Session 1: What is Resilience?

The Resilience in Agriculture course was developed by ILCI’s cross-cutting themes team at Cultural Practice, LLC. Sarah Eissler is the lead content developer and Dee Rubin is the cross-cutting themes training coordinator. 

Course outline

This work was funded in whole by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under Agreement #7200AA19RFA00010 as part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors alone.


Welcome to the first session of a training program on resilience, which is one of four cross-cutting themes in the Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement programming, alongside the themes of gender, youth and nutrition. In this module, we will be addressing the importance of incorporating concepts of resilience in agriculture.

Learning Objectives

This sensitization module on resilience in agriculture has four sessions, each about an hour long.

Each session addresses one of the four learning objectives for the course:

The first session covers basic concepts about resilience in agriculture generally. We first define resilience and introduce important concepts and conceptual frameworks currently used in development work when referring to resilience in agriculture.

The second session delves more deeply into sources of resilience and why it is important to consider resilience in agriculture and crop improvement. We also consider cross-cutting issues in resilience.

In the third session, we discuss ways to measure resilience in your work and provide a chance for each of you to think about how you as an individual and how the organizations you have worked in have thought about resilience in agriculture, particularly resilience that considers implications for gender, nutrition, and youth.

In the last session, we look at a few successful strategies that other programs have employed to support successful integration of resilience in agriculture and crop-breeding programming that has also considered gender, nutrition, and youth. Finally, we will share with you a set of resources that you can review on your own to deepen your understanding.  The numbers in the colored boxes appear at the bottom of each slide to indicate which objective is being addressed.

What is Resilience?

We will begin by reviewing definitions of resilience and important concepts related to understanding resilience.

Defining Resilience

To start, we will highlight a few examples of how various important development organizations have defined resilience. But please note that in this course, we will use USAID’s current definition. There is no standard definition of resilience. It is a concept that has been applied to many different sectors and areas that face various threats or challenges. Resilience is applied across all development sectors, including governance, natural resource management, economic growth, health, education, and humanitarian assistance.

Click on the icons below to learn how USAID, the United Nations, and the IPCC define resilience.


USAID defines resilience as: the ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.

United Nations

The United Nations defines resilience as the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.


And the formal, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, defines resilience as the capacity of social, economic, and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity, and structure, while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning, and transformation. We see that while the definitions vary greatly in how they are worded, they all involve key similar components, which we will cover in the next slide.

Elements of resilience

We see that while each definition is slightly different, they do share common core components in how they define and conceptualize resilience. 

First, all definitions include the system or unit. Specifically, all frameworks highlight one particular entity or unit that needs to strengthen their resilience. For example, USAID’s definition includes five units (people, households, communities, countries, and systems).

All definitions generally agree that resilience is essential for enabling systems (and/or the identified unit) to function or flourish in the face of shocks or stressors, which are also called disturbances.

All definitions consider capacities, which are used at all levels to respond. These are the actions that need to be taken prior to and in preparation to respond to the shocks and stressors. For example, language that refers to risk management or mitigation are also considering the capacities needed to respond.

Another key component of resilience definitions and frameworks is limiting damage of the shocks or stressors. For example, this includes languages that refers to the ability to ‘bounce back’, recover, or absorb shocks and stressors. And finally, the fifth core component of resilience definitions is the ability to manage change, specifically initiating or managing the processes to deal with changing circumstances. This is usually discussed as learning, adapting, and in some cases, transforming, to respond to changing circumstances.

Defining capacities

Let’s look more closely at USAID’s definition of resilience to learn about each specific component.

First, we will start with capacity. When we consider the ability of something, like a system or a community, or someone, like an individual, to act, we are thinking about their capacity.

Resilience work is about strengthening these capacities at various levels. Specifically, we consider three types of capacity when thinking about resilience.

It’s also important to note that while an individual, for example, may have built a certain capacity, they may not be empowered to act on that capacity. Empowerment and agency are also important concepts to think about resilience all levels. We will discuss this further in a later session.

In the next few slides, we will present some examples of each type of capacity. Click on each icon to learn more about absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacity


Absorptive Capacity refers to tools and strategies used for risk management during a disturbance. It is typically considered the lowest level of capacities.


