Resilient MENA 101

I will start by giving you a bit of good news, a bit of bad news, and hopefully a whole lot of stuff to think about.

Let’s start with the good news: resilience wins! It is no longer considered a fringe obsession. The concept has gained mainstream recognition over the past decade. Today, companies, financial institutions, development organizations, and even governments have incorporated resilience into their vocabulary.

Now comes the bad news: Resilience seems to have become the “holy grail” of development, an important but elusive goal. While everyone waxes poetic about its virtues, there remains a great deal of confusion about the exact meaning of resilience and, more importantly, how it can be reached.

Lucky for us, defining resilience is increasingly less of an issue. An international consensus seems to have emerged on how and when to use this term. Most practitioners at this point would agree to a working definition of resilience that is based on the ability of individuals, systems or communities to recover quickly from external shocks. Experts may still disagree on whether resilience implies a return to the status-quo-ante after recovery from a shock or a transition to a new and improved state. Let’s save this discussion for another day. What is important for us is that a working definition now exists.

However, there is still no internationally-accepted roadmap for how to achieve resilience. Nor there will ever be such a roadmap, in my opinion. In all likelihood, there will be many paths to resilience, depending on countless factors relating to context and timing.

For better or worse, most resilience-building activities have been focused on its more tangible aspects:

  • technical fixes such as infrastructure upgrades, disaster early warning systems, climate smart agriculture, etc.
  • socioeconomic development such as diversifying livelihood, vocational training programs, fostering eco-social entrepreneurship, etc.

However, there is growing scientific evidence that true resilience extends well beyond physical, or even social, capital. In other words, a big part of building resilience is to cultivate a “resilient attitude” among individuals, communities and organizations, i.e. to promote people’s own self-confidence in their ability to cope with future adversity.

We agree!

Let me offer a starting point for a possible roadmap to resilience in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). I will borrow heavily from this excellent Harvard Business Review article by Diane Coutu. In it she argues that resilient people and organizations exhibit three important traits: a sober acceptance of reality; a deeply-held belief that life is meaningful; and a strong ability to improvise. Resilience is the combination of these three traits.

At Resilient MENA, we believe that this simple, yet powerful, framework offers a good starting point for constructing our approach to building resilience in MENA. Let me show you how it works

Step 1: Acknowledge Reality

The first step toward enhancing the resilience of the MENA region is to acknowledge the largely negative status quo. The region is possibly undergoing the worst period of its recorded history. Millions of lives have been lost; tens of millions of people have been displaced; and an entire generation has grown up in the shadow of conflict and fear. The region’s anemic economy  is largely built on the shaky foundation of a depleteable resource, namely oil, and has failed to provide youth with economic opportunities. Reactionary and counterrevolutionary political systems deprive most of the region’s people of the smallest breathing space for cultural pluralism, critical engagement, and dissent.

Worse yet, no amount of wishful thinking will change the fact that the region will likely experience more difficulty and stagnation for the foreseeable future as a result of climate change and protracted conflict.

We have been, and will be, doing our fair share of acknowledging reality here in We don’t do this because we want to contribute to the negative, fatalistic propaganda surrounding the region. Far from it. Our primary goal is to create a space where people and organizations who care about MENA can work together to identify vulnerabilities and systemic blind spots, so they can be addressed.

Step 2: Cultivate Hope

I know this may sound strange given the MENA region’s overwhelming challenges, but it is time to bring back hope! As impossible as it seems, we need to collectively muster up a sense of purpose and meaning in what otherwise appears like an endless streak of senseless suffering. We, MENA people and communities, must view our current predicament as a painful, yet necessary, step in the evolution of our societies.

Let me rephrase: It is true that most of our communities in MENA have been stressed to the limit, but when they emerge from this mess they will be more empowered, productive, and cohesive. They will become more resilient, by virtue of having endured the difficult times we live in now.

But hope does not come easily in adversity. It needs to be sowed and cultivated. It takes agency on part of individuals, organizations, and communities. At Resilient MENA, we hope through our advocacy and activities to transform the regional meta-narrative from despair and disempowerment to one of hope and purpose.

Step 3: Learn to Improvise

We often think of improvisation on an individual scale. I ran out of milk this morning, so I had to improvise. But what does improvisation look like on the community or country level, let alone on a regional scale? And how can such ability to improvise be fostered?

Hundreds of millions of people are improvising on daily basis to build a future for their children within the challenging realities of this region. We will capture, distill and disseminate the collective wisdom of the region’s individuals, families and communities.

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