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Humanitarians and academics come together to tackle tough decisions

  • by Sarah Klassen
  • 18 Oct 18

Panel discussion during UN Economic & Social Council’s Humanitarian Affairs Segment 2018

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As a humanitarian network, we make difficult decisions. We make these decisions quickly, and regularly. Our name, ‘Start’, tells you something about who we are: we get aid on the ground within 72 hours of deciding to intervene- right at the start of a crisis or in anticipation of a crisis. We aren’t shy about our niche and mandate. The Start Fund is the fastest, collectively-owned, early response mechanism in the world. With humanitarian needs far outweighing humanitarian aid available, determining how our network prioritises our resources is of the utmost importance. 

Since the Start Fund’s inception in 2014, our network has come together over 270 times to make decisions about life-saving aid. Our decision-makers wrestle through questions like: ‘Should we allocate Start Funds to this particular humanitarian crisis? How much funding should we release? What if the crisis doesn’t unfold as predicted?’ If funding is made available, humanitarians meet on the ground to decide which projects should be funded. It’s worth re-emphasising, all of this happens within 72 hours of an alert being signalled to the network. Most of these decisions have certain levels of uncertainty, where it’s not possible to know how the crisis will unfold. This holds especially true when making decisions about anticipation alerts, when a humanitarian crisis has been forecasted, but hasn’t yet materialised.

This is why the Start Network initiated a partnership with the ‘Challenging Radical Uncertainty in Science, Society and the Environment’ (CRUISSE) Network. CRUISSE brings together academics from disciplines in mathematical, physical, psychological, social and other sciences to better understand and help practitioners, like us, who must make tough choices.

Dr. Tobias Pforr, a CRUISSE member from the University of Warwick, worked with the Start Network from October 2017 to May 2018, to research the decision-making processes of the Start Fund. The goal was simple: to improve our decision-making. Dr. Pforr worked with the network to minimize the influence of the biases of individual decision-makers, to maximize the informational basis on which collective decisions are made, and to help decision makers navigate the difficulties associated with decision making under uncertainty.  

As part of this project, Dr. Pforr provided a training module inspired by the Delphi method,  and worked with the Start team to better learn from previous decisions in order to adapt and improve future decision-making   A key outcome of the project was a guidance note for decision-makers on how to navigate uncertainty effectively. The note provides practical approaches and recommendations for decision-makers. Moving forward, this guidance note will be incorporated into all Start Fund inductions for decision-makers.

Navigating uncertainty effectively is ultimately about the mindset with which individuals approach a problem. The Start Network is committed to help and enable its members to navigate the difficulties of decision making under uncertainty. Ultimately, we want to develop our decision-making to increase both the speed and effectiveness of humanitarian aid- so that it best serves the most vulnerable people around the world. 

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  • by Sarah Klassen