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The 'supers' who can predict the future:

Can we learn how to see disaster coming?

  • 17 Mar 17

The ability of forecasters to predict disasters can save lives. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

Blog Post

Start Network's Luke Caley and others talk to Naomi Larsson about the growing use of crisis forecasting to speed up humanitarian response - enabling the Start Fund to intervene before a crisis strikes. Originally published by The Guardian

Tensions were growing in the run up to Burundi’s presidential elections in 2015. The announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would run for a third term – despite the constitutional stipulation that a president may only run for two terms – had triggered protests and violent clashes with armed police. 

As the protests spread, the authorities shut down social media services and private radio stations and thousands began to head over the borders to neighbouring Rwanda. To in-country NGOs, the signs were clear that conflict would break out. And that, they knew, would lead to immediate humanitarian need.

Organisations began to alert the Start Network, a collection of NGOs who manage a multi-donor fund taking radical approaches to humanitarian work, about the prospect of a crisis. It seemed possible that, by anticipating the problem, they would have time to prepare and set up projects, including, for example, launching camps in the surrounding countries to host displaced people.

But at this point, according to Luke Caley, the Start Network’s crisis anticipation adviser, “the decisionmakers didn’t have the confidence or information” to release the funds to intervene. “It created more questions than answers,” he says, and by the time the organisations on the ground submitted a second alert and the funds were activated, the conflict had already begun. “It showed that we needed a system around this.”

Slow response costs lives

History shows time and time again that a slow response by NGOs and agencies can be devastating. As a result of the famine that hit Somalia between 2010–12, 260,000 people died yet humanitarian assistance to the country had decreased between 2010 and 2011. Rudi Van Aaken, the deputy head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Somalia team, told the BBC in 2013 that half of the casualties there happened before it was even broadcast as a famine. “[The] main lesson learned is that the humanitarian community should be ready to take early action,” she said. “Responding only when the famine is declared is very, very ineffective.”

Slow response not only costs lives, but money: for example, in the 2004–05 Niger emergency [pdf] the World Food Programme (WFP)’s initial food deliveries in February 2005 cost $7 per beneficiary, but by August when the situation had reached crisis point and the needs were much more severe, the cost per head had risen to $23.

Having a little foresight, especially when it comes to humanitarian crises, could change everything – but is it really possible to anticipate disaster? This was the question the Start Network began to ask. The answer, it turned out, was more positive than they had hoped.

Read the full report on the Guardian

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