The word “resilience” has become fashionable in the field of international assistance, lately extending to peacebuilding. From the 1950s, when the term made its way outside science and engineering, until a few years ago, it was implicitly associated with the field of individual psychology, and its application to state and society as a counterpoint to the notion of fragility was still raising some eyebrows. Today, some use the word as a mere metaphor, unaware of its multiple meanings across disciplines and of the promising framework that it could provide for peacebuilding if used more precisely. Some peacebuilding scholars and practitioners alike now feel that adoption of the concept has done more harm than good, and remain suspicious that “resilience” is being used as little more than a fashionable buzzword.

The notion of resilience, if taken seriously, can be useful in the peacebuilding field, both for analysis and for practice. This article intends to make that case. First, we arrive at a cogent definition of “societal resilience”; then we examine what constitutes a resilient social system; and finally, we explore how to apply the resilience framework as a guiding tool in peacebuilding. The resilience framework offers a concrete basis that could guide further empirical research. But this will first require rigorous development as well as field-testing. Empirically based research is needed. Only then can the framework present an added value to our work as peacebuilders and to the communities we work with.

Defining “Societal Resilience”

Building on the parallels in those fields, the notion of societal resilience can be used in the peacebuilding context to refer to the capacity of a group, community, or society at large to cope with stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political, and environmental change and to adjust while still retaining essentially the same functions and feedbacks by the people. In this definition, societalresilience has three key characteristics:

The capacity to adapt and, therefore, undergo some change in the process is a distinctive feature of the notion of resilience. The resilience of a system is assessed based on its functions and its capacity to perform, not on its stability. This is an important characteristic since, particularly in post-conflict contexts, the notion of “stabilization”—although strongly criticized—remains tempting for international decision makers. Indeed, beyond the objective of reducing the level of violence, experience in recent decades has demonstrated the real risks of underestimating the inherently dynamic nature of conflict transformation processes. Similarly, discourses too often refer to the idea of “restoring” or “returning to” something associated with the status quo before the violent conflict, or even “repairing” what has been broken or destroyed. But violence transforms as much as it destroys. It creates new realities and forms of relationships, particularly when it has lasted for decades. International aid programs themselves induce additional transformations. These nonlinear evolutions need to be fully considered when thinking in terms of resilience.

It is based on risks versus opportunities. Psychiatric research on individual resilience has suggested a framework of risk versus opportunity (or protective) factors. This framework is used specifically to describe the mixture of fragility and resilience seen among children living in difficult (in particular, violent) situations where they are exposed to multiple risk factors. The individual well-being of those children depends, not on everything becoming perfect in their world, but on the presence of protective factors to counterbalance the risk factors. The framework provides a dynamic concept of vulnerability and resilience, and it accounts for how two individuals who have experienced similar life-threatening events may have very different reactions and trajectories. Similarly, a community’s collective well-being depends on the balance between its different sources of fragility and its counterbalancing resources. Such a dual assessment is essential for peacebuilding. Yes, violent conflicts have mid- to long-term effects that may durably affect the very social, political, economic, and cultural fabric of a society; and those effects may imply serious risks of reverting to confrontation. But the story does not end here. Every society also has resources that could counterbalance those risks if those resources are correctly identified, supported, and mobilized.

It has coping strategies that reach beyond mere survival. Coping mechanisms often contain the seeds of resilience, especially when they manifest the emergence of some form of regularized social interaction. Life continues during the violence. Women go back to sell their goods the day after the market has been bombed. The exchange of goods and information continues between neighborhoods affected by violence. This not only helps people survive and cope with violence and its consequences; it also fosters the maintenance (or even creation) of social networks. To that extent, survival strategies may pave the way to resilience. But alone, they are not sufficient. Something needs to help gradually transform the situation that people are in. Survival strategies also may become maladaptive during the peacebuilding phase—for instance, if they do not go beyond the boundaries of the community or group and if they perpetuate a sense of mistrust.

