Education as a stronghold?

Education as a stronghold? The ambiguous connections between education, resilience and peacebuilding
February 19, 2015
Dr Mieke T.A. Lopes Cardozo, University of Amsterdam:
Read original blog on the NORRAG NEWSbite.

The resilience-hype: the new kid on the education-in-emergencies block

In a NORRAG NEWSBite blog-post Roger Dale (2014) convincingly argued how “without theory, there are only opinions”, in response to the seemingly unquestioned belief in ‘big data’ country comparisons and the political implications connected to PISA survey results. This argument, I believe, could also be loosely applied with a different focus, namely the recent massive adoption of the concept of resilience by actors working in the field of Education, Conflict (or Peacebuilding) and Emergencies. I argue there is a need for a solid theorisation and understanding of the roots and current conceptualisations of the term resilience, in order to unravel how, why and in what ways this swift adoption of this resilience discourse might impact on the experiences of those actually living educational realities in emergency or conflict situations. To search for common ground and a way to bridge the work (and thinking) of humanitarian, reconstruction and development actors in (post-)conflict and emergency situations, resilience has recently been adopted as a potential ‘glue’ between those sectors – also when looking at the role of education. But what do we really mean when we use the concept resilience?

What is resilience?

Resilience is rooted in several academic disciplines and approaches, including the natural sciences, (children’s) psychology, social sciences, development studies, etc. For instance, from a psychology perspective and studying children’s resilience and self-efficacy, Liebenberg and Ungar (2009: 3) write how: “Resilience is the positive end of the development continuum that occurs for children who experience both acute and chronic exposure to stressors like poverty, abuse, war, violence, neglect, drug addictions, mental illness, disability, marginalization, racism, and a myriad of other ways their well-being is threatened”. Mark Duffield, in an online recorded presentation in 2012, questioned the idea that in times of austerity “we all need to be resilient”, weather this is to “bounce back” from natural disasters, massive economic crises or acts of terrorism. He convincingly argued why the current dominance of resilience-thinking in both popular media and political discourse is troublesome, as it follows a neo-liberal reasoning that urges every individual to take care and responsibility for their own security and ability to cope with risks.

Moving from these more academic debates into the ongoing debates and usage of ‘resilience’ by a range of international actors now, the World Banks’ Education Resilience Approaches (ERA) programme claims that resilience is important because it helps individuals and communities to deal with adversities, through promoting strong education systems and social cohesion in fragile contexts. In an earlier OECD report (2008: 13), resilience is framed as the opposite end of fragility, as “resilience derives from a combination of capacity and resources, effective institutions and legitimacy, all of which are underpinned by political processes that mediate state-society relations and expectations”. While acknowledging the sensitivities of using the term ‘fragility’ and ‘fragile states’ as a negative demeanour, UNESCO-IIEP in an editorial of a newsletter (2009) also places resilience at the other end of the fragility-continuum and portrays education as a means to rebuild resilience. USAID (2012: 5), in the context of food insecurity and (natural) disasters, defines “resilience to recurrent crisis as the ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth”. In this view, building resilience will contribute to reduced humanitarian need over time. The UNDP (2013) similarly relates resilience more closely to natural disasters, and as a means to prevent crisis and enable recovery. Education (infrastructure) is included as an important part of the reconstruction process.

The Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy (PBEA) Programme, a partnership among UNICEF, the Government of the Netherlands, the national governments of participating countries and other key partners, is a cross-sectoral programme that focuses on education and peacebuilding. “Its overall goal is to strengthen resilience, social cohesion, and human security in conflict-affected contexts, including countries at risk of, experiencing or recovering from conflict.”  UNICEF more broadly seems to adopt a primarily humanitarian approach to strengthen resilience that is focused on the agency of children and youth, as well as the communities they belong to, as it illustrated in a Global Mapping of Communication for Development Interventions in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation (2013).