Adaptive Capacity refers to the ability to make informed choices and change strategies in order to respond to or proactively mitigate risks.


Transformative Capacity refers to the institutional, political, and systemic factors that create the enabling environment to respond to risks.

Absorptive, Adaptive, Transformative Capacity

Now, let’s dive in to each type of capacity. Click on each icon below to learn about absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacities.


Absorptive capacity is built using tools and strategies that enable a person, household, community, country or system to manage risks during a disturbance.

There are many ways to build absorptive capacity, but let’s think of a few examples here.

Individual or household cash savings enable individuals or households to reduce the risk of an adverse event having a severe negative impact on the household’s ability to purchase food or other critical supplies.

Other ways include owning assets, such as livestock. A household could sell a goat or chicken during a shock event for quick cash, for example. Participating in community groups and informal safety nets, such as a village savings group, are other examples of building absorptive capacity.  Bonding social capital is yet another way to build this type of capacity. It involves bonds between community members that are based in trust and cooperation and often are relied upon during adverse events to work together to cope and recover.


Adaptive capacity is built by learning from, being flexible to, adapting to, and pro-actively adjusting to disturbances. One can build adaptive capacity in many ways, so let’s consider a few examples.

Livelihood diversification, which includes diversifying crops, diversifying livestock or wage labor activities, or others, is an important form of adaptive capacity. Building human capital is another important form of adaptive capacity, such as education levels or literacy. Bridging and linking social capital are also ways to build adaptive capacity. These are different than bonding social capital as they rely on links established between communities or vertical linkages between communities and government agencies that are also based in trust and cooperation. These linkages can connect members to external resources. These are particularly important links to rely on when resources or information are otherwise insufficient.


Transformative capacity is using the institutional, political, and systemic factors that comprise the necessary conditions for building resilience. It is built over the longer term and is often the hardest type of capacity to build. Like adaptive and absorptive capacity, there are many ways to build transformative capacity, but we will present a few examples here.

Increasing women’s empowerment and reducing and eliminating discrimination, for examples, are important ways to build transformative capacity. The idea is that when women can fully and equitably participate in economic and social activities, the system overall is more resilient.

Other examples include increased and stronger market integration and competition and improved infrastructures, such as transportation infrastructures, so that there are well-maintained roads that can better link farmers to markets. Good governance and formal safety nets also build transformative capacity.

Capacity Framework

Here is a framework put together by Vaughan (2018) that is helpful for thinking about how these three types of capacities work together to build resilience. Absorptive capacities aim to facilitate stability and minimize impact and sensitivity during shocks and stressors. Adaptive capacities enable flexible and informed strategies to reduce the risk of and increase the ability to respond to adverse events. And transformative capacities are those that constitute and build the enabling environment for systemic change.

Key Terms and Concepts

Next, let’s look at the units included in the USAID definition of resilience. Specifically, USAID highlights five units and levels at which resilience occurs and needs to be addressed.

The first level is people. At this level, we consider peoples’ individual aspirations, agency, and intra-household dynamics that affect their response and ability to respond to shocks, stresses, or risk.

These responses occur within complex socio-cultural contexts in which households and communities exist. They are also based on levels of built social capital, available and accessible resources, and developed skills. Households and communities represent levels 2 and 3, respectively.

Finally, the countries and systems in which all these interactions occur also impacts the options and resources available to individuals, households, and communities to respond to shocks, stresses, and risk. We will discuss this in a later module, but it is important to note here that gender, youth, and other important social identities are significant factors when considering resilience across each of these levels. Shocks and stresses impact men, women, boys, and girls differently, and each have differing levels of capacity and agency to respond.

Mitigation, adaptation, and recovery

Resilience is focused on the active and intentional management of potential and actual risks in order to protect against long-term regression of positive gains and the ability to limit damage from negative deviations. Here we look at three different concepts: mitigation, adaptation, and recovery.

Now, please click on each box below to learn more about mitigation, adaption, and recovery.


