Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.   

Economic Resilience, for the sake of ease, can be described as the extent to which individuals and wider communities are prepared for the inevitable shocks and fluctuations that occur in every country’s markets.

Save’s intentions around this topic at the moment can be described simply enough, too: how might they best help people, earning the smallest of incomes, better access capital, information and knowledge, in such a way that ultimately contributes to the organisation’s mission of protecting and supporting children?

Do this type of work well, and men and women’s future decision making, and the choices they have about spending money, can be improved in a positive way. Do this really well, and the results also end up having a positive knock on effect on young people looking for ways to earn a dignified living, as well as on children under the age of 18 years old who are then more likely to attend school and live a healthy life.

Easy enough to explain on paper. However, in all things linked to society and the human condition, there are many, many barriers to succeeding in leveling this particular playing field, in terms of everyone having appropriate information, knowledge and means to earn and spend money.

Far from it, we are living in times where economic inequality is one of the single most damaging root causes of poverty and social injustice, affecting all ages and demographics.

Nairobi’s skyline reflects its booming economic development – photo credit: Ade Kurniawan, Save the Children Indonesia

So, in the world’s vast ocean of global market systems, with their inevitable ‘shocks’ (economic upturns and downturns, political uncertainties, civil unrest, not forgetting the catastrophic environmental implications due to climate change) what and how does any entity – whose mission is to serve the poorest and most marginalised – set about addressing these tangled issues?

In the next few hundred words I hope to pinpoint one or two light-bulb moments from our attempts last week to take on this conundrum.

Nobody at our Nairobi meeting was claiming the rights on this as a new subject matter.

Indeed, the concept of Economic Resilience is decades and generations old in its societal lineage – with the acutely debilitating effect of not being economically resilient being felt most by those living on less than $2-3 dollars a day. All of which is well documented.

Indeed, organizing a cross-team two day event such as Save did, you could never manage to tease out every relevant angle and consideration. However, we did come up with some tangible recommendations to help ease the organisation forward a step. And to these I will refer shortly.

First, in an attempt to address this issue of ‘context’ it’s perhaps helpful to be explicit upfront – albeit briefly – so, here goes: there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to growing people’s Economic Resilience, because of the breadth and complexities of the different contexts in which people are living around the world.

That much, it seems to me, is concrete.

A subsistence farmer living outside of Nairobi, for example, needs to be prepared for the fluctuation of prices that the market might offer up when that farmer sells products. That farmer needs the information about possible flux in advance to know what sort of options they have – ie when, and to whom, to sell their products.

Whereas, in a context such as Gaza, whilst similar economic uncertainties exist, the unfolding of a political crisis could be more likely to have an overwhelming impact on a farmer’s livelihood.

Economic Resilience is both an urban and a rural programming priority for agencies like Save the Children

I’ve written here before about my trip to Tigray in Ethiopia a few years ago, that unveiled these market systems influences.

At the time I was there, agencies were scrambling to support the oncoming El Nino drought, when a potentially more severe market crisis – the global oil price drop – was about to cause Saudi Arabian importers of Ethiopian livestock to drastically reduce the prices they were prepared to pay for the exported sheep.

Who is then hit the worst in this paradigm? The local livestock owner. The person least likely to have the information and the knowledge to best anticipate what was coming, and without the right means to make informed decisions about what to do.

Wrapped around these different economic and political shocks (in Kenya, in Palestine and indeed across every country) are dramatically changing weather patterns, which have a bearing everywhere. Even if these transpire as different impacts in different places, the implications of climate change are seismic – not just on agriculture and on fishing, but by association on services, manufacturing, retail, and beyond.

As a final feature to all of this, the concept of preparing for, or responding to, crisis doesn’t, in reality, just happen because of one-off events or discreet changes in a market. These economic, political and environmental trends will never dissipate, however for people earning very little, their daily experiences and responses to all things are made within a constant environment of crisis – one that is pervasive and attached to every facet of that person’s day-to-day living.


So where to start when it comes to reaching people living in poverty or in extreme poverty?

Many International NGOs [INGOs] implement what are known as “graduation” programmes that seek to lift the poorest up, one rung of the economic ladder at a time, by using different types of interventions: from village savings groups and cash distribution, to vocational training, to tackling the patriarchal norms that hold women and girls back from school and in the workplace.

These programmes have proved to work quite well. And yet, without stable and enabling infrastructures and regulations (good schools and medical facilities, for example, or equal opportunities for girls and boys to attend school, and go on to receive equal opportunities in the workplace) without these, and without appropriate knowledge about how to invest and save the money you make, all too easily people fall back into debt.

So. Without an off-the-shelf magic solution to the variety of crises out there, last week we discussed graduation programming and a slew of other models and tried and tested programming. From this we drew up a more practical list of what Save should be focusing on and how Save should be working on this topic – and this list, understandably, needed to be appropriate across many contexts and situations.

Unsurprisingly, as Save colleagues learnt from one another, we opened up a Pandora’s box of issues and underlying reasons why so many millions of people remain in poverty, and remain ill-prepared to financially cope, not just with day-to-day survival, but with the many hazards which lie waiting around the corner.

malawi flip
Sharing out experiences from programming in Malawi.

