Deconstructing Notions of Resilience

Exploring coping strategies and resilience in post-conflict Uganda

Hosted by LSE’s Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (completed September 2020)

Principal Investigator: Tim Allen
Co-investigtor: Ryan Joseph O’Byrne
Co-investigtor: Julian Hopwood

Does resilience imply that lives rapidly return to normality once the crisis is over, or that their customs and cultural practices persist following extreme shocks?

The idea that there are socio-cultural-ecological systems that function to make people more or less able to recover from crises has intuitive appeal, and is of great importance for policy design. However, despite its potential as an explanatory concept, ‘resilience’ is a fuzzy notion that can obscure deeply problematic issues in aid delivery. It can shift responsibility onto the victims of war and crisis for their situation.

This research explores how people negotiate, experience and understand their own coping strategies and resilience, as well as how external forces and interventions contribute or detract from these. Drawing upon historical and anthropological approaches, extensive fieldwork will be undertaken in three post-conflict settings in Uganda: pastoralist Karamoja; areas affected by the LRA insurgency; and West Nile, which has hosted multiple waves of refugees from South Sudan. Through focused studies of resilience in these areas, the project aims to provide a body of work which generates fresh ideas for development theory and practice.



Tim Allen

Professor Tim Allen is Director of the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa and the Head of the Department of International Development at LSE. He is currently the PI for the five-year ESRC-funded Centre for Public Authority and International Development.



Julian Hopwood

Julian Hopwood has spent much of his time in Acholiland, northern Uganda since 2006. His research has focused on the reintegration of former combatants in the LRA insurgency, and he is undertaking a doctoral degree at Ghent University on Acholi land.


Photo of Dr Ryan O'Byrne

Ryan Joseph O’Byrne 

Dr Ryan Joseph O’Byrne holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from University College London. His current research investigates the everyday experience of authority and governance among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. 



What is resilience?

Many people in Africa who survive war or famine have been described as resilient. But what does this mean?

The notion of resilience of people in extreme circumstances is not new, and in the last few years it has become a humanitarian and development meme. The image it conveys is of tightly knit, mutually supportive communities sharing diverse assets who are consequently able to recover quickly from shocks or conflict.

Resilience has been attributed a variety of conflicting meanings. Does resilience imply that lives rapidly return to normality once the crisis is over, or that their customs and cultural practices persist following extreme shocks? Is it a feature of individuals or communities or cultures? Is resilience what humanitarian-development processes in practice work with and to advance, or what they work against?

Centred on notions of resilience in relation to the perceptions of the people affected, the research structures resilience around themes of social ordering and well-being. These perceptions are shaped by processes and systems, and the project explores how these processes are understood to support resilience and relate to the internal and external agents.

Aims and objectives

Development programmes often presuppose that where recovery is lacking, a range of strategies can be deployed to restore or build future resilience. However, it is often co-opted by problematically normative agendas, used to disguise the reiteration of ineffective interventions, and can be seen as part of the psychologising of humanitarian-development theory. Nonetheless, in identifying complex social and cultural systems which allow communities to ‘bounce back’, the concept does have potential explanatory force, although these are often not the sorts of practices and beliefs promoted by the international community.

Deconstructing Notions of Resilience therefore aims to make contributions to knowledge by identifying resilient systems. The project seeks to explore the researched populations’ perceptions of their own resilience, rather than through the lens of humanitarian practitioner. This is through understandings of its internally and externally generated components; of change and stasis; and development and continuity.

Evaluations of humanitarian development interventions are almost always specific to particular projects during implementation, or immediately after conclusion. This project instead seeks to understand the views of a population on their own resilience, including questions of how they perceive the value of external interventions to have contributed or not to such resilience.

Research questions

The project will explore issues regarding resilience in the context of gender and patriarchy; in relation to Western and traditional health practices; land access and livelihoods; and public authorities, in particular around the provision of justice and security.

Specifically, the research will address whether populations affected by crises and humanitarian and development interventions have words and concepts in their language and culture that are comparable to notions and definitions of resilience.

If the answer is yes, then:

  • How can the locus of indigenous understandings of resilience be understood, whether by individuals, families, communities or other groupings?
  • What characteristics identify or promote resilience? Are these characteristics innate or acquirable?
  • How do indigenous notions of resilience compare and contrast with those of development actors? Do these notions interact or impact each other?

If the answer is no, then:

  • How do affected communities understand their responses to crises?
  • Have development actors’ ideas of resilience been adopted by sections of affected communities?


The methodology envisions three elements.

The first is aimed to identify literature exploring the theoretical, methodological and empirical debates surrounding the notion of resilience in populations of fragile and conflict-affected spaces, and in humanitarian-development theory and programming – employing both a systematic database search and a bibliographical search.

Secondly, researchers will conduct field research in northern Uganda, a location that offers three quite distinct settings highly relevant to the study of post-conflict resilience: pastoralist Karamoja, areas affected by the LRA insurgency, and West Nile. Through multidisciplinary approaches including anthropology, political science and history the project aims to understand particular systems contributing to post-conflict recovery.

Thirdly, using the products of first and second phases, the project will develop for publication arguments outlining possible useful rules of engagement for the notion of resilience in humanitarian-development discourse, and for policy applications.


  • 'Resilience to ecological change in post-war Uganda can be damaging'. Ponsiano Bimeny. Read the blog post here.
  • 'Confronting ecosystem degradation in post-war northern Uganda'. Ponsiano Bimeny. Read the blog post here.
  • 'Refugees in northern Uganda now have ‘democracy’, but no authority'. Ryan O’Byrne & Ogeno Charles. Read the blog post here.
  • 'The Illegal Economy of Refugee Registration: Insights into the Ugandan Refugee Scandal'. Ryan O’Byrne & Ogeno Charles. Read the blog post here.
  • 'Why children from Karamoja end up begging on the streets of Kampala'. Saum Nangiro. Read the blog post here.
  • 'The Karamojong women and extreme insecurity', Saum Nangiro. Read the blog post here.

See the full blog series here.



The Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa promotes independent academic research and teaching, open and issue-oriented debate, and evidence-based policy making, in partnership with Africa to bring African voices to the global debate.



The Centre for Public Authority and International Development explores how forms of public authority shape and are shaped by interlocking global challenges with risks and opportunities for development and inclusive growth.


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Gulu University in Uganda provides access to higher education and research. It conducts quality professional training for the delivery of appropriate services directed towards community transformation and the conservation of biodiversity.





Logo -The-Rockefeller-Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, policy, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power and economic mobility. It is a science-driven philanthropy focused on building collaborative relationships with partners and grantees, 



Photo credits: Above photo by Ponsiano Bimeny; additional cover page picture by Office of the President, Uganda.