Garry Selfridge is communications manager at the Humanitarian Futures Programme, Kings's College, London. Any opinions expressed are his own.
It’s been a year since Britain’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) led to the creation of new guidelines for managing humanitarian disasters.
“Britain should be at the forefront of disaster response,” said Andrew Mitchell, the minister who heads up the Department for International Development (DFID), which sponsored the review.
“Through this action we will make sure our efforts save as many lives as possible.”
Now, the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King’s College, London, is undertaking a review of how “anticipation” – the first among seven key components accepted by the British Government after the review - has had an impact on more strategic “whole of government” efforts to promote resilience.
“Taking an anticipatory perspective is ‘the glue’ that brings together the other capacities that the Department for International Development accepted as essential for dealing with longer-term humanitarian threats,” says Randolph Kent, director of HFP.
Over the next six months, Kent will probe this theme, to discover how anticipation is being interpreted and implemented.
Anticipation was the first of seven key components of the UK’s 2011 Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR). That it took such a prominent position in the review was not alphabetical happenstance, for the remaining six in the order they appeared were resilience, leadership, innovation, accountability, partnership and humanitarian space. The answer has to be that the relevance of the remaining six must be seen in terms of the importance that HERR attested to staying: “ahead of the curve….It is in the nature of disasters and conflict that they cannot be precisely predicted. But we can be more anticipatory in our approach.”
Yet, what does anticipation actually mean in a humanitarian context, a context in which vulnerability and aspirations for greater resilience have emerged as essential objectives, if not values, amongst a growing number of those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities? HERR attempted to define the concept in terms of greater ability to predict, and stressed the importance of the need for decision-makers to act on such predictions. Nevertheless, as defined, the humanitarian sector is left with a series of critical issues – some potentially contradictory – in defining anticipation in terms of prediction, alone.
As HFP launches a policy review around the concept of anticipation – its interpretations and consequences – there are at least four major issues that need to be addressed:
- to what extent does the emphasis on prediction limit the utility of anticipation. If, in other words, the results of anticipation were restricted to identifying “future events” with accuracy, would that not only narrow the time-scale but the sorts of events that one was attempting to predict;
- are the sorts of potential crisis drivers and opportunities to offset them in the future too uncertain and complex to look beyond what one already knows, or are there ways that one can deal with uncertainty and complexity to limit “the surprise factor”;
- to what extent is the real utility of anticipation restricted by organisations’ reductionist standard operating procedures? And, if so, are there ways that organisational behaviour can be changed to be more anticipatory and adaptive;
- to what extent do the natural as well as social sciences provide information and knowledge about threats and opportunities that can be useful for decision-makers, and to what extent can these be understood and transmitted by those responsible for preparing decision-makers;
- in what ways does the political process also constrain effective anticipation, or, is alerting constituencies about the uncertainties of possible or even plausible longer-term threats regarded as “scare-mongering” and committing resources for preparing for an event that not only lacks certitude but that “will not occur on my political beat”?
In posing these questions, there are emerging realities which those who have to consider the purpose of anticipation for promoting resilience and reducing vulnerability will have to bear in mind.
That reality begins with a growing number of crises and crisis drivers – from Icelandic volcanic ash to the Fukishima tragedy; from the Mozambique food shortages linked to Russian agricultural failures to the plight of Iraqi refugees in strife-ridden Syria – all which suggest that anticipation cannot be limited to prediction, per se. It can sensitise planners and policy-makers to the what might be’s.
It can bring together unconventional partnerships that can add cross-sectoral insights into possible threats and opportunities to offset them. It can identify new organisational approaches for dealing with uncertainty. However, to restrict anticipation to the confining parameters of evidence-based criteria will be to lose – for convenience sake – the strategies and approaches that one will need, to reduce vulnerability and promote resilience.
It is with this in mind, that HFP intends to embark on a review of what should be seen as “the glue” that brings together so many of the capacities that will be essential for dealing with longer-term humanitarian threats. Over the next six months, HFP will explore five key themes that should be on the anticipation agenda:
- how has the British government in the aftermath of the HERR defined anticipation? In what ways has this perspective affected the ways that it interacts with other elements of government in the “whole of government” context; how has it affected the ways that it has configured various departments within DFID, in terms of structures and communications;
- to what extent is the HERR message on anticipation influencing the perspectives of other humanitarian actors outside the United Kingdom, in, for example, the UN, regional organisations and governments which DFID supports. And, how are they interpreting the message;
- to what extent can the anticipation message be utilised in the more operational context of, for example, UN country offices, and is there any indication of coherence between what headquarters regards as ways to use and promote innovation and those “in the field”;
- how do other sectors – outside the boundaries of humanitarianism – deal with issues related to anticipation? For example, the military’s approach to strategy and reinsurance companies’ approaches to longer-term risk all have to deal with speculation, the limits of prediction and the challenges of sifting through the plausibles and the probables. Are there insights that can be transferred to the humanitarian sector;
- related to the first point, how and in what ways do those in other sectors use the results of anticipation as opportunities to inform and develop their strategies and objectives? What kind of processes and what kinds of personnel are required to be able to deal with uncertainty and complexity?
Over the next six months, Kent will probe these themes - themes that need to be addressed if anticipation as a concept and as means for futures-oriented strategies and operations are to be met.