While increased emphasis is placed on interactions between natural and human systems, understanding of social components of global environmental change (GEC) remains weak. Concepts of resilience, vulnerability and adaptive capacity become crucial in addressing these dimensions and need to be integrated to enhance our knowledge of consequences and responses to GEC in the context of development. In the past, approaches to GEC often solely focused on managing vulnerability while poor people were categorized as victims of environmental variability, economic exploitation and political marginalization. However, people have capabilities to cope with change and look for risk reduction strategies. A rigid vulnerability focus does not consider these capabilities and ignores levels of resilience and adaptive capacity of communities. A more positive approach is to recognize people as active agents with varying abilities to respond to change, rather than passive victims; thus highlighting resilience as it varies across communities. Resilience is increasingly central to development debates and is a crucial element in determining societies’ response capacities to change. Theoretical frameworks are applied in various contexts, while using a diverse range of definitions. This paper aims to provide an overview of the intellectual foundations of resilience and development; to contextualize resilience as a societal response option to GEC in development; and, focusing on drylands, to discuss its relevance, considering controversies over its definition, strengths and weaknesses. The discussion shows that resilience in development remains a largely elusive concept with weak practical application. There is a need for improved integration of resilience within a multidimensional paradigm that addresses local needs and future change. This is crucial in drylands, where the role of risk needs to be better understood to realize the full potential for development through strengthening human adaptive capacity. A resilience approach to development is suggested to enhance the appreciation for the interactions of societal responses to GEC within the context of development. It offers an adaptive and interdisciplinary view, while strengthening community participation and empowerment towards sustainable pathways out of poverty.