In sum, the concept of resilience and how it relates to education in conflict and emergency situations, is employed by a range of different actors, all with slightly varying conceptualisations, rationales and approaches to establish resilience.

Resilience for whom? And resilience for what?

While it is certainly not the purpose of this text to provide one clear-cut and overarching working definition for resilience, if this would even be a possibility, what I do propose is to consider a range of questions and areas in need of further exploration if the route of resilience is taken (seriously).

  • What is the reason that the concept or idea of resilience gained so much popularity, not least in the field of education in situations of conflict and emergencies – and who/what are the main driving forces?
  • Who is actually supposed to become ‘resilient’, is everyone or every group in society positioned to ‘become equally resilient’ or would some people perhaps be better situated or equipped to become ‘more resilient than others’?
  • And if people are stimulated or supported to become ‘resilient’, who is supporting this resilience, and what ‘type of resilience’ would be the desired result?
  • What if in some cases resilience would mean to continue with a status quo that is not necessarily beneficial for all groups in society (in terms of social justice and equality)?
  • And moving from the individual to the collective or institutional level, what if an education system that was partly a driver of structural inequalities that contributed to the causes of conflict in the first place, becomes resilient and hence continues to trigger such tensions?

In short, what I want to highlight with raising these questions as a starting point for further discussion, is a concern that an emphasis on resilience might lead development actors to prioritize strategies that focus more on immediate coping with adversity, rather than the (often longer-term) addressing of inequalities and injustice in order to transform the structural conditions that generate conflict in the first place. A possible concern is that a burden of responsibility is placed on individuals and communities, rather than governments and institutions as duty bearers.

From “only opinions” to a theoretical unravelling of resilience

Resilience seems to be a broad enough term to include the approaches, however ideologically underpinned, by a wide range of actors. It might especially serve those actors that frame education as an apolitical endeavour. In a sense, most of the resilience approaches adopted by international organisations mentioned above, seems to follow a (humanitarian, short term and problem solving) ‘do no harm’ approach, or in some cases a ‘conflict sensitive’ approach – resilience in this case could be seen as a way to navigate the status quo in the best possible way. Coming back to the work of Roger Dale (2006), such programming for resilience approaches that seek to (at least) restore a certain status quo, might fit with what he, based on the work of Cox, calls a problem-solving approach. My above-mentioned concerns and questions make the case for the need to move away from problem-solving approaches only, and into more transformative, social justice oriented approaches, that seek to question, challenge and address the underlying structural root causes of inequalities and conflict – while, at the same time, acknowledging the inherently political nature of any educational system or initiative. Hence, as Novelli and Smith (2011) argue in a study conducted for UNICEF, education programming should be based on high quality political economy and conflict analysis that is sensitive to the conflict dynamics of local contexts, and support from external actors has to be informed, sensitive and patient: “The more intrusive and externally driven, the less self-organized and sustainable the outcome, and we need to recognize the potential for us to do harm, despite our best intentions.”

As researchers, we can start to explore the ambiguous connections between education, resilience and transformative forms of peacebuilding, as these form an area in need for in-depth study and consideration. Finally, together with Mario Novelli and Alan Smith (2014), we recently proposed an analytical framework that is grounded in critical theory and incorporates a multi-scalar, and social justice oriented perspective to analyse the role of education in fostering sustainable and positive peace. It is hoped that the ongoing development of such a theoretical and analytical framework helps to increase an understanding of the role of education in the conflict-affected contexts it is focused on, and at the same time to understand the impact of the various resilience discourses and actual implications for programmatic responses. Following Dale’s words, with a more solid theoretical exploration, we can start to move away from “only opinions” on resilience.

Mieke T.A. Lopes Cardozo is assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, coordinator of the IS Academie on Education and International Development, and co-director of the Research Consortium on Education and Peacebuilding. Email:

>>This blog is based on NORRAG Policy Research Note #2 on “Education as a Stronghold? The Ambiguous Connections between Education, Resilience and Peacebuilding” (February 2015)