions among member states and between different actors inside different EU departments. Whether it can do anything to address underlying difficulties remains to be seen.


European Commission (2009) EU Strategy for Supporting Disaster Risk Reduction in Developing Countries, Brussels: European Commission.

European Commission (2013) Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries 2013-2020, Brussels: European Commission.

European Council (2013) Council conclusions on EU approach to resilience, Brussels: European Council.

Walker, Jeremy and Melinda Cooper (2011) ‘Geneaologies of Resilience: From Systems of Ecology to the Political Economy of Crisis Adaptation’, Security Dialogue, 42, 2: 143-160.

Jonathan Joseph is Professor at the Department of Politics at The University of Sheffield. Read more here. j.joseph@sheffield.ac.uk