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The Start Fund’s 400th Alert

Knowing when to act

  • by Christine Murphy
  • 27 Jan 20

A recipient of the ActionAid food distribution in Nalolo, Western Region, Zambia. Photo credit: ActionAid Zambia


Blog Post

The drought in Southern Africa has been ongoing since the start of the lean season in October 2018 and has consistently grown in scale and severity. This ongoing crisis means that a record number of Southern Africans have been affected by drought - 45 million people were estimated to be experiencing critical levels of food insecurity at the end of 2019 - and the cumulative consequences of the climate-related natural disasters (including drought, cyclone, and flooding) that have hit Zambia.

It was in this context that ActionAid – in consortium with other Start Network members: HelpAge International, World Vision, and Save the Children – raised the Start Fund’s 400th alert, aiming to respond to multiple rural communities in the Western Region of Zambia which had yet to be reached by a comprehensive or sufficient response.

Zambia has experienced this crisis on multiple levels, with the drought causing livelihood, health, protection, and educational issues, in addition to the ongoing food and water insecurity. There has been significant funding committed to various regions in Zambia by UN agencies, the UK's Department for International Development, and the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit.

However, the consortium of Start Network members identified rural areas which had either not been included through detailed needs assessments, or where the location of a food-distribution site was out of a population’s reach. The alerting Start Network members raised the alert to fill the gap left by other agencies in their responses, aligning the alert to the Start Fund remit in doing so. 

The Start Fund’s niche

After careful consideration by the relevant member decision-makers, the Start Fund was not activated this time. While localised and detailed gaps had been identified, it was felt that Start Funding - through a 45-day project – would not be an effective or appropriate response, as the scale of the crisis was one for which other funding mechanisms should step up and act. While the alerting member agencies in Zambia had identified a specific gap, the overall drought was not deemed to be viable for the Start Fund’s key focus areas of underfunded small to medium scale crises; spikes in chronic humanitarian crises; and crisis anticipation.

This alert reflects the difficulty in allocating funds to some types of crises, as well as the nuanced decisions that Start Network members must make. The Start Fund received 44 drought and flooding-related alerts in 2019, in comparison to 25 in 2018, and 29 in 2017.

However, climate crises can extend for years and in wider regional contexts, as has the drought in Zambia – for which the 400th alert was raised. Short-term responses also rarely cover the food-insecurity timeline that can occur between harvest periods and effective programming to improve food-security standards, as they would extend well beyond 45 days.

Early action is needed to tackle such crises. With a typical humanitarian response, time spent identifying beneficiaries and conducting needs assessments can delay action. By the time a humanitarian drought response typically begins, the impact has already been significant, and the response may be intrinsically ‘late’.

The value of early action

That is not to say that the Start Fund is an inappropriate mechanism for drought crises; within the Start Fund and the wider financing mechanisms in the Start Network, much focus and emphasis is placed on the value of early action in food-insecurity situations. In the summer of 2019, the Start Fund was activated in anticipation of drought in Nicaragua.

The resulting projects allowed three agencies to provide resilience and food-insecurity activities to communities in areas where low crop yield had been predicted, due to effective forecasting and monitoring. The response and presence of humanitarian operations ensured that even after the programming had effectively finished, there was constant monitoring of the situation, ready to respond should the supplied crops fail also.

Even had the 400th alert been raised by the ActionAid consortium as an anticipation alert, however,  it still would have been a difficult crisis to which the Start Fund could respond; due to its ongoing and gradual nature, there was never a clear “spike” identified in worsening conditions. The initial drought in 2018 was predicted, however, by the FAO as an El Niño event. While the scope of the crisis would have eclipsed the niche of the Start Fund, anticipatory and early action by other institutions may have mitigated some of the risks and impacts of this protracted crisis.

Filling the gaps in the humanitarian financing

In a context of increasingly frequent and severe climate emergencies, Start Network is investigating and piloting other financing methodologies – such as drought risk financing and the African Risk Capacity Replica Programme – as wider adoption of early and pre-emptive action is becoming increasingly more urgent. In recognition of this evolving context, Start Network is also developing a global financing facility, which will house appropriate funding mechanisms for different types of crises, each prioritising a specific niche to limit and reduce funding gaps. This has been informed not only through members’ experiences with the Start Fund, but also through a mapping exercise of humanitarian funding streams that Start Network commissioned the Overseas Development Institute to develop. This study indicated significant gaps in the current conventional humanitarian financing system, and it is these gaps that the new financing facility and the tools within it, will aim to fill.

The impact of the Start Fund

While the Start Fund’s remit did not extend to the scope of this alert, we cannot understate the achievements of the Fund as it reaches its 400th alert. 2019 was a bumper year for the Start Fund, disbursing more than 17 million GBP, up from 12 million in 2018 – we also saw several first-time activations in various regions (Paraguay, Bolivia, Haiti, and Iraq) indicating the Fund’s growth in size and relevance. The fund not only responded to highly localised emergencies, but also to spikes in chronic ongoing crises, and the Start Network’s members’ constant aspiration towards innovation and accountability is increasingly reflected in well-coordinated and pro-active alerting. The scope and take-up of anticipation alerts are growing, with more and wider anticipation alerts being submitted and a visible commitment from members to support this.

As the Start Fund continues to grow – and other financing instruments are developed and piloted throughout the Network – we hope that the humanitarian sector’s prioritisation of localisation, early action, and accountability grow with it, encouraging less reactive and more ambitious crisis response methodologies.

Learn more about Start Fund.

Learn more about Start Financing Facility.

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  • by Christine Murphy