Living through uncertain times, the second event of our Conversations of our Time series, took place on 13 August. This time the discussion was focused on the topic of resilience. Dr Jill Flint-Taylor, practitioner psychologist and researcher, Lucy Maina, Kenya-based education consultant and Ralph Baydoun, community organiser, activist and communications specialist from Lebanon, shared their insights drawn from personal and professional experiences. The event was chaired by Catalina Holguin, British Council Schools and Inclusive Communities lead for the Americas region, based in Bogotá.

What is resilience?

Resilience has become a buzzword in recent years. It’s often referred to as a go-to solution in areas as diverse as business and management, education and international development - a means of resolving problems on the individual, organisational and societal levels. The concept of resilience has also seen its fair share of criticism - as being all-encompassing (and too general), difficult to measure and even implying that people and societies should tolerate adversity rather than work towards change.

Jill draws attention to the complexity of resilience, when giving her overall definition resilience can have many different meanings depending on the context ((see video below Dr Jill Flint-Taylor - resilience) time in event recording 6.32'-7.17'). Discussion of resilience is 'always about how to survive and thrive in the face of pressure.' Later in the discussion, Jill addresses the question of when resilience might become a negative rather than positive phenomenon: it is no longer real resilience if it has a negative effect on people. Jill is talking about resilience in a systemic sense, which allows for more in-depth exploration of the concept.  

Jill provides an illustration from the British Council’s Strengthening Resilience programme. It covers the situation of young people in a North Moroccan community, whose individual and collective resilience have been strengthened through the activities they have been involved in under the programme. If there were more time available, it would be interesting to hear more about how the young people built their resilience and how this was measured.

Comments from the online audience at this point in the discussion show the widespread interest in accessing practical advice - for individuals and the variety of communities they represent. Questions include: what concrete skills constitute resilience and how can these skills be taught? Unfortunately, not everything can be covered in a 60-minute conversation, though the discussion has already provided plenty of food for thought - and for follow-up.

Examples of resilience and coping mechanisms

Kenya

Lucy, the Programme Director for Grassroots Innovations for Change, describes the complex picture brought about in Kenya by the Covid-19 pandemic. Towards the end of 2019, many communities saw infestation by locusts, wiping out much of the future harvest. In some parts of the country there was also serious flooding. All of this against the background of intercommunal violence and attempts to deprive communities of traditional lands through ranching and enclosure. And then the global pandemic came knocking on the door. How are communities adapting?

  • Reverse urbanisation: many families have chosen to go back to their villages, where the cost of living is lower. As a result, rural areas have a stronger sense of community. (see video below Lucy Maina - support systems)
  • Religion is a strong connector: while churches have been closed, as part of Covid-19 restrictions, Lucy has seen various forms of adaptation, including preachers continuing religious services from their balconies and opportunities for collective worship online becoming more popular. (see video below - Lucy Maina - support systems)
  • Increased peer-to-peer support: peer learning has taken on much more important role in supporting education in rural communities, where there is very limited access to government programmes for online learning. (see video below Lucy Maina - community governance)
  • Language skills: it is likely that children will have forgotten much of what they were learning before the extended period of school closure - including in English language. However, the move to the rural areas is bringing children into contact with indigenous languages - giving a good base for foreign language learning in the future.

Lebanon

Ralph’s eloquent and passionate account of the difficulties faced by people in Lebanon - and of their resilience - clearly resonates with the online audience. He draws attention to the importance of understanding the context in order to also understand the coping mechanisms. The crisis described by Ralph is multi-dimensional; it spans the political system and the economy of the country. In addition, there is the international threat from Covid-19. According to Ralph this is a major challenge for Lebanon, given the country’s poor infrastructure and a lack of hospitals. On 4 August, a massive explosion in Beirut left 300,000 people homeless. How do people cope?

  • They feel apathy, which is a negative coping mechanism. They feel hopeless against the powers they are facing - 'against the 2,700 tons of nitrate ammonium'.
  • However, Ralph emphasises that it’s the Lebanese people who carry the country and each other every time they are in crisis - working together to save lives, remove the rubble and clean the streets. 'Working as one to save the city'. Lebanon has a sectarian government, which means that top government positions are shared between the country’s different religious communities. In Ralph’s view, the divisions often referred to as features of Lebanese society are propaganda. In the streets, people are helping each other regardless of their religious or group affiliations. (see video below - Ralph Baydoun - responding to crisis in Lebanon)
  • Access to digital space is important in helping people to cope positively with the crisis and improve the resilience of their communities. Ralph gives the example of Tripolives,  an online platform developed under the Strengthening Resilience programme. It aims to break stereotypes about Tripoli and support social actors to become agents of change, by highlighting positive initiatives at community-level. The platform is owned collectively by representatives from academic, civil society, private and public organisations; it is designed to restore communication and trust between all actors in society at large. See more about Tripolives in the event recording at 29:15'–30:20'.

How to become more resilient in the face of adversity?

All three speakers shared advice on how to support yourself and how to cope better with difficult situations and the stress they cause. All emphasised the critical importance of knowing what works for you and, in the thick of a crisis, focusing on your well-being:

  • Take care of your physical health: get enough exercise and sleep: Jill refers to exercising as “a magic bullet” for mental health, while Lucy shares an example of Kenyan nurses in crowded hospitals, following an exercise routine together as some relief from their busy schedules.
  • Reinforce your social bonds and reach out for support: communication online and face-to-face do not provide the same level of support. Keeping in touch with your friends and family and sharing is especially important during a time of crisis. Lucy shares a wonderful example of how people arrange Chai (tea) time, as an opportunity to talk about how they’re coping.
  • Religion/spirituality: Lucy highlights the role of religion in helping people to get through difficult times;
  • Show solidarity and help out: the Lebanese experience shows how people can find comfort and hope by helping each other and supporting families in need, by cleaning the streets and beginning to rebuild;
  • Focus on trustworthy resources: the information immediately available to us may not always be the best basis for decisions and actions.

Jill also draws attention to the World Health Organisation’s advice, Coping with stress during the Covid-19 outbreak, which is available for adults and parents to help children.

This was a brilliant and thought-provoking conversation about dealing with uncertainty, covering different contexts and providing useful, practical solutions. Please watch the recording if you haven’t yet done so and register for our next event, Creativity in communities during Covid-19, that will take place on 17 September.

Written by Angelina Twomey

Video clips from Living through uncertain times

See also