Resilient, durable, or agile? A metaphor for future aid organisations


Much talk is made about resiliency as a social strategy in the face of uncertainty.  But is this the right metaphor for future aid organisations?


Resiliency is an often used term in climate, ecology and social sciences, taken to denote a sense of flexibility or endurance.  The dictionary defines resilience as the ability “to recoil or spring back into shape afterbendingstretchingor being compressed,” or to “be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions the fish are resilient to most infections.”  It is thus often associated with the term flexibility.

A good image of resiliency then is the reed, which can bend in the face of massive pressure and then bounce back into shape. 


The French word for sustainable is durable.  The two terms have something in common; sustainable is often defined as “the ability to maintain a certain level or rate,” while the English word durable can be defined as “the ability to withstand wear, pressure, or damage.”  Thus resistance to change or the maintenance of a current state or form is implied by both.

A good image of durability then, is the oak tree, which can withstand massive amounts of pressure unchanged.


The corporate and private sectors make much use of the term agility, which can be defined as “the ability to move quickly”.  Agile comes from the Latin agilis, meaning “nimble or light, easily moved.”  Agility is thus associated with the concepts of change.  Like resilience, agility is also related to flexibility, but more so in the sense of change or transformation.

A good image for agility then, is the gymnast, who can quickly reconfigure themselves in the face of massive pressure, in a way which balances or relieves this pressure.

Which metaphor is most appropriate for the future of aid?

Given the “perfect storm” we are facing in the coming decade, which is metaphorically equivalent to the “massive pressure” discussed above, which of these three concepts makes the most sense for aid? 

Do we want an aid system that is resilient, i.e., that will be able to bend and flex in the face of stress, and then return back to its current form?  Perhaps, but what exactly is its current form, and isn’t this changing all the time?  Is it possible to hope for some kind of stability in the face of massive change?

Or do we want an aid system that is durable, i.e., resistant to large amounts of pressure and stress, doing its best to maintain its current structure and relationships?  Isn’t this perhaps what we already have, a system resistant to change?  And what happens in the classic children’s story about the Oak and the Reed?

Or finally, do we want an aid system which is agile, i.e., can actually change and transform itself in new ways, like a gymnast, ultimately morphing into some entirely new balance of forces and stress?  Isn’t this perhaps the most desirable metaphor to use?  Doesn’t this take into account the evolutionary, indeed, co-evolutionary nature of the world?  

Which kind of aid system do you want in the future?  Resilient, durable, or agile?

5 Responses to Resilient, durable, or agile? A metaphor for future aid organisations

  1. Isn’t this just semantics?

  2. Noah says:

    Thanks Chris. Indeed this is just semantics to some degree. This was obviously just an exploratory post, playing a bit with words and concepts. Seems irrelevant, right? Perhaps.

    “Semantics” is supposed to be concerned with words and meaning, and meaning and vision is what strategy is supposed to be all about. A lot of these “vision” words get thrown around without consideration of their cause or consequence, so if consultants and communication experts get paid big fees to help NGO’s and aid agencies articulate “their vision”, why shouldn’t we have a bit of fun exploring the implications and nuances of words often used cheaply and then thrown away?

    That was the intention at least. I’ve had several skeptical responses to this post though, so perhaps I missed something. This obviously isn’t the kind of stuff operational budgets and field plans are made of, but I`m surprised people have been so negative about the ideas. Any reason why?

  3. I see your point about playing, but it seemed to promise to go somewhere, and it didn’t. Unless it’s connected to reality in some way, rather than being purely concept and analogy, I can’t see what it actually has to do with development.

    Mind you, I’m likely to say the same about the words of some consultants and “experts”, and there are World Bank documents which IMO commit worse crimes with language.

  4. Noah says:

    Well said Chris. What I didn’t include in the post is that this is just the first in a series of posts to explore the ideas! Next comes a link between complexity, evolution and resilience, then I hope to close with some concrete examples. I don’t want to get people’s hopes up though, because these are still quite preliminary ideas. Anyone have any field examples where these metaphors might be useful? The ones I was planning on using are all mobile-phone, rapid response related.

  5. […] a recent post, “Reslient, durable or agile?  A metaphor for future aid organisations“, Chriswaterguy  suggested that thinking about the meaning of the words we use to define […]

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