In last month’s newsletter we mentioned a series of meetings that were taking place in Geneva in October about disasters, emergencies and ‘humanitarian futures’. The main themes focused on the types of crises that we might have to face in the foreseeable future, and what those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities should be doing to prepare for such threats.

Two interrelated issues consistently emerged out of these discussions:

  • The need to know more about ‘the what might be’s’ among intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations;
  • The need to have a clearer idea about who in the wider sector is doing what and where when it comes to preparing for the future.

Sector Survey

With these two concerns in mind, the Humanitarian Futures team and the Geneva-based group, Incitare, are proposing to conduct a Sector Survey in response to both points. We would be delighted if you wanted to know more about the Sector Survey, its specific objectives and intended outcomes. If so, please visit Humanitarian Futures Sector Survey.

The Fifth Risk

Along the same lines, if you’re looking for evidence that the types, dimensions and dynamics of humanitarian crisis threats are indeed increasing, we’d like to point you to a recent publication, The Fifth Risk, by the highly acclaimed author, Michael Lewis.

The fifth risk is something impossible to prepare for. What matters is having a well-organised government to respond.

In this, his most recent work, he identifies a wide range of risks that could become major humanitarian crises. He notes, for example, that the US Department of Agriculture has warned ‘that in attempts to enhance food production through genetic engineering, genetic engineering might be used as a weapon of mass destruction…that a microbe could bring down a civilisation’. [p.109]

Amongst a disconcerting array of others that Lewis mentions is seeping plutonium. Here, he points to the prospect that plutonium filled sludge could soon escape its Hanford site storage facilities in the United States — the largest known of its kind — and wend its way into the Columbia River. Even the casing which contains the plutonium can produce vapours that could result in Fukushima-level events that could happen at any moment…You’d be releasing millions of curies of strontium 90 and caesium. And, once it’s out there it doesn’t go away — not for hundreds and hundreds of years’. [p.73]

None of these sorts of crises are inevitable, stresses Lewis, as long as one bears in mind ‘the fifth risk’ — ‘the risk that a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to longer-term risks with short-tern solutions. “Program management” is not just program management. “Program management” is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk….’ [p.73]

Risk Report 2018

And, speaking of risks and issues that should demand attention, you will find the Global Catastrophic Risks Report 2018 clearly underscores the point: We need to think differently about the risks for which we should be preparing as a humanitarian sectorA combination of universities and ‘think tanks’ have put together a list of potential global catastrophic threats — from solar geo-engineering to super volcanic eruption —  and have proposed steps for dealing with them. You can access the report from the Humanitarian Futures website here.