There are increasing calls for transformation to be considered as a means to address the effects of social, cultural and political conditions on vulnerability when resilience is applied in practice.

Yet transformation does not necessarily lead to more equitable social conditions. Here, we draw on the analytical framework of political capabilities to reveal aspects of the underlying politics of transformation.

Our focus is on the relocation of communities in Tacloban, Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, as an example of a deliberate transformation enacted as part of an integrated development and disaster risk reduction plan.

A household survey, focus group discussions and individual interviews are applied to rank households in terms of their perception of household resilience four years after the disaster. Analysis of the drivers and consequences of differentiation reveals an uneven distribution of resilience among residents, with many facing difficulties despite a focus on livelihoods embedded in the relocation plan.

While some were able to leverage pre-existing human and social capital, others found that the shift from coastal livelihoods left them struggling to find a valued role. Relocation reinforced underlying subjectivities with new layers of meaning, reflecting experiences of success and failure in adjusting to a more commercial culture and cash economy.

The plan sought improvement through commercial opportunities, reflecting the authority and worldview of dominant city and international stakeholders. While the deliberate transformation that followed sought to be just in the distribution of risk and opportunity, poorer residents lacked the political capability to influence the relocation narrative, which in turn overlooked histories of marginalization and the lived experience of the poor.

The case highlights the significance of engaging political capabilities if transformations are to support those in vulnerable communities to make valued life choices.