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Start Evolves: A platform approach to early action and transformative change

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Start Network's Luke Caley sets out a vision for early action in humanitarian crises, and the platform that could provide the capability needed to take it to scale.

Imagine it is August 2022.  Another month of record-trumping heat.  Worse still, nano-satellite imagery has picked up a prolonged lack of rainfall in the north of the country, at a crucial moment in the growing season. 

We have an open risk model that combines variables such as recorded and forecasted temperature, rainfall and soil moisture, with information about which crops are planted where. It gives an estimate of the impact on crop productivity for vulnerable communities.  Put another way, the computer says it’s looking bad. 

An automated alarm has been sent to field staff from Start Network agencies working in that part of the country to investigate conditions and check in with communities. 

We know which organisations are working there, the networks of local groups they collaborate with, their expertise and office capacity. Even so we’ll check in with HQs to update our dashboard, so that Start Network organisations big and small can make use of their analysis and planning.

Combining these hazard, vulnerability and capacity indicators will give Forewarn analysts the data needed to set the Start Network forecasting and response recommendations process in motion.  

At this point there’s not enough certainty to trigger an automatic payout from the index-linked national financing facility but, taking a quick look at the initial data, we see there is a 65% chance of a recommendation to activate the national Start Fund. 

We realise there are still all the usual pragmatic considerations around funding status, government actions and longer term strategy for the allocation committee to take into account before the decision is taken, but at least the wheels are in motion early enough to make a real difference. 

Does the above sound possible?  More importantly, does it sound desirable?  If the answer to those questions is a heavily caveated ‘yes’, then please read on.  

The future of international aid

Let’s assume that a networked, localised, relational ecosystem which acts collaboratively on the basis of a shared understanding of risk would be a good thing.  And let’s also assume that Start’s members are able to take on board the challenges identified in the Future of Aid report and make investments to ensure their relevance and value continues into that imagined future.  What kinds of investments do we need to make now in order to enable this vision to become a reality?

As part of the big picture being sketched out through the Start Evolves process, the need for a platform to facilitate learning and connections across the ‘network of networks’ is becoming increasingly clear. But what would that platform do and what services could it provide? 

Creating value through platforms

Let’s start by outlining what we might mean by a platform here.  The word means many things to different people, it could mean a meeting, a website, not to mention a regrettable choice of footwear.  When we use the word we are talking about bringing distinct groups together to achieve something no single organisation can achieve alone. All participants benefit from a network effect, because the platform enables seamless exchanges between the different parts. 

Costs fall because of economies of scale; value increases as more connections and exchanges are made.  Examples of platforms (or two-sided markets) include malls, which link consumers with retail outlets by providing a space with parking and toilets; or credit card companies, which set standards, provide handsets as a trusted means to communicate between card holder, vendor and bank. Technology has accelerated the move towards platforms and there are lessons we can learn as we think about the design of an adaptive network of civil society actors. 

If we reflect on how variegated the landscape of civil society is now, and how challenging it is sometimes to make sense of it, perhaps it becomes clearer what a platform would do.  By participating in the network, our members will be able to leverage their investments in improving the delivery of services by reaching a greater range of users.   For example where we collectively identify excellence we can use the platform to spread this to a bigger group of users.  By reducing duplication we increase our ability to focus on what we do best, including saving lives and livelihoods.  A platform approach enables our members to collaborate on transformative approaches to humanitarian action, catalysing change in the system much more quickly than by acting alone.  

Forewarn for early action

The Forecast-based Warning, Analysis and Response Network, or Forewarn, is one example of what a global platform can provide.  The core group, which includes early warning experts from our members as well as forecasting and scientific advisors, provides a technical advisory function for the crisis anticipation window of the Start Fund.  The wider group, which includes academics, risk modellers, Red Cross, UN agencies and donors, meets on a monthly basis to tackle issues holding back early action in the humanitarian system. This group can aggregate the expertise of its members and amplify that capability across the network.

Last year, we organised a session to look at various approaches to context analysis to encourage earlier collective action.  We reviewed approaches put forward by Start members World Vision, International Rescue Committee and Action Against Hunger, as well as our partner ACAPS.  As a result of that collective sense-making, Forewarn was able to recommend the use of World Vision’s multi-stakeholder scenario-building tool. In July this year members used that tool, supported by the Analysis for Action grant, and then an anticipatory alert of the Start Fund, led to a collective engagement action plan to mitigate the risk of harm and loss ahead of the Kenyan elections.

In the last Forewarn meeting we discussed what a platform for enabling early action might look like.  We agreed on a number of goals which we think are needed to reorient humanitarian response to early action. The goals included;

  • creating open risk and forecasting data initiatives,
  • establishing a commonly owned capability to support contingency planning in-country
  • developing mechanisms that trigger financing,
  • building the capacity of organisations to use risk and forecasting information to act earlier. 


We recognise that there is a network effect that comes from working together to address this intractable development challenge. That is why we draw on resources from the research community, as well as a growing sophistication of financing and early warning initiatives. 

Forewarn could become one of the core services which underpin the Start Network’s aim to catalyse positive change in the humanitarian system.  Other services might include a collective approach to due diligence, solving one of the key obstacles to localisation; or an adaptive management service which enables a shift towards context-sensitive programming to take root; or a data transparency platform, built on a blockchain, which leads to radical transparency for aid spending. 

As Paula Gil Baizan writes in her perceptive blog on platforming for NGOs, “companies are no longer organised in a linear value chain model to transform inputs into outputs. They are networks that generate high value transactions between their members.” 

This is our direction of travel, and now is the moment to pitch in ideas, energy and enthusiasm to guide us on our way.   

Read more about Start Evolves.

Read more about crisis anticipation.

Keep reading:

Start Evolves Anticipation

  • by Luke Caley

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