Let Us Work in Gray Areas!

March 2, 2015

The resurgent interest in resilience as an analytic, programmatic, and organizing framework for engaging areas (and people) subject to recurrent crises has created new space for exploring the complex dynamics inherent in these landscapes. It has also brought to the fore the many gray areas in our understanding of both what makes households and communities resilient, as well as the multi-scalar, nested-ness of household and community resilience within the resilience of the social, ecological, and market systems of which they are part. USAID’s Leveraging Economic Opportunity’s (LEO) Market Systems for Resilience report explores and helps frame one such gray area: the role of market systems in resilience, as well as the resilience of market systems themselves.  

The report rightly highlights some of the tensions between market systems development and resilience programming – both real and perceived. Yet, ultimately, it explains that striking the right balance between market efficiency and resilience isn’t really about trade-offs: it is about a contextualized approach to sustainable development in areas where recurrent shocks and underlying stresses are perennial features. It's also about inclusion – that is, how to simultaneously invest in push and pull strategies in areas (and among people) subject to recurrent crises in recognition that, even though the prospects of the most vulnerable are clearly tied to the less vulnerable and efficient market systems, their ability to fully participate in and benefit from market systems without enabling ‘push’ strategies is severely constrained. Finally, it’s about stepping away from the polemics of a facilitation versus transfers mindset (or for that matter a market systems versus resilience mindset) and into the more nuanced reality of working in gray areas.

I was recently in the Karamoja region of Uganda where this complex set of issues is playing out in real-time. At the end of a several-hour dialogue with a representative from the Office of the Prime Minister regarding the government’s vision for transformation in Karamoja, he declared, “Let us work in gray areas!” The principles for intervening in market systems for resilience and the ambitious substantive and operational research agenda that the report puts forth provide a framework for doing just that….and the answers are likely to be anything but black and white.