Better than a Crystal Ball: Using the Future to Humanity's Advantage

An interagency group of expert analysts helps Action Against Hunger and other organizations plan better for future humanitarian contexts and needs

Action Against Hunger is a founding partner and proud supporter of the Interagency Regional Analysts Network, a global group of researchers and analysts who are pioneering a new approach to humanitarian work. Their reports explore possible future outcomes and scenarios in many of the countries where we work, with the goal of helping organizations like ours plan better for the years to come. The below was written by IARAN Strategy Director, Michel Maietta.

$1 spent in preparedness saves $7 in humanitarian response. Humanitarians working in disaster preparedness, early warning, and resilience building have all heard this before. Though it may satisfy public and private donors for reasons of accountability and a no-regrets approach to programming, we need to push past this statistic. What is the true value of pre-empting the future when working in humanitarian response?

In a context of shrinking budgets, and ever-worsening, never-ending crises, we need to ask ourselves how to become more effective both today and tomorrow. Our answer? Start with the future.

From flooding in Mali and Sri Lanka to election violence in Burundi, NGOs investing in anticipation and preparedness have identified, localized, and prioritized vulnerable populations. In some instances, resilience building mechanisms have even been put in place to enable vulnerable populations to better weather the storm – e.g.: dredging out floodwater channels, rolling out sensitization programs, and pre-positioning hygiene, shelter and medical kits to expectant mothers or health centers. When this has been done in advance of a crisis, response down the line has been speedier and more effective. Even in scenarios where the anticipated disaster does not strike, the argument for strengthening vulnerable communities holds – particularly as many of the disasters, especially the natural ones, reoccur on a seasonal basis. The NGOs working to monitor the impact of these anticipatory projects are explaining time and again how preparedness saves money, time and lives.

That being said, the anticipatory work done currently is relatively short term – 3 month windows are the most common, with some organizations planning 6 or 9 months ahead.

What happens when we scale anticipation up to 15 years? We know the answer because we at IARAN do it every day. We plan 1 to 15 years into the future (depending on context) and prepare decision makers in NGOs for a number of possible futures. We then use these scenarios to build robust strategies at country, regional, and global level.

Early feedback suggests that thanks to our strategic planning process, operations are more flexible, adaptable, quicker to respond, and therefore cheaper in the contexts where the future has been pre-empted. Civil society actors, citizenship movements, and local NGO partnerships can be developed in the anticipation of certain types of crises in order to save time and money later on. The fundraising implications of planning ahead are also worth considering – if directors identify a likely future crisis, they often integrate this risk into funding appeals and donor discussions. When disaster strikes, they are quicker and more effective at reviving these discussions and plans.

We’re in the process of integrating existing short-term forecasts with our longer-term foresight model to ensure that across the humanitarian sector, NGOs are looking months and years ahead and in doing so save more lives, more quickly with less money.  

We are at the brink of truly transforming humanitarian programming, but change will be slow to permeate the sector. NGOs will need to be strategic from the bottom-up: on the ground, where contextual actors and dynamics drive programming as much as at the top, where leaders will need to be visionaries – courageous enough to fundamentally transform a mammoth humanitarian machine, which hasn’t seen such change since its 20th century shift towards secularism.

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Our most recent Foresight reports are available here, topics include:

  • Overcoming the Challenges of Undernutrition in Tanzania through 2021
  • Ferghana Valley: Five Year Humanitarian Trends Assessment + blog
  • Stunting in Pakistan: A Trends Analysis of Underlying Factors by 2030
  • Responding to the Migrant Crisis: Europe at a Juncture
  • Tribal Migration in India to 2020
  • Asian Aid Donors: A Key Trends with an outlook to 2020

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About Action Against Hunger USA

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Action Against Hunger is a global humanitarian organization that takes decisive action against the causes and effects of hunger. We save the lives of malnourished children. We ensure families can access clean water, food, training, and health care. We enable entire communities to be free from hunger.