Development-Security Nexus, Part II: The Resilience Turn?

Some authors from the most recent issue of Development Dialogue (DD) suggest that the “security-development nexus” has been superseded by something new. The new name of the game is “resilience” approaches. The authors suggest that “human security” paradigms and sustainable development discourses became articulated by neoliberal economic rationalities in ways that encouraged the more biopolitical approaches evident in discourses of resilience. (Foucault’s ideas about security, normalization, and the aleatory are implicit or explicit components of this analysis.) Although the DD issue was apparently in production by the time the World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security and Development (WDR 2011) came out, the World Bank’s report confirms resilience is indeed in full swing. The Bank says resilient, legitimate institutions help fight off violence like the body’s immune system fights off disease. Riffing off the Bank’s organic metaphors of biophysical adaptation, Michael Watts notes in his sweeping critical review of the report in the journal Humanity (sub. req.):

It bears repeating that this autoimmune model (often linked to a theory of living systems as self-organizing and autopoietic) is central to a wide range of management, organizational, and social science disciplines and, as Michael Dillon notes, is now the foundation for an entire order of modern governance which Foucault called “biopolitics.” But there is no question that the so-called resilience approach—derived from systems theory, cybernetics, and the ecological work of C. S. Holling—has become a new frame of reference not only for conflict and human security but also for the global climate change/adaptation debate, and debates within sustainable development more generally. (Watts 2012: 120)

Julian Reid in DD notes the same trend and makes the argument that examining neoliberalism biopolitically allows him to show how its economic and ecological reason have become increasingly correlated through discourses of resilience:

When neoliberals preach the necessity of peoples becoming ‘resilient’ they are, as I will show, arguing in effect for the entrepreneurial practices of subjectivity which Duffield calls ‘self-reliance’. ‘Resilient’ peoples do not look to states to secure their wellbeing because they have been disciplined into believing in the necessity to secure it for themselves. (2012: 69)

Reid’s ultimate goal in the article is to note the alarming compatibility of “sustainable development doctrines” and neoliberalism that discourses of resilience enable. A process, he argues, that allows for life itself—human and non-human—to remain colonized by the market.

A striking aspect of this turn toward resilience is its marshaling by calls for state-formation. The Bank itself—at least, in contexts marked by high levels of violence—wants to bring the state back in, a far cry from its own systematic dismantling of the state in the past. The Bank calls for resilient state institutions, capacities, and forms of governance, reducing vulnerabilities to violent political dynamics and any number of other threats and risks. Rather than a shift from “the state” to “population” as the primary referent of security and/or development, as some contributors to the DD issue suggest, resilience in many ways poses a reinvigorated correlation between the two.

Jens Stilhoff Sörensen, an editor of the special Development Dialogue issue, recognizes the role of state-building as the preeminent instrument of contemporary security paradigms, but he argues the kind of state being promoted is wholly in line with neoliberal macroeconomic policies and the fixing of spaces for capitalist accumulation. In Sörensen’s view, the result is the intensification of uneven development and social strife across a spectrum of geographical scales, with self-reliance and resilience little more than holding patterns for governing unruly masses. The World Bank, of course, sees its own suggestions as arresting and ameliorating these problems, rather than propagating them. WDR 2011 suggests hyper-localized “best-fit” approaches aimed at creating resilient state institutions, capacities, and forms of governance, thereby reducing vulnerabilities to violent political dynamics. The Bank distinguishes “best-fit” from the “technocratic best-practice reform options” of the past (WDR 2011: 107); resiliency is all about the adaptability of people, institutions, cultures, etc.

Discourses of resilience are clearly capable of linking a coterie of issues in complex ways that would have been less thinkable in past development and security paradigms. In this brave new world, development, conflict, security, environment, disaster management, humanitarianism, terrorism, corruption, governance, and more are all interrelated.

Considering that political ecology shares an intellectual lineage with resilience thinking—e.g. systems theory, cybernetics, and human ecology—it seems geographers of various stripes have a critical contribution to make here. And judging from the citations from Development Dialogue, it seems we already have. Still, we can’t let institutions like the World Bank beat us at our own game.


Dillon, Michael. 2008. ‘‘Underwriting Security,’’ Security Dialogue 39(2/3): 309–32.
Watts, Michael. 2012. “Economies of Violence: Reflections of the World Development Report 2011,” Humanity 3(1): 115–130.

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