14 Aug 2023

Does anticipatory action have a role to play in ‘wicked crises’ like Somalia?

This blog was written by a consortium of researchers from Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC) project.

In early 2021, Jamaac, a livestock owner in Galkaayo, Somalia, was facing difficult herding conditions and had to sell a camel to buy fodder. The first rains of 2021 provided some respite, he told us, but his animals were much thinner than they should have been.

When we spoke with him again in mid-October 2021, the second rains were already late. Jamaac was torn between waiting for the rain to replenish the pasture or moving away with his livestock, which were steadily deteriorating. After delaying the decision for as long as possible, he eventually decided to move. He borrowed money to finance the journey, but many of his animals died on the way. When we spoke to him in early 2022, he was left with a severely depleted herd and debts from the journey – and the drought in Somalia was still to reach its peak.

Jamaac’s story appears to be a good case for anticipatory action, an aid modality that is justifiably attracting a lot of attention. The idea is simple: assistance is given before a crisis in an effort to prevent or mitigate it, often using small cash grants to help people take their own proactive measures. If a government or aid agency had given Jamaac a cash grant before October 2021, could he not have paid for transport for his animals before they became too weak to move? Would that not have meant that more survived the journey? The returns on such an investment could have been spectacular.

In 2020, ODI and Mercy Corps, working together in the Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC) project, set out to follow the lives of farmers and pastoralists in Somalia to discover just these kinds of windows of opportunity. The thinking was that if we could better understand what they were trying to do at different stages during the evolution of a predicted drought, we could give smart, nuanced and contextually savvy advice to humanitarian agencies on how to help people the next time around.

Sadly, our most striking lesson was that aid projects look very different when seen from Jamaac’s standpoint. His delay in migrating with his animals wouldn’t have been prevented with a cash grant. He had sold a camel earlier in the year, which earned him far more than the amounts usually given as grants. And, when he eventually decided to move, he was able to borrow money from a local trader without any trouble.

Rather than a lack of access to cash, his delay in moving was because he was waiting for rains. He knew there was a risk in staying, but also that there were risks and costs in moving. Each day spent waiting increased the risks of staying and of going. Jamaac had to balance a high-stakes trade-off between two unknowns. The cost of transport for his cattle was, in fact, the one known factor in a sea of uncertainty.

This was an unwelcome lesson for our research project, which was set up with high hopes of discovering coping strategies that could be unblocked for farmers and pastoralists through small aid interventions. It shouldn’t have been surprising, though, that we didn’t find any new strategies and that farmers and pastoralists were already exploiting whatever opportunities were available.

What could have been done to help Jamaac? Perhaps he would have migrated earlier if he had seen the same seasonal weather forecasts that we did. He was hoping for reasonable rains to start in October, but the forecasts we saw indicated that these were likely to be late and poor – as indeed they were. It is not certain that his animals would have fared much better even if he had moved in September (nor whether they could have survived the following two rain failures), but seasonal forecast information could have helped Jamaac, and millions like him, in weighing up their different options.

In addition to providing better information on seasonal forecasts, we worked with many different people to find ways in which aid could have helped people like Jamaac. No one we spoke with, however, could provide a credible approach that could work at scale. The most common suggestion was fodder distribution. With a few dozen recipients, this might make for a good project report, but where could fodder be found for millions of animals? That’s why livestock keepers practice pastoralism – the Somali climate doesn’t permit a zero-grazing production system!

What Jamaac, and others in similar situations, needed was much bigger improvements in his local economy. This could provide alternative opportunities for drought-hit farmers and pastoralists. However, this kind of change cannot be delivered through short-term anticipatory action projects.

Almost all the famers and pastoralists that we regularly spoke with over two years knew this. Indeed, they were not just worrying about getting ahead of this one crisis; they were also looking for bigger adaptions to their lives, so that they wouldn’t have to worry every year about repeated droughts and floods. They knew that they needed new economic opportunities that are viable in the context of a changing climate. These will take years to build up and will need huge resources of the kind perhaps only available through development finance or finance for climate change adaptation. Such funds, though, are almost never available in the countries that most need them – like Somalia.

In our search for opportunities for anticipatory action in Somalia, we were looking in the wrong direction. Some people have claimed that the current crisis in Somalia could have been mitigated if there had been more political will to fund anticipatory action, but that claim doesn’t stand up when seen through Jamaac’s eyes.

Forward-looking thinking is hugely important, including in the humanitarian sector. Recurrent poor seasonal forecasts should trigger ‘preparedness on steroids’, as one observer called it – developing a strategy, making plans, mobilizing funds, and building contacts to open up the possibility of some access to insecure areas. This is a different kind of anticipatory action. The anticipatory projects that have proved their worth when crises are short and manageable, and where people can then return to normality, do not seem to have the same obvious role in crises in places like Somalia, which have uncertain trajectories and which are on a scale that is too great to be warded off.

The solution to these wicked crises cannot lie in a few more million dollars of aid money for anticipatory action. There are, instead, two other challenges to solve: finding ways to unlock billions of dollars from climate funds – and then finding ways to make sure these funds are well used to create opportunities in the face of crises and climate change.

This blog was written by Simon Levine, Lena Weingärtner, Alex Humphrey and Muzzamil Abdi Sheikh of SPARC.