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Can humanitarians really forecast man-made disasters?

A tool for context analysis and scenario planning

  • by Sarah Klassen
  • 21 May 19

Refugee camp in Goma, the DRC. Image:

Blog Post

Start Network members forecast conflict and displacement in Burundi.

On 25 April 2015, the ruling political party in Burundi announced that the incumbent President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, would run for a third term in the 2015 presidential election. The following weeks saw violence, demonstrations and displacement across the country. By 18 May, the UNHCR reported that over 112,000 people had fled the country to seek safety in neighbouring Rwanda, DRC and Tanzania. A deadly cholera epidemic broke out amongst the refugees in Tanzania less than a week later, affecting over 3,000 people.

On 14 April 2015- almost two weeks before the president’s announcement- humanitarian agencies in Burundi alerted the Start Fund about growing tensions on the ground. The relationships that humanitarian agencies had with local actors led them to believe that upcoming violence and displacement was probable. Agencies requested funding to address the escalating risks. At the time, however, Start Fund decision-makers were uncomfortable with the uncertainty of the developing situation. They felt that they did not have enough information about likely future scenarios and potential humanitarian impacts in Burundi to release aid.

The humanitarian community is increasingly taking steps toward a more proactive approach where aid is used to mitigate anticipated harm or loss instead of just waiting and reacting to a crisis after it unfolds. But when existing humanitarian needs still far outweigh the aid that is available, it can be very difficult for decision-makers to navigate the uncertainty involved when releasing aid before a risk escalates into a disaster. To be comfortable releasing aid, decision-makers need robust and timely forecast information which is grounded in local perspectives. In other words, the analysis and forecast information must be ‘good enough’.

Start members in Bujumbura quickly decided to systematise and scale up the information that was being gathered informally by using an inter-agency context analysis and scenario planning tool developed by World Vision called ‘GECARR’ (Good Enough Context Analysis for Rapid Response). The result was an inter-agency analysis which produced likely scenarios and actionable recommendations for NGOs. The tool enables NGOs to act in a more anticipatory way by adapting programming to local conditions in a conflict and context sensitive manner. The analysis was used to alert the Start Fund again in May- this time £450,000 of aid was released to support humanitarian projects that would address the needs that were becoming alarmingly apparent. Some elements of the project aimed to be pre-emptive as the crisis continued to develop.

Since 2015, the Start Network has funded GECARRs in Zimbabwe and Kenya to analyse escalating situations. The analyses have also been used to release humanitarian aid for both response and anticipatory humanitarian interventions.

Can humanitarians really forecast ‘man-made’ disasters?

The Start Fund responds to humanitarian crises caused by a wide-spectrum of hazards- from conflict and displacement to flooding, cyclones, disease outbreaks, and as of last month- even lahar (think volcanic mudflow that can erase virtually any structure in its path). But when the Start Fund began formally and regularly releasing aid in anticipation of crises in 2016, it was a common assumption that our network would only be able to release funding in anticipation of natural hazards. After all, violence, conflict and displacement are too messy, too complicated and too uncertain to forecast and release aid on the basis of those forecasts, right?!

Three years of Start Fund experience and well over 30 Start Fund anticipation alerts has shown us that humanitarian agencies can forecast both ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ crises. There is always a degree of uncertainty involved in any forecast, but we are working with our network to increase our risk appetite and we are building capacity amongst our decision-makers to navigate the uncertainty involved effectively.

Almost a quarter of the anticipation alerts sent to the Start Fund from humanitarian agencies on the ground are forecasting ‘man-made’ disasters. Experience has also shown us that man-made and natural hazards are increasingly converging within the same contexts and more importantly, the lines between what risks are ‘man-made’ or ‘natural’ have always been blurred to begin with.

Building tools to improve humanitarian forecasting

In March, various humanitarian agencies, academics and experienced GECARR practitioners gathered in Harare to consider progress to date on GECARR. The goal was to look at ways the tool can be improved including options for capacity building, further inter-agency collaboration and take up of the tool by external actors. Our network was keen to make any necessary adjustments to the GECARR tool based on identified gaps and lessons learned from past GECARRs.

Following the workshop, the Start Network is releasing a short guidance note on GECARR for humanitarian agencies that are interested in using the tool to better anticipate and adapt to changing contexts.

You can access the GECCARR information document here.

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  • by Sarah Klassen