Strengthening the resilience of developing country urban areas is an imperative. The stakes are high and growing even higher: Worldwide, an estimated 1.4 million people move into urban areas each week. This growing urban population is ever more vulnerable to a range of disasters, which together are estimated to cause average annual global losses of US$314 billion.

The World Bank Group invests heavily—between $6 billion and $7 billion each year­—to assist clients to create sustainable cities and communities that are increasingly green, livable, inclusive, resilient, and competitive. These investments range from urban infrastructure such as transportation and flood protection, to strengthening local government capacity to deliver services, to enabling cities to modify their regulatory environment to attract investments.

The World Bank Group also supports countries as they deal with chronic stress including crime and violence, refugees and internally displaced people, and a growing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters because of the effects of climate change.

In light of the significant lending to urban areas, the World Bank Group is in the process of developing an institutional framework or process to understand and assess how such innovations contribute to building resilience within urban systems over time.

For emerging economies to succeed in fashioning the resilience of their cities—to cope, recover, adapt, and transform in the face of shocks and chronic stressors—governments and lending institutions must learn to identify interventions that contribute to this resilience and to track the progress of these interventions. This will allow them to identify and strategically address the most critical risks to cities.

What Works to Make Cities More Resilient? Watch this brief video to find out.


The link between accountability and resilience 

The World Bank Group’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) recently built on the Bank’s accumulated knowledge and extensive literature associated with disaster risk management to develop a two-part framework for assessing urban resilience, at the levels of both Bank operations and urban systems. IEG carried out this exercise for a recent evaluation, Building Urban Resilience, which examines the Bank’s support for resilience in urban areas during the period 2007–17.

At the level of World Bank Group operations, the evaluation framework uses resilience characteristics empirically derived from the literature on resilience and urban systems to assess their relative incorporation in urban projects across three of the Bank’s Global Practices (Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience; Transport; and Water). The resilience characteristics are robustness, inclusion, redundancy, and reflectiveness.

At the level of urban systems, IEG’s evaluation developed a model to assess the World Bank Group’s contributions to urban resilience along a continuum of four stages: awareness raising, coping, adapting, and transforming (ACAT). 

ACAT - A Model for Assessing the Development of Urban Resilience

Awareness-raising at several levels within an urban system identifies risks and shocks in a timely way, enhances knowledge and preparedness, and supports resilient actions and behaviors.

Coping systems withstand critical shocks and provide essential functions, allowing for recovery over time.

Adapting encourages behavioral and institutional changes from learning and reflection on past experiences, which allows urban systems to withstand a spectrum of shocks and chronic stressors.

Transforming adapts policies and investments so that an urban system can absorb or avert shocks and stressors. Transformative behavior unlocks suppressed economic and social potential, including multi-use infrastructure, risk-sensitive land-use planning, and cohesive social policies.



How the ACAT model could help build accountability

Broadly, there are three types of World Bank Group approaches that are useful in identifying interventions that contribute to urban resilience and in tracking the progress of these interventions:

Pragmatic, “no regrets” approaches address urban risks, but lack awareness and institutional learning. For example, short-term fixes such as dredging to address urban flooding enable cities to cope, but do not encourage them to adapt, unless there is a sustained phased approach that is supported by local capacity and strong political commitment. No-regret approaches are often the only option in politically constrained environments, but to move them up to the next stage of resilience building, these efforts could be better positioned within a broader resilience-building strategy (for example, by combining city-level dredging activities with environmental grant finance to improve the larger watershed).

The City Strength Diagnostic (CSD) process pilot program has been implemented in Can Tho, Vietnam; Accra, Ghana; and Addis Ababa and secondary cities in Ethiopia. It has been effective at both identifying and raising awareness about urban system resilience risks, and also at facilitating a coordinated approach between the Bank’s Global Practices and within city governments. For example, Can Tho is adopting long-term planning processes between departments (“breaking the silos”). The city is also reducing flood risks through a system of reclaiming land from the sea and is using transportation to guide growth to elevated areas. However, the CSD pilot has not been scaled up.  Viewing this approach through the lens of the ACAT model, we find that such interventions help cities identify and build awareness and adapt to risks associated with sea-level rise; however, the approach must be scaled to realize its potential to be truly transformative.

Sector-led, programmatic approaches have contributed to resilience outcomes and provide useful operational lessons. They have included incremental upgrades of the Transmilenio public transport system in Bogotá, Colombia, and integrated approaches to flood protection in Chongqing, China and Can Tho, Vietnam. The assessed programmatic approaches were informed by robust diagnostics; addressed major constraints; and were adapted to changing circumstances through iterative learning, disruption, and project adjustments. One example is the multisector initiative Barrio Ciudad in Honduras. The World Bank Group helped communities living in isolated areas, without public services and overwhelmed by crime and violence, to make key safety changes to their environment, such as installing public lighting and managing the number of entry and exit points in neighborhoods. The results of an impact evaluation show that more residents of targeted neighborhoods felt safe when compared with control groups. These interventions contribute to urban resilience, but it is not known if the outcomes are resulting in systemic changes in coping, adapting or transforming urban systems.

The need for greater urban resilience is urgent. How countries respond will define the extent to which they succeed in reducing their level of poverty and increasing their shared prosperity. The ACAT model provides a useful guide to define the extent to which resilience is being built along a continuum.  This is especially relevant in formulating development objectives of projects and programs. By clearly stating to what extent resilience is being strengthened, stakeholders can work together and be held to account toward a common and shared goal.  Within the ACAT model, it is necessary to go further and specify resilience standards that provide security to stakeholders on the strength of not only critical infrastructure, but the urban system as a whole.

Read IEG's evaluation | Building Urban Resilience: An Evaluation of the World Bank Group’s Evolving Experience (2007-2017)