Mitigation is the process to reduce the risk of potential adverse events, such as shocks or stressors, or to reduce the impact of those potential adverse events. It includes strategies, decisions, and intentional efforts made prior to the adverse event.


Adaptation is the process to respond to risks of a potential adverse event, usually by developing strategies or relying on available resources to withstand the impact and minimize the risk of negative impact from such an event.


Recovery is the process to respond to and ‘bounce back’ from an adverse event and its impacts. Recovery occurs after the adverse event.

Shocks and Stressors

Resilience applies to immediate time-bound events – known as shocks – as well as longer-term dynamics, which we call stressors. Shocks and stressors both increase risk of negative outcomes, to which individuals, households, communities, countries, and systems must respond.

Shocks are immediate external deviations from long-term trends that negatively affect people’s livelihoods, state of well-being, assets, safety, or ability to withstand future shocks. For example, disease outbreaks, droughts, flooding, or political unrest are considered shocks. Shocks are experienced at all levels; for example, a natural disaster or food price spike affect multiple households, communities, or regions. Shocks experienced by only a few people or single household, such as a death of a family member or loss of employment can still be enough to create hardship.

Stressors are longer-term trends and dynamics that also place negative pressures on systems and undermine its stability in a way that increases vulnerability at all levels. Examples include weak governance authority, increasing population pressure, long-term climate variability, or persistent social discrimination.

Shocks and stressors are different from problems. A problem is a matter or a situation that is viewed as unwelcome or problematic that needs to be dealt with and overcome but wouldn’t necessarily be considered a shock – such as devastating flood – or a stressor.

For example, low yields are a problem. Many farmers deal with low yields as a persistent problem that they may face, which can be caused by a multitude of factors, such as not having enough money to invest in quality inputs that reduces the yield during a harvest season. Low yields can be persistent and a result of many interconnected factors, such as shocks like a draught, combined with low inputs or maintenance. For another example, low income is also a problem. But these examples of problems are not considered shocks nor stressors. It’s important to understand the distinction.

Vulnerability and Growth       

The final part of USAID’s definition of resilience highlights that the ultimate outcome of resilience work is to yield positive results and impacts at all five levels on shared development goals. Agricultural systems, for example, are part of complex social, environmental, and economic systems that all must be thoughtfully considered when developing programming and interventions to strengthen resilience.

Why Resilience?

Now let’s watch a short video from USAID about why we must think about resilience in agriculture. This video reiterates some concepts we have covered so far in this session.

Resilience Framework

Now that we’ve covered USAID’s definition of resilience and broken down the key concepts, we need to understand how these concepts link together. Like the definition of resilience, there are many frameworks used to visualize the conceptual framework of resilience. We will refer here to the framework used by USAID. This framework helps to visualize what we have just learned. The two key points that we always need to consider is that there are both different levels of exposure and different levels of sensitivity.

In any given context, an individual, household, community, or system is exposed to or experiences a disturbance, either shock or stress. At each level, shocks and stressors are experienced or perceived in the different ways, even within a similar context.

The individual, household, community, or system is exposed to these disturbances.

The level of exposure refers to the magnitude and frequency of the shocks or the degree of stress being placed on the individual, household, community, or system. They then draw on their absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacities to respond to the shock or stress. This is typically done by managing livelihood assets and resources or employing different livelihood strategies. Depending on many different factors, they can experience different sensitivities and exposure to the disturbance. For example, these kinds of factors can include types of formal or informal safety nets available, such as insurance or cash savings. Another is geographic exposure, perhaps if a household is in a flood zone compared to one that is not.

The sensitivity of the individual, household, community, or system to the disturbance refers to the degree to which they are or will be affected by, or respond to, a given shock or stress. Depending on the varying exposure to the disturbance, an individual, household, community, or system then makes choices given their varying levels of capacity to respond to the disturbance. This then leads them on pathways towards either more or less resilience, which influences well-being outcomes. The capacities and strategies employed to respond to and recover from the disturbance are reflected in the resulting well-being outcomes.

It’s important to consider that this process is experienced differently at each level.

For example, let’s consider a household that is exposed to a shock or stress. An individual within that household may experience or even perceive the shocks and stresses differently than someone else in the household.

