The New Humanitarian | What are the challenges to anticipatory action in the aid sector?


More than 75 governments and 60 aid agencies, international financial institutions, and private-sector companies have committed to acting early to mitigate the effects of crises, making new pledges of anticipatory financing and programming worth tens of million of dollars at a conference last week on anticipatory action. 

Opened by the UN Secretary-General and moderated by The New Humanitarian, the event signalled a new urgency in the push for anticipatory action, the practice of providing financing and aid activities based on risk triggers to mitigate the effects of a disaster before it hits.

For some, this marks a turning point. 

“There’s a real, real change,” Dirk-Jan Omtzigt, chief economist at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told The New Humanitarian in an interview after the conference. “Anticipatory action has always been niche and technical. Now it’s moving into the mainstream… It’s now being embraced by the community at large.” 

Christina Bennett, CEO of the Start Network, an NGO consortium that has piloted the use of anticipatory approaches in various countries, added, “This is a truly important moment for the anticipation agenda.”

Anticipatory action is one of the latest buzzwords of the humanitarian response sector. The thinking is simple: If you can plan for the disaster before it hits, you can save more lives and save money. 

It may sound obvious, but anticipatory action is also ambitious: It is a completely different way of operating and requires a real shift in mindset toward how the international community approaches crises. 

“We need to do humanitarian aid differently.”

The stakes are high: Acting early could be transformative for an aid industry struggling as growing humanitarian needs outstrip available funding to respond. 2020 was the first year that UN-led humanitarian appeals were funded at less than 50 percent. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more destructive; 13 countries are projected to experience new conflict between 2020 and 2022; and many predict that the full effects of the economic contraction linked to COVID-19 have not yet been felt.

“We need to do humanitarian aid differently,” James Cleverly, the UK’s minister of state for Middle East and North Africa, told the online gathering.

“We must give farmers drought-tolerant seeds instead of waiting for malnourished children to show up at a clinic,” added Martin Griffiths, the newly appointed UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

According to research commissioned by the Start Network, at least half of all humanitarian crises are foreseeable and more than 20 percent are highly predictable. But less than one percent of humanitarian funding goes to anticipatory action, and the approach has yet to be integrated into the annual UN-led programming plans of humanitarian agencies. 

“The United Nations is rarely ahead of the crisis curve,” Volkan Bozkir, president of the UN General Assembly, told the conference. “In fact, we are often far behind. Our anticipatory measures are simply archaic.”

That may be about to change, with this conference mobilising additional support for the agenda (the organisers are still tallying the total commitments).

UN Secretary-General António Guterres told attendees that anticipatory action was core to his prevention agenda. 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass promised to raise his government’s funding towards anticipatory action to 100 million euros by 2023, such that five percent of its overall humanitarian funding will be through anticipatory approaches – which, he admitted, is still a ways off the 20 percent benchmark. Ireland said it already provides a quarter of its humanitarian funding directly to funds that support anticipatory action.

“We can’t afford not to make [anticipatory action] mainstream by 2025.” 

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pledged to dedicate at least 20 percent of its emergency funding to anticipatory action by 2025, “making sure anticipatory action becomes the new standard in disaster management”. And Save the Children pledged to use 15 percent of its internal flexible funding towards this approach by 2024.

Even Google announced a USD $1.5 million grant to OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data to scale up the use of forecasts and predictive models to anticipate humanitarian crises.

While attendees noted a number of challenges – both currently and looking ahead – for many, anticipatory action is a no-brainer. “If we know that a crisis is coming, we have a moral duty to help people, certainly if it’s cheaper and more dignified,” OCHA economist Omtzigt said. “I can’t find a good reason why we wouldn’t.”

For others, it’s not even a choice. As Nena Stoiljkovic, under-secretary-general for global relationships, humanitarian diplomacy, and digitalization at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said, “We can’t afford not to make this mainstream by 2025.” 

Below is a summary of the issues discussed by attendees, touching on both the growing momentum to embrace an anticipatory action approach in aid response and the challenges that stand in the way. 

Anticipatory action has many things going for it, including:

  • Saving more lives: According to Gutteres, in Somalia, early action meant fewer outbreaks of malaria and diarrhea, and financial assistance for families and farmers. In Bangladesh, funding from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) was released within four hours of initial severe monsoon flood warnings in July 2020 to help people evacuate before the flooding reached critical levels. Advocates say this is not only a question of efficiency but of morality. As Sibylle Katharina Sorg, Germany’s director general for crisis prevention, one of the biggest funders of anticipatory action, wrote in an Op-Ed last year for The New Humanitarian, “knowing a disaster is about to strike or a crisis is imminent causes a moral imperative to act.”
  • Value for money: An evidence base is beginning to form about the savings offered by early action. According to a cost analysis conducted by the Central Emergency Response Fund, an anticipatory response to flooding in Bangladesh in 2020 cost $10 less for each person supported than the more reactive response to similar flooding in 2017. FAO claims that for every dollar invested in its anticipatory actions, affected households saw returns of up to nine times as much in avoided losses and added benefits. For its part, the World Food Programme (WFP) has used anticipatory approaches to bring in food aid before supply chains become disrupted by a crisis, at times making roads unusable and the transport of supplies much more complicated. “The cost is so much more after the fact,” said its executive director, David Beasley.
  • Better targeting: Anil Pokhrel, chief executive of Nepal’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, said planning ahead allowed local committees to identify people’s needs in advance – for instance, the need for a walkway for someone in a wheelchair. “Because we plan ahead of time, we can target a lot better than with a normal response.” In other cases, the UN was able to prepare special hygiene kits for the transgender community in Bangladesh.
  • Accountability: Advocates of anticipatory action argue it is “more dignified” than reactive approaches, and offers greater accountability to affected people. “What it offers is a matter of time” that is not always available in the heat of a crisis, said Bennett, of the Start Network –  including time for communities to participate in decision-making.
  • Increased momentum: In recent years the concept has picked up steam, as donor funding has become increasingly stretched and less developed countries pushed at the Paris Climate Accords for more investment in adaptation to climate change. It was a signature priority for Griffith’s predecessor, Mark Lowcock, who saw it as a way of making humanitarian response “better, faster and cheaper”. Last year, the CERF invested $140 million to scale-up anticipatory action in 12 countries. Overall some 60 countries were home to anticipatory action initiatives in 2020, according to Anticipation Hub, an information platform supporting the movement. A recent UN General Assembly resolution urged member states to strengthen anticipatory approaches. Earlier this year, the G7 pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in new financing for early action, disaster risk reduction, and insurance as part of a commitment to “scale-up anticipatory action to prevent crises deteriorating further.”
  • COVID-19: The pandemic has helped the arguments of those calling for greater preparedness and investment in early action, and may give this agenda a boost. “If this past year has taught us one thing, it’s that we need to be prepared,” said Bozkir, of the General Assembly. “Overall, the [COVID-19] crisis underscored that the global system for anticipating, responding to, and paying for crises is inadequate,” a blog published by the Centre for Disaster Protection stated.

But the push for anticipatory action is being held back by a few factors, such as:

