Global Development Institute Blog

By Joanne Jordan

 Social capital is becoming increasingly recognised as having a key role in enhancing resilience to climate stress. Joanne Jordan, Lecturer in Climate Change and Development at IDPM, considers in a paper recently published in Climate and Development, the relative importance of different types of social capital for enhancing resilience, by exploring how relationships of exchange and reciprocity influence responses to climate stress in South-west Bangladesh. Specifically, she identifies four types of social capital-based support (with monetary support as a subset) and the interlinkages among the types (and processes) of social capital with diverse effects on resilience to climate stress.

Resilience is increasingly becoming the new buzz word. It is top of the policy agenda with a number of government and non-government agencies increasingly relating resilience to climate change. Climate change researchers have highlighted that resilient communities can better withstand ‘disturbances’, self-organise and learn and adapt to change when required. While it may seem obvious that a resilient system is less vulnerable than a non-resilient one, such reasoning is overly simplistic and under-emphasises the complexity of the relationship between resilience and vulnerability. Therefore, my paper in Climate and Development, presents a continuum of resilience – reactive to proactive.

Vulnerable house 1House reconstructed after Cyclone Sidr, Kolatola, Bangladesh © Joanne Jordan

Reactive resilience focuses on strengthening the status quo and creating resistance to change, thus it can strengthen the current political and government regime or trajectory of change, as it involves actions and activities that occur within existing structures. In contrast, proactive resilience emphasises the inevitability of change and aims to establish a system that is able to adapt to new circumstances (Walker et al., 2002). This is an important broadening of the traditional interpretation of resilience, which focuses on persistence and robustness of the system. This highlights that resilience allows for the advancement of the state through flexibility to experiment, learn and adopt innovative solutions and transform (Walker et al., 2002).

This continuum of resilience can be further enriched by including social capital. Social capital does not necessarily increase resilience (in particular proactive resilience). Figure 1 suggests that bonding social capital is most often used for reactive action, while a diversity of types of social capital is used in more forward-looking adaptation. Therefore, when examining the linkages between social capital and resilience, it is important to consider how different types of social capital affect the nature of resilience. Specifically, I identify four types of social capital-based support (with monetary support as a subset) that can enhance resilience to climate stress in Kolatola and South Kainmari (Mongla Upazila, under Bagerhat district in South-west Bangladesh).

  • Informal monetary (bonding social capital): e.g. credit and lending arrangements between family, friends, neighbours and moneylenders.
  • Formal monetary (bonding and bridging social capital): e.g. NGO based microcredit.
  • Informal nonmonetary (bonding social capital): e.g. food lending arrangements between family, friends and neighbours.
  • Formal nonmonetary (bonding bridging and linking social capital): e.g. NGO and government allocation and distribution of relief.

While the case study evidence highlights that informal monetary support (i.e. bonding social capital) can provide important short-term strategies to cope with climate stress, it has limited potential to create proactive resilience, as these networks often provide low levels of monetary support and/or inflexible lending arrangements (sometimes exploitative) unlikely to provide sustained gains in the long term.

In contrast, formal monetary support in the form of NGO-based microcredit is enabled by strong circuits of bonding and bridging social capital; bonding is needed because it enhances the necessary trust on which financial exchange is based and bridging because it permits access to outside sources of capital. Formal monetary support seems to have greater potential to enhance proactive resilience. For example, microcredit can create opportunities to diversify into non-climate sensitive economic activities, which can reduce the direct impact of climate stress on a household’s livelihood, and/or enable borrowers to cope with climate impacts through an increased ability to recoup their losses. However, the evidence establishes that microcredit is largely limited to providing short- or medium-term coping strategies due to three key factors identified in the case study: lack of outreach; loan default and increased debt and supply barriers and credit alternatives.


Figure 1: Social Capital-based Support for Enhancing Resilience  Source: Jordan (2014)

The case study also highlights the potential of informal non-monetary support (i.e. bonding social capital) for enhancing reactive resilience, particularly when there is a lack of access to networks providing significant monetary support. While the evidence highlights that such forms of support do not enhance proactive resilience, they can provide important sources of coping in the immediate and/or short-term with more flexible lending arrangements compared to moneylending. In contrast, access to formal non-monetary support in the form of NGO and government relief is dependent on bonding, bridging and linking social capital. This type of support can provide important sources of coping with the impacts of climate stress in the short term (e.g. food relief), and has the potential to enhance more proactive forms of resilience, through support to rebuild homes, particularly if this involves assistance to build houses that are more resistant to cyclones and floods. However, the evidence highlights that the ability to access and capitalise on this institutional support is constrained by uneven power relations at the local level.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasise that the four types of social capital-based support evident in the case study areas should not be interpreted as being mutually exclusive. Rather, each type is connected and can represent a progressive circuit, whereby each element reinforces each other to create more integrated strategies of resilience (type f identified in Figure 1), or can act as an impediment for enhancing resilience (particularly proactive resilience). For example, one interviewee (#16) explained that her household is excluded from familial, kinship and community- based forms of support (type a). Her household does not have access to microcredit (type e) due to a lack of economic capital to pay membership fees and to repay the loan. Similarly her household does not have access to informal monetary support (type c) as they are unable to assure the lender that they can repay the loan and reciprocate exchanges when necessary in the future. While the interviewee highlighted that they had access to relief after Cyclone Sidr in 2007, this was limited due to a range of factors, including lack of connection to informal and formal leaders involved in allocating and distributing relief; lack of economic capital to pay bribes to access relief and a lack of connection to NGOs providing relief compared to those village inhabitants who were members of NGO microcredit groups. While they had access to informal food lending (type b), this was limited to inflexible lending arrangements where food could only be borrowed for very short time periods, which led to the household taking overlapping food loans, using one food loan to repay another food loan. Furthermore, access to this type of support was then further limited within the household, with food prioritised to particular members of the family (i.e. with elderly widows more likely to be ‘starved’).

My paper highlights a complex causality implicit in social capital-resilience relations; however, it also indicates their mutually reinforcing quality. While the case study emphasises the importance of maintaining a diversity of types of social capital-based support (with monetary support as a subset) for building proactive resilience, the poor’s strongest networks are commonly with their family or kin. The potential of these networks to enhance resilience to uncertain future climate change must not be overemphasised. While they can provide important sources of coping (albeit limited to reactive resilience), the evidence suggests that there appears to be limited opportunity for such networks to allow people to adapt to stresses, as the level of support these networks can provide is constrained given the socioeconomic and cultural fabric.

Links and Further Information

This blog entry was first posted on on 24 November 2014.

This blog summarises a paper recently published in Climate and Development, which can be found here Alternatively, an open access copy (post-print version) can be found at