Some individuals within the household also most likely have different access to resources, assets, skills, and strategies to respond to those shocks and stressors. These differences can ultimately affect the pathways an individual may be able to take to respond to the same shock and stressor, leading to different well-being outcomes.

Case Study: Mali

Let’s look at a research study conducted by researchers at the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Initiative. The study titled “Are perception and adaptation to climate variability and change of cowpea growers in Mali gender differentiated?” was published in the Journal of Environment, Development, and Sustainability. Click on the flashing green icon to download the article in full.

This study aimed to determine differences in perception and choice of adaptation strategies employed by men and women cowpea farmers in the Segou region of Mali. 

The results of this study demonstrated that both men and women perceived impacts of climate change similarly. They described climate change as extended periods of drought, shortened periods of rainfall, increased frequency of stronger winds, and increased temperatures. However, even though men and women cowpea farmers perceived similar impacts of climate change, there were differences in how men and women were able to employ strategies to adapt to these impacts.

Specifically, women were low adopters of adaptive strategies, such as crop and varieties-related strategies and soil and water conservation techniques, like contour farming or the use of organic manure, compared to the men farmers in the study. Interestingly, the researchers found that being the household head, individual age, and the availability of free labor positively correlated with the farmer’s ability to adopt adaptive strategies. 

So, in this example, men and women in this study were exposed to similar shocks and stressors as cowpea farmers but had different access to resources and capacities to respond or adapt to those shocks and stressors. Men had higher access to important resources such as free labor in the form of help from family members, extension services, and larger and higher quality plots of land, whereas women farmers were more likely to only receive small plots of lower quality land to grow their cowpeas and could not afford to hire outside labor.

Therefore, women were less able to adopt important adaptive strategies on their cowpea farm compared to men. The study recommended that improving women’s access and control of productive resources such as land and labor would enable improve capacity to adaptation strategies for their farm. This case study serves as an example for how individuals – or household or communities – can experience and be exposed to similar shocks or stressors, but may not have similar capacities to respond to, adapt to, or recover from those shocks or stressors.

Let’s Review

Now that we’ve discussed why resilience is important for agriculture, let’s review what we’ve learned. For each statement, you will indicate if the statement is true or false.


Persistent, low yields is considered a shock that farmers must respond to.


That is correct. The answer is false. Low yields are considered a problem that does need to be dealt with, but they are not time-bound adverse events. However, farmers may experience a drought one season, which is a shock, that causes low yields. In this scenario, the drought is the shock, as it is a time-bound adverse event and the farmer needs to build resilience capacities to respond, adapt, and recover from that event.


USAID’s definition of resilience includes five units: systems, countries, communities, households, and people.


That is correct. The answer is true. Resilience occurs at many levels and USAID takes an approach to understand how resilience is built at each of these levels.


All women experience and respond to shocks in the same way.


That is correct. The answer is false. People have access to different resources, skills, experiences, support, assets, and strategies to adapt, respond, and recover from shocks or stressors. One woman cowpea farmer may have access to assets that another woman cowpea farmer may not have, or a woman maize farmer might have saved more cash than another woman and is therefore better able to absorb a shock. There are so many types of differences and examples. It’s important to remember that shocks and stressors are not experienced in similar ways.


The level of exposure refers to the magnitude and frequency of the shocks or the degree of stress being placed on the individual, household, community, or system.


That is correct. The answer is true. Each individual, household, community or system experiences shocks and stressors differently. We measure this by looking at the level of exposure they have to the disturbance.


This concludes the first session of the resilience sensitization training module. In this session, we reviewed some main definitions, and key terms and concepts related to resilience.

  1. In summary, there are many ways that development organizations define resilience. We focus on USAID’s definition, which is the ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.
  2. Shocks and stressors are different from problems, and require absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities to mitigate, respond to, and recover from.
  3. It’s important to remember that people, households, communities, and systems experience shocks and stresses differently and also employ different resilience capacities as their optimal response. 

Next Steps

Thank you for your participation in the first session of the resilience sensitization module. Please use the buttons below to continue to the next session on why resilience is important in agriculture and crop improvement, or to return to the website of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement.