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What is equitable resilience?

This paper reveals four themes essential in understanding equitable resilience in practice: subjectivities, inclusion, cross-scale interactions, and transformation.
Multiple Authors
Sarah Edewor


Resilience has attracted criticism for its failure to address social vulnerability and to engage with issues of equity and power. This paper* asks: what is equitable resilience? It focuses on what resilience does on the ground in relation to development, adaptation and disaster management, and on identifying critical issues for engaging with equity in resilience practice. Using techniques from systematic reviews, with variants of equitable resilience as our key search terms, an analytical literature review was carried out which reveals four interconnected themes: subjectivities, inclusion, cross-scale interactions, and transformation. This approach moves beyond debates that focus on the ontological disconnect between resilience and social theory, to provide a definition that can be used in practice alongside resilience indicators to drive ground level interventions towards equitable outcomes.

This open access paper was priginally published in World Development in September 2018.

*Access the full paper here or download the PDF from the right-hand column.

Methods and Tools

This paper follows a four step process:

  1. Determining research questions to guide the review;
  2. Developing a search protocol (i.e., targeted databases and search terms) to explore literature databases;
  3. Screening the results of the literature search based on their relevance to the research questions;
    • The systematic review methodology (screening) was adapted to funnel-down through the thematic disposition of the remaining papers which helped drive analysis forward in stage four.
  4. Conducting analysis and synthesis of the remaining literature.
    • Analysis was qualitative, which is to say that researchers did not code the texts.

Key findings from the literature review

Equitable resilience and subjectivity

  • Subjectivity relates to one’s essential individuality. It is the lived experiences and affective states of individuals, patterned and felt in historically contingent settings, and mediated by institutional processes and cultural forms.
  • This literature highlights the significance of multiple subjectivities, how they shift over time, and how they connect to transformations in social systems.
  • Drawing this out helps expose social power relations that have profound implications for generating or undermining resilience, as well as the persistence and distribution of resilience in different social groups.

Equitable resilience and inclusion

  • Overwhelming evidence argues for the inclusion in decision making of diverse social groupings that influence resource distribution and human-environmental relationships.
  • Integration of discourses and knowledges is often advocated for equitable resilience.
  • Arguments are made for a more inclusive approach towards recognising different values and interests affecting adaptation outcomes, as well as their potential conflicts.
  • In situations where adaptation responses taken by one group may affect the vulnerability context of other groups, or where strong vested interests within particular adaptation strategies may act as a barrier to sustainable adaptation, normative principles can be considered a first step towards social justice and environmental integrity.

Equitable resilience and scale

  • An appreciation of scale – geographical and temporal – is identified as central to both resilience and systems thinking about resilience.
  • Scale plays a role in marginalisation, which may occur in relation to a geographic core, but can equally be socially or politically focused and as such needs to be recognised and understood as a function of multiple processes.
  • The potential for cross-scale effects of changes in resilience, and in particular how this intersects back into relations of power and marginality that determine available development pathways, is emphasised.
  • Governance – both of the social system and the concomitant governance of the human-environmental system – is a critical scale-related aspect.

Equitable resilience and transformation

  • The term transformation applies to situations where there are nonlinear changes in systems or their host social and ecological environments.
    • The assumption that there is a system change means that transformation goes further than adaptation, which is more likely to be associated with incremental shifts in system performance.
    • It can be considered either as a revolution or as an extension of adaptation.
  • The complexity and uncertainty associated with persistent challenges in environmental management have had profound implications for sustainability.
    • If the problem is systemic then solutions lie not in incremental adaptation, but in approaches that build towards systemic transformation.
    • Thus, if equitable resilience means addressing underlying failures in development and disaster risk management, rather than perpetuating or sustaining them, it needs to open up possibilities for whole-scale transformation.


The literature reviewed here supports the definition of equitable resilience as one which:

  • takes into account issues of power, subjection, and resistance;
  • makes visible socially constructed limitations faced by groups and communities at all levels;
  • and thinks about these issues in a joined-up way to avoid unsustainable interventions being made in the name of either disaster response or development.

As resilience becomes more prevalent in policy and practice, attention to the demands of equitable resilience becomes ever more pressing.

Without expansion of resilience beyond policy discourses that focus on services, security and infrastructure, resilience practice will risk entrenching vulnerability and generating new risks for groups distributed across temporal and spatial scales.

This means allowing for a form of resilience which allows for systemic change, beyond adaptation.


  • Operationalising equitable resilience will require policy and practitioner stakeholders to engage with the politics of social, cultural and political change. This may be felt as a significant new challenge, but it is one that is pressing and necessary.
  • Equitable resilience needs to be embedded in a system approach and go beyond consideration of equity in the processes and distribution of development outcomes, taking us much deeper into the complexity of social processes. Sharply defined notions of objectively identifiable ‘scientific’ resilience become much more blurred and messy in these middle-level social processes, and it is here that attention must be paid if equitable resilience is to result.

Note from SEI and the co-authors

Sadly, our colleague Neela Matin, author on this paper, died before the manuscript was published. We would like to pay tribute to her life and work.

Read more about Neela’s contributions to poverty elimination, natural resource management and sustainable development here.

Suggested citation

Matin, N., Forrester, J. and Ensor, J., 2018. What is equitable resilience? World Development, 109, pp.197-205. DOI:

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