Submitted by Samantha Moreno Jimenez
15 Dec 2023

Reconciling humanitarian principles with anticipatory action ahead of conflict in Kenya and Nigeria

As anticipatory action grows, there is a pressing need to assess, interpret and contextualize its ethical challenges, especially in terms of adhering to the four humanitarian principles (see Figure 1, OCHA 2012) that were formally introduced in the 1990s. What is at stake beyond these principles’ agreed terminology? And to what extent are they reconcilable with real-life applications of anticipatory action, when factoring in the challenges found in individual value systems, or the wide array of organizational principles seen across the humanitarian sector?

Figure 1. The four humanitarian principles

OCHA 2012

Anticipatory action based on conflict forecasts is a standard-bearer for what is coming next in humanitarian innovation. However, this novelty means there is currently insufficient evidence on how to implement anticipatory action for conflict in a more ethical way. Due to the political nature of conflicts, anticipatory action – like traditional approaches to humanitarian action – must consider moral risks, especially the need to avoid causing harm to those it intends to support. In line with this, my research looked at how and why humanitarian actors working on anticipatory action strive to reconcile humanitarian principles with forecast conflict, using the context of electoral violence in Kenya 2022 and in Nigeria 2023.

Some humanitarians fear that even if forecasts deliver reliable data, subsequent humanitarian actions could jeopardize core humanitarian principles such as neutrality or – even worse – actively fuel the conflict.

Wagner and Jaime 2020

A changing humanitarian ethos means a changing space for anticipatory action – and an entry point for the humanitarian–development–peace nexus

Given that most organizations operating in conflict settings have multiple mandates, it is possible that they see anticipatory action as an additional tool for objectives such as community development, social cohesion or conflict mediation (see ICRC 2015). Within the organizations studied, a further tension exists between anticipatory action, which usually extends to around 45 days, and other development efforts, which involve years of having a local presence. For example, interviewees recognized that at times, and depending on the specific project activities, immediate humanitarian needs would take precedence over longer-term development objectives; in other situations, simultaneous action on the humanitarian (i.e., anticipatory action) and development fronts was possible.

The integration of peacebuilding efforts (e.g., peace messages, jingles, campaigns), humanitarian actions (e.g., activating anticipatory action) and developmental efforts (e.g., long-term training for volunteers and communities beyond the end of a project) offers avenues to indirectly address the root causes of conflict. Indeed, it is precisely the multi-mandate nature of the implementing organizations that allows them to explore the humanitarian–development–peace nexus. Interviewees recognized in this nexus the opportunity to build upon relationships with faith leaders, government actors and civil society, and use their experiences and expertise to develop a more localized approach to anticipatory action. However, this also comes with its own challenges, according to interviewees; these include limited donor funding and siloed approaches to anticipatory action.

Challenges experienced by anticipatory action practitioners addressing electoral violence

This research argued that anticipatory action for electoral violence is largely compatible with the principles of humanity and independence, but that various challenges arise when reconciling it with impartiality and neutrality, due mostly to the political context, pressures and interference.

In Kenya, interviewees felt more affinity when exemplifying their work in the context of humanity, neutrality and independence. These principles were seen as more relatable than impartiality, especially in conflict settings (see Figure 2). For example, with respect to humanity, opportunities were seen in being accountable to communities and upholding safeguarding measures. For impartiality, the main challenges were interference by external influences and tensions between non-discrimination and needs-based objectivity.

Figure 2. Thematic analysis of the intersections among sets of principles, based on informant interviews for Kenya

In Nigeria, interviewees gave the principles of humanity and independence more importance. Humanity was seen as the ability to understand people’s suffering and strive for relief, while independence was referred to as non-interference from donors. These findings, captured in Figure 3, highlight both the challenges and opportunities in upholding humanitarian principles in anticipatory action based on conflict forecasts. For example, with respect to neutrality, although there are challenges in balancing politics and empathy, interviewees recognized the value of neutrality when conducting needs assessments to guide aid distribution.

Figure 3. Thematic analysis of the intersections among sets of principles, based on informant interviews for Nigeria

A trade-off between principles for enhanced anticipatory action in conflict forecasts

Good intentions to enhance anticipatory action’s adherence to the four humanitarian principles are essential, but not enough on their own; it takes active efforts to uphold them. Applying the humanitarian principles in anticipatory action requires trade-offs between organizational and individual values.

This research shows that the four principles were helpful in the various moral dilemmas practitioners face in conflict settings, serving as guidelines to some of the interviewees. However, their decision-making showed that some humanitarian principles have more weight than others, depending on their subjective interpretation of the principles under specific circumstances. Anticipatory action based on conflict forecasts for situations of electoral violence has laid bare the limitations of delivering the many aspects of humanitarian assistance using siloed approaches, which may no longer be sufficient in an increasingly intersectoral and interrelated world.

This blog was written by Samantha Moreno Jimenez, a recent postgraduate alumna of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree in International Humanitarian Action, from the University of Warsaw and Uppsala University. This blog summarizes her MA thesis, which is accessible here. Samantha would like to recognize the support and encouragement received as part of the Anticipation Hub’s Future Leaders Network on Early Warning Early Action.

Sources cited:

OCHA 2012

Wagner and Jaime 2020

ICRC 2015

Photo: Borno State, Maiduguri, Nigeria. The ICRC distributes food to families affected by conflict. Photographer: Jesus Andres Serrano Redondo. © ICRC