Forecasting a crisis: how Start Fund is learning to get ahead

Start Network's Luke Caley looks at how the Start Fund has learned to anticipate - and what's coming next


Time to read: 5 minutes


The Start Network is in the business of solving humanitarian problems, and the Start Fund is one such problem solver.  This is an account of how the Start Fund evolved to anticipate crises, and what we learnt along the way – leading up to new support from the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department.

The Start Fund is the only multi-donor humanitarian pooled fund managed and operated by aid agencies. This has created an environment that encourages non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to strive constantly to improve.  We own the fund collectively, so we naturally want to see it working better than any other financing mechanism.  When we identify a problem with it, rather than complain from the sides we pitch in and work together to create a solution.  The story of how we decided to begin releasing money from the Start Fund in anticipation of crises stemmed from one such problem.  

In the spring of 2015 it was becoming increasingly clear to agencies working in and around Burundi that the forthcoming elections were likely to result in violence and displacement.  Some predicted thousands of refugees would pour into neighbouring countries, unprepared for such an influx of population.  On the basis of this early warning information, Start Members decided to make a plan for action to be triggered at the first sign of civil disturbance.  While discussing that plan, they decided that it would make sense to use money from the commonly owned Start Fund to prepare.

A Start Fund alert was duly submitted to the allocation committee, made up of humanitarian directors from Start Network member agencies.  But there was a problem: the Start Fund was designed to release funding to needs that have already arisen, not to needs that could be forecast. Partly for this reason, the alert was turned down and no money was allocated.  In other words, there was too much uncertainty to release funding ahead of the predicted crisis. 

Rather than take this lying down, members set about creating more certainty around the forecast by gathering information and collaboratively analysing all they knew until they felt they had enough knowledge to generate a second alert.  This time the alert was activated but just as the decision was being taken, violence broke out in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital.  The humanitarians’ forecast had been correct, but had been overtaken by events – so no-one was celebrating.

Since then, the Start Network has been exploring this problem of when to release funding ahead of a foreseeable crisis.  Since September 2015 we have been releasing funding on the basis of a forecast and we have seen some interesting results.  To date, we have had six proper anticipation alerts, including ahead of predicted flooding in Mali and Sri Lanka, a heatwave in Pakistan, and cross-border displacement from South Sudan. 

Each alert is born of the experience of our member agencies in context of the particular countries where they are operate. However some common themes are emerging around collaborative decision making and community engagement.

The example of Sri Lanka is illuminating in terms of the gradual change we are starting to see.  The Start Fund had been alerted to flooding in early 2015 but it was the experiment with an anticipation window for the Start Fund which really triggered some new thinking from the Start members. 

In November 2015, impacts from the strongest El Nino on record was starting to be felt.  In Sri Lanka there were confident predictions of significantly higher rainfall than normal.  Added to this were already worrying signals of rain saturation and land slippages, as well as abnormally high water levels in reservoirs which seemed likely soon to reach capacity.  Triggering the early version of the Start Fund “Anticipation Window” for the first time in November 2015 allowed members (World Vision, Handicap International and Oxfam) to plan ahead of the forecasted impact.  They used a spatial analysis model to identify the most vulnerable communities; to analyse the impact on supply chains for jointly procured items; and to mobilise communities to carry out low-cost advanced preparedness actions – including cleaning drainage and ensuring communications systems were up and functioning.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, a small amount of funding ahead of a deadly heatwave catalysed an inter-agency process to develop guidelines and common messaging. Start Members worked with local government to ensure services were tailored to the risk, plugging gaps where identified and making sure a referral system was in place.

Of course, problems do persist.  There will always be a degree of uncertainty when making decisions on the basis of a forecast.   To address this, we have created an inter-agency forum called Forewarn which brings together scientists (supply-side) and frontline responders (demand-side) to create clear feedback loops on the information needed to trigger early action. 

We also recognise that this is a new way of working for many organisations.  To address this, we will generate guidance from our experience and co-create interventions for hazards that would make sense within the normal 45-day limit for activities supported by the Start Fund.

Finally, we are acutely aware of the perceived risk of acting in vain.  We hope that by building a commonly-owned and generated evidence base we can prove conclusively the value of early action, in terms of both lives saved and costs avoided.  We are also seeing that the risk of acting collectively is much lower than the risk of acting alone, thereby incentivising earlier action. 

The European Commission’s humanitarian aid department is supporting this development of the Start Fund’s capacity.  By enabling a two-year period of risk-tolerant experimentation we will be able to unleash the power of creativity across the Start Network.  That began with a launch event in Bonn today (Wednesday 30 November).  Now we hope our members will join one another on our journey, as we identify problems to solve through collaboration, iteration and innovation.  

Read news story on launch of Start Fund Anticipation Window