  • Political hesitancy: Donors are still hesitant about putting money aside for a crisis that may never happen while so many ongoing crises demand attention. “One of the key stumbling blocks for us was lack of funding for anticipatory action,” Stoiljkovic of the IFRC told the conference. To counter the perception that “money sits around”, the pioneers of anticipatory action have promoted the pooling of risks – so that the same pot of money can be used for many different hazards, reducing the likelihood that it would ever go unused. As Teodora Locsin Jr., secretary of foreign affairs of the Philippines – a country hard-hit by climate change – put it: “The best policies are based on common sense. We all have that. We just have to have the will to think and act on it.”
  • Patchy data: Early warning data can often be patchy, and the interpretation of predictive analytics subjective, as The New Humanitarian reported in this analysis of a World Bank initiative to prevent famine using artificial intelligence. While natural hazards can be predicted with increasing precision, it’s rare that a measurable and predictable event happens in isolation of other influences and factors. Many at the conference pointed to the need for better data. To that end, the UN will be launching the Complex Risk Analytics Fund in October to scale-up investment in the data ecosystem and ensure that everyone is working off the same data.
  • Fragmentation: To date, anticipatory action has taken place in a series of pilots. “Evidence is limited but compelling,” Griffiths told the conference. “We must now shift from piloting it to fully and jointly integrating it in our work.” But one of the challenges is to avoid the territoriality and fragmentation that is often seen when new opportunities arise in the humanitarian sector. The United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for international cooperation, Reem Al Hashemy, “kindly requested” that warnings and recommendations be shared to “further enforce a united front” in preemptive action. The main pooled funds for anticipatory action are the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF); the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund; the Start Fund, run by the Start Network; and the country-based pooled funds, administered by the UN.
  • Limited scope: To date, anticipatory action has focused on natural hazards, and more specifically floods, droughts, and cyclones. In Nepal, for instance, anticipatory action pilots have focused only on floods but not on seismic hazards, which are much harder to predict. While the Red Cross has piloted anticipatory action of cold snaps, landslides, and heat waves, these pilots have been of a small scale. COVID was a lesson to expand anticipatory action to include hazards like epidemics, Stoiljkovic of the IFRC said. “We are at a learning stage at this time. It requires agreeing [to act] on triggers and thresholds [for other types of hazards].” 
  • Use in conflict zones: Most anticipatory action to date has taken place in countries that are “easier” to work in, and donors and agencies are only beginning to develop frameworks to act early to mitigate natural hazards in more fragile and conflict-affected settings. Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the convening how critical it was to reduce the exposure to shocks for people affected by violence, and yet “this is precisely where anticipatory action and finance… is weak.” For now, predicting conflict itself is off the table, but early action ahead of climate shocks in conflict-affected countries has, according to the WFP, helped reduce conflict over scarce resources in places like the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. The question is: What’s beyond the remit of anticipatory action?
  • Media attention: Beasley bemoaned the lack of media attention on the issues that matter, noting that in recent years, media coverage has focused on “Trump, Trump, Trump; then COVID, COVID, COVID, and Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.” Without media attention, he said, “policymakers won’t respond with the right types of strategic focus.”

Pioneers of anticipatory action are pushing forward the agenda but working through a few issues, including:

  • Transactional vs. moral argument: While many at the conference pointed to the moral argument for acting early – “it’s the right thing to do” – the WFP’s Beasley sang a different tune. He told donors that investing in early action was in their national security interest because it would mitigate against recruitment by the so-called Islamic State. He warned that if they did not adopt this agenda, “you’ll have chaos and destabilisation and mass migration… beyond anything we’re seeing today.” This more transactional approach might make some humanitarians uncomfortable.
  • Localisation, once again: The push for locally led humanitarian response that has taken hold in the wider humanitarian community is creeping into the anticipatory action debate too. The German government, the Filipino government, the IFRC, and the Start Network all vowed to support capacity building for anticipatory action at the local level, with the latter committing to launch a new financing facility this year to enable locally led anticipatory action at scale, whereby local organisations prioritise the risks and provide input on the advance help they most want and need.
  • Whose job is anticipation? While the conference focused on humanitarian action, many pointed to the need for international climate finance, international financial institutions, insurance companies, and others to be involved. “The whole aid system needs to come together to avert, minimise, and address the threat of loss and damage,” said the UK’s Cleverly. “Crisis settings are not the exclusive domain of humanitarians,” Omtzigt added. To that end, the World Bank recently doubled its Early Response Facility – its window for anticipatory action – to $1billion for the rest of the current funding cycle of the bank’s International Development Association, and the International Monetary Fund is developing a new strategy for anticipating crises in the most fragile places.
  • Linking up with government safety nets: The real exit strategy for stretched humanitarian funds is for anticipatory financing to tie into – and hand over to – government social safety nets. Some see potential in a trust fund managed by the World Bank, which is working with several Sahelian governments to strengthen social protection systems that allow vulnerable families to be more resilient to the effects of climate change. For the ICRC’s Mardini, part of anticipatory action is sustained investment in essential services and social safety nets. But to date, anticipatory action by the humanitarian community has yet to sustainably plug into government response systems. “We need to go a step further,” Mardini said. 

Heba Aly, CEO of The New Humanitarian, moderated the first two segments of the Anticipatory Action Conference on 9 September.


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