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Humanitarian futures (part one) - "exponential complexity"

An 80-year-old woman cradles her malnourished grandson near Afder, southern Ethiopia. More than 14 million people in the region face chronic food insecurity, through poverty, conflicts and droughts. Men, women and children face a daily struggle to stay al George Mulala/IRIN
An 80-year-old woman cradles her malnourished grandson near Afder, southern Ethiopia

It's the year 2018. A massive crisis is devastating the Horn of Africa, combining drought, huge migrations, urban desperation and there's little in the way of safety nets.

[This article is one of a pair of special IRIN articles on humanitarian risk and response in the future. Read part two]

Meanwhile, a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault has hammered California. US government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are already overstretched.

But thanks to contingency planning that began a decade earlier, a network is in place to aid the Horn, beefed up through innovation and new actors. NGOs have already been working with a different kind of partner, the African diaspora in Europe and elsewhere, to build up a buffer for otherwise destitute people. A new form of collaboration with the corporate sector has seen businesses chipping in to protect their interests.

Such is the vision of the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) of King’s College at London University, which seeks to improve strategic thinking within humanitarian organisations in anticipation of more uncertain, dynamic and complex future crises.

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Need to plan 15 years ahead

HFP Director Randolph Kent, a former UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, believes strongly that in forward thinking and contingency planning, humanitarians should plan 15 or more years ahead. He recently attended an “innovative laboratory” at the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I can assure you that what maybe humanitarian organisations are not thinking about - but should be - is exactly what the corporate sector is thinking about and doing very, very well,” he told IRIN.

“One cannot predict the future but one can be sensitive to the dynamics of change and far more sensitive to what might be, and in a sense that requires a whole institutional construct that the UN has to consider.” UN agencies are among the organisations that HFP is working with.

“It’s not Nostradamus. It’s not all about gloomy situations. What is so exciting about our age are the opportunities - scientific and technological as well as social-scientific - towards finding an innovation that can and must be applied to the way we think in the future,” Kent said.

Myanmar example

One recent example, where such a strategy might have helped, is the cyclone disaster in Myanmar in May.

Ben Ramalingam, head of research and development at the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), an international inter-agency forum working to improve the quality of humanitarian action, said there were two very well-known givens - the vulnerability of delta regions in south Asia and the military government’s aversion to outsiders.

Photo: REUTERS/International Federation
The Myanmar cyclone is a recent example of where a forward-thinking strategy might have helped
“It was known that many international agencies had been waiting for years to get access to Myanmar,” he told IRIN. Agencies and NGOs could have prepared for just such a contingency by seeking partnerships with local organisations, since local and Asian organisations got through to the devastated Irrawaddy delta, he said.

One of HFP’s premises is the exponential complexity of future crises, especially in the age of global warming.

“There will be few if any humanitarian crisis events that will not have synchronistic, multiple, cascading or global-local dimensions,” says one report. “The single humanitarian crisis agent still reflected in much of the present public reportage, and to some extent even in humanitarian organisations’ preparedness and response activities, is increasingly a characteristic of the past.”

Crisis “drivers”

Among the so-called “drivers” of future crises in East Africa that need to be factored into contingency planning are: inter- and intra-state conflicts, principally in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia, leading to large-scale destruction of livelihoods and displacement; environmental degradation due to population growth; water problems, including droughts and floods; and epidemics and diseases stemming from climate change.

HFP projects that at least 17.4 million people in the region will be affected by one or more of these “drivers” in 2010, and 26.1 million in 2015, compared with an annual average figure of 11 million over the 2000-2005 period.

Photo: Derk Segaar/IRIN
A child holding her mother’s hand waits in line to receive food at a feeding centre in Somalia
In southern Africa it foresees continuing human population growth leading to greater competition for the waters of the Zambezi river basin, shared by Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where droughts and land degradation have become more frequent, with ever greater irrigation demands.

Similar problems face other regions. “In light of these transformations, it is all the more surprising that some of the most important organisations presently responsible for preventing, preparing for and responding to the sorts of humanitarian challenges that are anticipated in the future are failing to do so,” HFP says.

One of the regional organisations with which HFP is doing long-term strategic planning is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), where it is looking at river networks and what happens when a country decides to build a dam on what is the only access to water for another country.

“So how can ECOWAS in its joint mandate to deal with both humanitarian and peacekeeping begin to start facing these types of problems, given climate change and a whole host of factors that might lead to a crisis that might disturb the peace,” Kent explained.

HFP working with 16 organisations

HFP is working with 16 organisations, including three regionals like ECOWAS, three multilaterals like the UN Development Programme’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (UNDP-BCPR), four NGOs, such as Bangladesh’s BRAC and the International Council for Voluntary Agencies, and six governments including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the USA.

Photo: Aweys Yusuf Osman/IRIN
This displaced woman's property in Mogadishu was destroyed in conflict. Conflict-related displacement in Somalia has forced people to leave their land several times
With UNDP-BCPR it is carrying out a research project on the Central African Republic. With scenario development it has participants devise what they believe the future might hold within a 10-15 year timeframe, and then review their present structural and operational capacities to determine what changes they must make to deal with the future vision.

A report for the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recommends the government seek the creation of UN structures for humanitarian response that are more agile through an integrated early warning system, advance planning on roles for responses in areas of pre-identified vulnerability, and creation of a virtual warehouse cataloguing global relief supplies.

“By working with them very closely we hope to find a process, methodology, techniques, tools that will help the wider humanitarian community to be more anticipatory and more adaptive in the future,” Kent said of HFP’s partners. “The hard sell is to get this community to think in terms of (future) vulnerability…

“We get constantly into this argument ‘Oh this is very academic, I’m here to save people,’ and my point is if you’re really here to save people then start working and being more strategic about dealing with the future…

“Things and the dynamics are changing and the traditional way that the humanitarian community thinks about these things, prepares for them, discusses them, are increasingly irrelevant,” he added.

But, he concluded: “People are being increasingly responsive. Somehow the message is getting through.”

Scenario planning

World Vision International, a nonprofit humanitarian relief and development organisation, said it is already looking much more intently at the future dimension of its work. “We have just named a director for climate change,” Director for Humanitarian Planning Mark Janz told IRIN. “We plan to be more adaptive and anticipatory.”

Oxfam said it was not only focusing on contingency planning itself, but also trying to get others to do so.

Photo: Tim McKulka/UNMIS
Massive flooding throughout Southern Sudan in October 2007 caused widespread displacement and destroyed crops and homes across the region
“What we’re trying to do now (in Washington) is make sure that the funding that comes from the CAP [Consolidated Appeals Process] and trade system in the United States, which could literally yield billions of dollars - paid by those who are creating the climate change problem - is allocated to help communities in the future adapt to climate change-related causes,” Paul O'Brien, director of the aid effectiveness team of Oxfam America, told IRIN.

“We’re trying to get funding put aside through the US budgetary system for helping communities in the future adapt to humanitarian crises of the consequences of climate change.”

CARE USA, a leading NGO fighting global poverty, said it had noted the corporate model and sent people to be trained in contingency planning by corporate leaders. “We in fact do use scenario planning quite a bit in our work and have for several years now,” Vice-President for Global Support and Partnership Michael Rewald told IRIN.

He cited scenarios for Asia in 20 years time that had taken in various possibilities, including one where India and China become the dominant forces, and another where Asia breaks up into small regional states all fighting each other.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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