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Is ‘resilience’ a panacea?

Leslie Fesenmyer

The term resilience caught my attention while conducting research in the Borough of Newham and elsewhere in East London over the last year or so. Though the term is hardly new, I now can’t help but notice it constantly and in relation to varied fields, including security, business, psychotherapy, development, and community cohesion. Resilience’s prominence is similarly evident in policy research, see, for example, publications by the Young Foundation and Demos. Taking Newham as a case, I ask, what does ‘resilience’ mean? Why has it emerged in this particular moment? And, to what questions is resilience offered as the answer?

What is resilience?

The OED defines resilience as ‘the action or an act of rebounding or springing back’. This understanding of the term underlies much of its applied usage. How can people become more resilient in the face of climate change or conflict? How can they bounce back from financial shocks like the kind that we experienced in 2008? How can each person develop his/her individual ability to adapt and cope with ever-increasing stress and adversity? Resilience as a concept and intervention can thus apply to individuals, as well as communities.

Newham: Some background

Newham is the second most social deprived borough in the UK (LBN 2011b: 7). One in three (33.6%) adults has no qualifications,[1] and the average gross annual income for Newham residents is £24,958, compared to the London average of £37,622 (LBN 2010: 3). It is a place of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity in which most residents identify as Black or ethnic minority (60.4%).[2] While four out of every 10 residents identifies as Christian, 32% of residents identify as Muslim; Hindus (8.8%), Sikhs (2.1%), and Buddhists (0.8%) account for another 12% of residents (Aston Mansfield 2013: 8). Newham is also a space of flux and transition: in 2007-2008, almost one in five (19.5%) residents either left or entered the borough, which is significantly higher than the London average of 13.6% (LBN 2010: 3).

Newham’s ‘resilience agenda’

The local council in Newham introduced its ‘resilience agenda’ in 2011, with the aim of promoting ‘personal, community, and economic resilience’. The initial report described the council’s assessment of the issue(s) it faced: ‘Too many people fall helpless and reliant on the state or the Council for advice and support. In many cases this help could be provided by a friend, relative, or a neighbour. In some cases, the person could have helped themselves’ (LBN 2011c: 4). It defines resilience as follows:

‘Resilience is much more than an ability to bounce back from a single damaging event. It is about possessing
a set of skills and having access to the resources
that allow us to negotiate the challenges that we all experience but also that allow people to overcome the more difficult circumstances many of Newham and other boroughs’ residents experience and to take up opportunities that come our way’ (LBN 2011b: 20).

The community where people live plays an important part Newham Council’s approach to building resilience. The council is keen to foster social networks that include not only people’s immediate circle of family and friends, but also a broader and varied set of relationships. Central to this, the council asserts, is a sense of community cohesion in which people mix with those of different social and economic backgrounds (LBN 2011c: 9).

Why resilience and why now?

The introduction of Newham’s resilience agenda roughly coincided with a budget cut of 11% (LBN 2011a: 4). The council’s predicament is not unique; local authorities around the country continue to try and figure out what they can do with the increasingly limited money they have to spend. In this moment then, Newham is asking its residents to do more for themselves and for each other, while the council transforms itself into a ‘springboard for residents’ success’, a facilitator, but not a provider (LBN 2011c: 14; see also LBN 2013a, 2013b). Resilience is thus offered as an (if not the) answer to poverty (and reliance on the state) in Newham.

The prevalence of resilience in so many different spheres of life, however, indicates its broad-based appeal to multiple issues. But why now? Have the scale and frequency of crises, whether environmentally-driven or human-made (think the financial crisis, violent conflict, etc.), become too overwhelming that practitioners and policymakers need everyone to be more ‘resilient’ because they can’t keep up with demand? That would suggest that they too must become more resilient to withstand such pressures and be able to ‘bounce back’. In fact, the logic of the ‘resilience’ discourse(s) seems to ensnare all of us, not only those living in poverty and refugees, while at the same time, the national and local government, at least in the UK, take a step back. Responsibility, a close ally of resilience, falls to individuals and to communities.  What then of society, of the social contract between people and government? As I asked in a different context (Fesenmyer 2015), what does this mean for the political?

accessed 8 November 2014.

accessed 8 November 2014.


Aston-Mansfield Community Involvement Unit. 2014. Newham: Key Statistics 2013. London: Aston-Mansfield.

Fesenmyer, Leslie. 2015. Reflections on African Pentecostals in London and the ‘political’. COMPAS Blog. 7 April 2015.

London Borough of Newham (LBN). 2010. Newham, London Local Economic Assessment, 2010-2027. London Borough of Newham: Regeneration Planning and Property Directorate.

———. 2011a. Budget book 2011/12. London Borough of Newham.

———. 2011b. Quid pro quo, not Status quo. Why we need a welfare state that builds resilience. London Borough of Newham.

———. 2011c. A Strong Community: Building Resilience in Newham Stakeholder Consultation. London Borough of Newham.

———. 2013a. Building Resilience: The Evidence Base. London Borough of Newham.

———. 2013b. Resilience: Making it happen. An update on delivery. London Borough of Newham.