Five lessons on collective approaches to anticipatory action


Emilie Gettliffe

Centre for Disaster Protection
Little African Boy At The Community Borehole Quenching His Thirst
Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock

Between spring 2020 and early 2022, the Centre supported OCHA in undertaking process learning on four anticipatory action (AA) pilots in Somalia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Malawi.

The pilots are part of OCHA’s aspiration to facilitate a broader shift in the humanitarian system to address disasters in a timelier, more dignified and more efficient way, by mitigating the impact of impending crises on the most vulnerable. Collective approaches to AA are still an innovative space. It was therefore important from the outset to intentionally learn from the pilots, building evidence that could support continuous improvement and help facilitate this shift.

For this type of experimental programming in highly complex environments, process learning offers an important tool for building a collective understanding of what has worked well, what benefits and challenges arise, and how to iteratively improve. Our approach to process learning assumes the following:

  • Simple solutions rarely (if ever) exist for complex challenges that arise

  • Progress occurs by incrementally adjusting how to balance competing requirements

  • Learning offers focus areas for further inquiry, deliberation, and iterative improvement

As OCHA expanded their portfolio of anticipatory action frameworks, process learning offered a unique opportunity to capture and integrate broad learning on the complexities of bringing AA to scale, anchoring it in the lived realities of households most impacted by disasters, and building on existing knowledge and institutional structures. It also allowed OCHA to integrate learning from early pilots into those subsequently developed.

The disruption caused by the pandemic made the effort to set up, implement, and learn from the anticipatory action frameworks significantly more demanding.

Across the four pilots, each quite unique, five broad themes emerged:  

1. AA has the potential to stimulate major transformations in humanitarian response, and the scale of change and investment needed are becoming clearer.

The purpose of AA is to mitigate the negative impacts of disaster on the most vulnerable. An evaluation of the Bangladesh pilot activation in 2020 offered some of the best empirical evidence to date on the positive welfare impacts of anticipatory cash transfers for households forecasted to experience extreme flooding. Many humanitarian partners recognize AA’s potential to maximize synergies and impact through advance planning and a mitigative approach, while offering opportunities for learning and iterative improvement. For these benefits to be realized, however, time and patience are needed to build understanding and encourage mindset change in countries new to AA (as in Somalia, Ethiopia and Malawi), at various leadership levels in-country, within OCHA, and with partners and implementing agencies. Additionally, upfront investments are needed to support operational readiness, in developing and agreeing on collective targeting strategies prior to activation (as demonstrated in Bangladesh and Ethiopia), and in adapting internal administrative systems to meet the timing needs of a different way of responding. Where there is the will for AA, operational readiness to implement within the required windows of action appears to remain the most significant barrier to scaling.

2. In order to develop triggers that meet the timing and intervention needs of a given disaster, time, data, and expertise (local and global) are needed.

Trigger development requires starting with identifying the most appropriate actions in time and space to minimise the impact of a disaster on vulnerable people ahead of peak shock. In-country partners need to clearly identify those needs, in terms of humanitarian impact pathways and associated mitigative activities. Along with perspectives gathered from communities and people facing disaster risk, this identification process should inform trigger development. It allows for early analysis of what activities should be started when, based on the possibility to minimize anticipated impacts of the shock. The more clearly activity, timing and funding needs can be stated, the better the trigger can be developed to meet them, assuming necessary data is available. A strong trigger typically requires multiple seasonal cycles to refine, along with close consultation and integration of local expertise to avoid technical approaches disconnected from reality. For example, the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre spent years developing the trigger used to predict severe flooding in Bangladesh, which works quite well despite inherent trade-offs between level of certainty and advance notice for action. In Malawi and Ethiopia, OCHA creatively managed the challenges of early stage trigger development (and the financial risk represented) by developing two-tiered triggers, with portions of AA funding being released at different times based on different signals.

3. Building new frameworks requires balancing urgency to respond more effectively with the time needed to anchor AA locally.

Developing new frameworks requires ongoing balancing between the urgent need for improving the timing and efficient use of resources where possible to mitigate the impact of impending disasters, and the time needed to develop frameworks and well-calibrated triggers that are anchored in local knowledge and systems. This theme was consistently repeated across pilots, though the contexts were quite different. For example, in Somalia partners advocated for anchoring the development of AA in existing humanitarian coordination structures and processes to facilitate the work and reduce the load on country colleagues. There was also a sense that the given timeframes to complete the framework impacted the intervention design. In Bangladesh and Malawi, both countries with well-developed disaster management agencies that offer significant expertise, learning suggested there could have been value in having more time to engage relevant government agencies more significantly. Finally, in Ethiopia, some interviewees spoke to a need to better sensitize implementing partners in different regions, and to engage communities more meaningfully in the co-creation of solutions, both of which take time. These experiences suggest some of the trade-offs inherent in working to quickly develop new frameworks (particularly in contexts new to AA), while recognizing the urgency to bring better-timed resources to mitigate worsening disasters, which may be right around the corner.

4. OCHA is now playing a central role in coordinating AA, generating evidence on its effectiveness, and helping the system bring it to scale.

There is demand among agencies and implementing partners to create greater synergy and efficiency across agencies to scale AA, and to build and share evidence about its impact on the most vulnerable. The pilots have shown promising benefits from this coordination on intervention design and have contributed to shifting mindsets to get ahead of shocks. Opportunities for improved coordination during implementation have been identified and are now being integrated. The pilots also showcase possibilities for different coordination models, including via in-country ad hoc partnership (as was uniquely the case in Bangladesh), through Resident Coordinator’s Offices (as in Malawi), or OCHA country offices and inter-cluster coordination groups (as in Ethiopia and Somalia). OCHA’s role in facilitating the setting up of frameworks has varied depending on the context and operational environment. For example, in some countries, there is a greater need for educating in-country partners, building capacity and understanding among government agencies, and supporting operational readiness. These all require additional time and investment by agencies and donors, which OCHA can only advocate and help mobilize.

5. Communication, patience, humility, and creativity are essential for experimentation and incremental improvement.

Developing successful AA is not just about the technical details of what is ultimately endorsed in a framework, but also about cultivating a healthy collective process to reach an initial “good enough” approach that can be learned from and built upon. For example, building trust, transparency, and a common understanding of the “pilot mindset” allowed partners in Bangladesh to openly raise challenges and work toward viable solutions within an extremely short timeframe. This was certainly aided by partner agencies’ past experience with AA specific to the shock being addressed. Nonetheless, being pragmatic about what challenges could or could not be resolved in time for the 2020 monsoon season and recognizing the pilot would not be perfect ultimately allowed for major humanitarian impact, rich learning, and evidence generation. In Malawi, the roll-out team embraced the iterative nature of AA plan development, particularly in the face of data limitations, leading to the creation of a workable solution (such as the two-stage trigger) that can now be learned from.

Underpinning all these lessons is the cultivation and nurturing of a transparent learning culture, aided in part by engaging in process learning. The OCHA team members focused on AA have incorporated iterative learning and open sharing across partnerships and stakeholder groups as a central tenet of how they go about developing their role. Each new framework development process has actively integrated lessons learned from the ones prior. This demonstrates how being open to scrutiny accelerates the rate of learning and improvement both for the organization itself and for others. This is particularly important as evidence grows for how AA can work, and as the environment for scaling up becomes more favourable.

Commitment to learning and the willingness to be transparent with the results is a public good well worth investing in – one that ultimately has the potential to improve anticipation and reduce unnecessary human suffering and loss experienced at the hands of increasingly severe and frequent climate-related disasters.

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