By the end of Friday, our deep diving and prioritising of the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ surfaced the makings of a set of robust ideas and thoughts on a formula that Save can adopt more broadly across its multi-country programmes, and its many thousands of staff.

This will, of course, take time to operationalise and, like other INGOs who work in this space, part of the success going forward will be for Save not to attempt to work everywhere, and on all things.

Instead, pinning its commitment to a combination of specific contexts, the organization will then need to stick to a system of how to do this, and design from here an overall approach.

Sounds simple. However, for every NGO invested in Economic Resilience programmes, there will always be “foundational” elements to consider, as part of the design and implementation, and which simply cannot be de-prioritised.

Elements, in Save’s case, that focus on such things as child protection, and which address other underlying causes of child poverty directly.

This means that any Save formula must incorporate components that improve gender equality, and which include and engage adolescents, people with disabilities, and address the social and cultural norms that contextually affect all of these elements.

Connected to this, the core policy and programme work necessary to enhance “social protection” – a subject which deals with improving the conditions within labour markets and reducing people’s social risks (eg because of such things as unemployment, sickness, disability, or old age) – is paramount.

And so our list builds, and the resulting robustness of any operational ‘formula’ is tested to the max.


Given the complexity of these elements, and the varying operating contexts, for me a first “light-bulb” from the week then was about simplification.

Breaking complexity down into bite-sized pieces, examining these, before putting these pieces back together in a form that keeps things as practical as possible.

In this, we also concluded that collaboration and partnerships were crucial.

Many coalitions of NGOs, and cross-sector platforms, are already established, in response to the reality that organisations must combine forces to tackle issues of this magnitude.

The Sustainable Development Goals up until 2030 are, as you would expect, arranged in a way that helpfully maps out these same elements and issues, and calls for a collaborative approach in finding solutions that will sustain.

Economic Resilience is well in this mix right now – perhaps due to it being current sector ‘parlance’, or because it has genuinely helped NGOs deliver results and innovate. An example here being some organisations introducing ways to adapt project work during implementation, all because of the increasingly predictable changes in the market systems and the effects they have on project outcomes.

Another innovative technique used by organisations has been to integrate their programme themes more purposefully. Combining nutrition projects with education ones, for example – a simple enough idea, but powerful in terms of actually fusing different thematic areas of expertise together, across the design, management and measurement of the work.

Some sector-wide innovations have evolved also, such as the concept of programming in the Nexus – the realm where humanitarian relief and longer term development projects overlap.

Overall, recognising the existence of these many enabling features  – collaboration, partnerships, integrated and adaptive programming – within our group last week (whether they be actual light-bulb moments, or reinforcements of things we’ve known about for a while) was a great start…

“100% of me is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team.” Inspiring words from Eluid Kipchoge and an inspiring Save team! Photo credit: Ade Kurniawan

The discussions were then further enriched by the contributions from an external panel, at which representatives from Wasafiri Consulting and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] joined Save’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, and gave their perspectives on the topic.

Drawing from these served to energise our thinking. In particular, Fiona Napier from Wasafiri spoke to us about the decision she feels INGOs need to make about focusing not just on the individuals we are seeking to help, but on the wider institutional Systems – engaging with governments and the private sector on trade and policy positions, for example.

Furthermore, the panel challenged us on the need for NGOs to more deliberately step into the fray with the Large Corporations. From International Labour Organisation [ILO] standards on gender based violence in the workplace, through to climate smart agriculture regulations, there are a myriad of roles and responsibilities over which large companies have a significant bearing. And all impact on this debate.

It’s more apparent, than ever before, that INGOs must seek to influence in these spaces.

This then produces challenging dilemmas for social development organisations: to what extent do you invest, for example, in reaching and helping more individuals directly, rather than placing resources into advocacy and campaigning initiatives?

Can and should Save and their peers do both of these things? Or, at the very least get better at collaborating and sharing out the roles and responsibilities amongst one another?

For me, it’s the latter tactic that would be best to pursue.

Save shouldn’t drop its direct programming work, nor should it reduce its advocacy efforts. As Cyril Ferrand from the FAO explained, what a UN agency such as his is looking for in the future, are partner organisations who are willing to step up and unite behind common policy causes, and who can be trusted to sometimes take risks when it comes to collaborating on issues of such magnitude.

Courageous decision making, breaking out of departmental and programming silos, and partnering with the private sector: each of these things have to be taken on more directly and more seriously by all INGOs, that much is crystal clear.

And, were that state of affairs to transpire, then the reality is that many INGOs and organisations working on this topic do already have the tools and resources to design and implement Economic Resilience projects.

The granular details of what and how they deliver on this are almost irrelevant because there are, it is abundantly clear, billions of people whose needs and wants are not being satisfied.

In order to be economically resilient, everyone needs access to the right information, knowledge and capital, combined with the necessary skills and capacities to make choices and decisions about their money. Wherever you live and whatever you do.

From Kenya’s pastureland, to its burgeoning urban centres, the picture is remarkably the same. Just as it is all over the globe.

There is no monopoly that any one agency can possibly have here.

Sundowners time. Westlands, Nairobi.



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