Assessing the Key Components of a Resilient Societal System

While resilience may take many forms, some functions seem to be central in supporting the ability of a community or a society at large to develop and sustain its resilience. Using the existing literature across disciplines, together with a comparative analysis of indigenous resilience mechanisms documented in conflict and post-conflict environments, in many different cultural and sociopolitical contexts, we find five core functions of community-level resilience:

Psychosocial recovery of individuals and communities.While this theme is only slowly becoming part of the mainstream peacebuilding agenda, indigenous mechanisms always integrate some forms of healing, which shows the importance that communities generally ascribe to traumas resulting from violent conflicts. The recovery requires acknowledgment of individual suffering and narratives, as well as a collective recognition and validation of the traumas inflicted. (This is crucial for the most vulnerable segments of the population as well as for the individuals stigmatized as a result of the violence).

Shared systems of meaning.The symbolic, imaginary, and even spiritual dimensions of the transition from war to peace are essential in the adaptations that a community needs to make to become resilient. Peacebuilding needs to happen at least as much in people’s minds as in their outer reality. Communities showing signs of resilience are those that have addressed these dimensions, in particular through rituals that help reframe the issues at stake and allow people to approach problems in new ways, creating meaning.

Solidarity among community members, and appropriate distribution of resources, services, and rights. This refers to community building not as some utopian or communitarian goal, but community as it really is: social groups engaging in some sort of social life and progressively sharing some resources and services. Paying attention to how the existing networks are mobilized and reconfigured is an important aspect of that work. So is the actual delivery of concrete resources, services, and rights (such as water and food, health services, education, and security) to the community members.

Community reintegration and trust. The mere cohabitation and collaboration that allow a group of people to go on with their lives, although essential, are not enough for a community to become resilient. Indeed, true resilience requires a redefining of the collective rules, some form of reacceptance of those rules (via a new social contract), and, many times, the peaceful coexistence of former antagonists. This dynamic returns a sense of safety and predictability in what an individual can expect from the community and in what the community can expect from the individual. This supposes, among other things, the re-creation of mutual trust, and penalization for wrongdoing, which is the way communities handle the justice component of addressing past wounds (as a complement to psychosocial recovery).

Broad and inclusive forms of governance. The system also needs to support the community’s governance, however its members define this, and offer different forms of feedback by the people who are part of that collectivity. The mechanisms here also include institutional capacities for resolving the problems between members, and the conflicts that may arise from day to day, and for absorbing shock and preventing further violence. Needless to say, this requires the system also to address old grievances that may be the source of new emerging conflicts.

Applying the Resilience Framework as a Guiding Tool for Peacebuilding

Resilience is a multifaceted concept that shows promise because it encourages both researchers and practitioners to understand the dynamic mix of fragility and resilience present in societies that must cope with violent conflict. Ultimately, societal resilience depends on a balance of risk and opportunity factors. These are culturally constructed; they rest as much on subjective meanings as on external events. That is, two communities may experience situations that are very similar from an outsider’s point of view. But what counts is how, subjectively, they feel it and explain it. In that sense, the notion of resilience is adaptable to various contexts, but in different ways.

The framework suggested in this article—to conceptualize the notion of resilience—still needs further testing. At this stage, it should be considered as a series of entry points, both to assess existing resources and capacities in any given peacebuilding context (in particular, the forms of endogenous resilience mechanisms) and to measure, through the life cycle of any peacebuilding project, its actual contribution to supporting local resilience.

Resilience is a long-term process. But there is a real risk of hobbling the community’s ability to become resilient if the factors that support the shift from day-to-day survival to “bouncing back” to long-term resilience are not integrated from the outset. If it is to be taken seriously, resilience cannot be postponed to a distant future; it has to be supported from day one of any peacebuilding project, even in the most adverse circumstances. This is also a good reminder for the peacebuilding community to go beyond the impression of “vacuum” or “anarchy” often attributed to situations of fragility. Finally, resilience offers a promising way to address the more intangible dimensions of peacebuilding—an area where both our analysis and our practice remain weak.