8 Nov 2022

What does success look like? Understanding the potential for proactive humanitarian action in a climate-uncertain world

The extreme impacts of the climate crisis – on people’s lives, livelihoods and environments – has made it clear: the climate crisis is a humanitarian crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement in all regions, and flood- and drought-related acute food insecurity and malnutrition have increased in Africa and Central and South America. Given this context, humanitarian resources and adaptation efforts are not keeping up with humanitarian needs.

A new report by the Start Network and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), The Potential for Anticipatory Action and Disaster Risk Finance: Guiding the Setting of Humanitarian Targets, recognizes the challenges that the climate crisis poses for the humanitarian sector, and contributes to the evidence base for scaling up anticipatory action and disaster risk finance.

Research commissioned by the Start Network in 2019 showed that at least 55 per cent of crises are somewhat predictable. Our new report builds on this previous research to offer a more nuanced understanding of what can be anticipated, and to what degree. The takeaway message: our analysis confirms that around half of acute crises can be predicted ahead of time. The new report breaks this down into different approaches to consider the opportunities for the humanitarian sector.

More can be done to support anticipatory approaches

Emily Montier, one of the report’s authors, notes that as climate change increases the scale and frequency of shocks, the humanitarian system can and should be better adapted to proactively support communities to take action to protect themselves before these crises happen. Analysis in the report suggests that:

  • for half of acute humanitarian crises, we have the opportunity to leverage forecasts and analysis that can tell us when crises are imminent, so that we can implement anticipatory action to support at-risk communities at an earlier stage before the crisis fully unfolds

  • for around one quarter of acute humanitarian crises, we have the opportunity to generate a statistical likelihood of the crisis and average annual funding requirements ahead of time, so that we can use disaster risk financing approaches to ensure that funds are prearranged efficiently to be rapidly released when needed.

Anticipatory action and disaster risk financing approaches are not mutually exclusive, however. In some crises, it is possible to use both approaches together;  in others, just one approach or neither can be used. Furthermore, these approaches are complemented by wider disaster risk reduction and resilience-building activities that address the systemic drivers of crises. It is important to note that a lot of the humanitarian caseload is chronic, meaning that the needs of this year are the same as last year, which is not included in the analysis.

What does this research mean for the anticipatory action community?

Over recent years there has been a growing movement towards more proactive, risk-informed humanitarian action. Previous calls to scale up have focused on the level of funding for anticipatory action and prearranged crisis finance. While anticipatory action is not a ‘silver bullet’ in itself, this report demonstrates that the 1-2 per cent of funding currently being allocated to these approaches is inadequate.

Given the opportunity to use anticipatory approaches to provide more timely, efficient and dignified assistance, the anticipatory action community should feel justified in their call to scale up this approach. It is also necessary to recognize that scaling up anticipatory action and prearranged crisis finance goes beyond calls for more funding. As the report notes, “scaling up could take many forms including expanding to new geographies and hazards, or integrating anticipatory action into existing delivery channels, ensuring risk-information is nationally owned and that processes are embedded in national local disaster management policies, and changing conceptual frameworks from reactive and proactive” (page 9).

We call on the humanitarian community to use analysis, such as that outlined in this report and other similar reports, to set achievable targets that leverage the current capabilities of risk-informed humanitarian action, to scale up our efforts to act earlier, and to support communities in adapting to the new reality of the climate crisis.

The role of climate science

Due to the uncertainty brought on by the climate crisis, the past is no longer a good indicator of the future. If the likelihood of future extreme events is based on how frequently they occurred in the past, there is the possibility for significant underestimation. Integrating climate science into future simulations (climate conditioning of risk models) is required to better understand the humanitarian risks in a climate-uncertain world.
As COP27 takes place, the report’s authors are calling on world leaders to invest in the greater use of science and technology to predict and prepare ahead of escalating climate risks. In addition, more support is needed for local humanitarians to respond to these highly complex and unprecedented crises. Humanitarian and climate portfolios can no longer exist in silos, given the compounding impacts of the climate crisis on humanitarian issues.


So what would success look like? In a world where a systemic shift takes place – away from reactive approaches and towards proactive ones – success may not ‘look’ like anything. This is because anticipatory action and prearranged financing allow us to act earlier and faster, and to respond to needs and mitigate potential future impacts on communities. As a result, particular crises may not be ‘visible’ in the same way, due to proactive approaches responding before a crisis becomes devastating.

At a time when climate emergencies are driving immense human suffering and global hunger, we must make the deliberate choice to act ahead of those emergencies we are able to predict. Waiting for crises to happen before we act is more expensive, less effective and morally questionable. I want to see a world where ‘Crisis Averted!’ is the headline that makes the news.

Christina Bennett Chief executive officer, Start Network

The report makes the following recommendations to donors and policymakers to guide the setting of humanitarian targets for anticipatory action and disaster risk financing.

This blog was written by Tayler Hernandez, and is based on the report by Start Network and ODI, written by Emily Montier, Lena Weingärtner and Sarah Klassen.

You can read the full report here.

Photo credit: Women returning back to home after receiving hygiene kit © Start Fund Nepal