Humanitarian Futures And Operational Response – A  Sector Survey Proposal

The humanitarian sector and the world of futures

A wide range of humanitarian organisations met in Geneva during the first week of October 2018 to discuss ways to deal with ever more complex disasters and emergencies. Initiated and chaired by Incitare’s Beris Gwynne, who is a Humanitarian Futures partner, four meetings took place during the course of that week. Each in one way or another resulted in a similar theme, namely, there was no shared understanding about what was meant by humanitarian futures, foresight thinking and plausible longer-term humanitarian threats. And, closely related to that concern was a general feeling that few if any had a clear idea about who in the wider humanitarian community was doing what, where or when in terms of speculative thinking about longer-term threats and response.

The discussions in October underscored the fact that, while there was a high level of interest to plan from the future, there were a number of gaps and barriers that individual organisations faced in addressing humanitarian futures in a systematic and coherent way. One of these centred on participants’ belief that they were isolated from other actors attempting to deal with similar challenges. Another was the perception that, with slow progress towards new ways of working and increasing competition for resources, the space for “experimentation” and innovation had diminished. The discussions identified that the starting point for further understanding  of these issues could be a Sector Survey.

The humanitarian sector and a sector survey

In subsequent conversations coordinated by Humanitarian Futures and Incitāre, it was agreed that exploring the issues mentioned above in a Sector Survey would benefit individual humanitarian organisations as well as coordinating and umbrella bodies and the sector as a whole.  The broad intention of the survey would be to have a far better idea about how the humanitarian sector understands futures, and how those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities factor futures issues and response measures into their strategies and operational plans. This would include greater clarity about

  • the sorts of humanitarian risks and threats that humanitarian actors may be called upon to prepare for and respond to in the future, including the changing nature of crisis threats, perceived impacts, dimensions and dynamics – spanning local to global;
  • the impacts that such plausible threats might have on the changing nature of vulnerability, types of affected persons, societal structures, security and socio-economic systems;
  • the actions that are being taken by different humanitarian actors and institutions to address such future threats, including adopting new approaches to organisational strategy and structure, and investing in the organisational culture and change processes that underpin innovation and collaboration;
  • the difficulties and opportunities that humanitarian organisations encounter when undertaking longer-term planning for humanitarian purposes;
  • ways, with the support of donors and other stakeholders, to create incentives not only for structured experimentation, but also for fast-track innovation at scale.

The Sector Survey in Context

Humanitarian crises in the foreseeable future will not be restricted to North/South divides, but will increasingly spill across continents in ever more complex, fluid and non-linear ways.

Few doubt that the types, dimensions and dynamics of humanitarian crisis drivers will grow – in some instances, exponentially. Too little effort, however, seems to have been made to identify these for the humanitarian sector, or, where they have been identified, to move from scenario planning to action,

The traditional reactive response of humanitarian organisations will be inadequate to deal with the complexity of plausible future crisis drivers. Those who care about meeting the challenges of the future will have to plan from the future, namely, not relying upon the precedents of the past.

There is growing uncertainty that governments’ principal roles in humanitarian assistance via IGOs and NGOs will continue at the same level, and that new actors – social networks and the private sector – might become key players in crisis prevention and preparedness as well as response.

Technological and socio-economic innovations abound, and could have potentially tremendous impacts on mitigating threats and enhancing crisis response. At the same time, transformative technologies could be profoundly negative disrupters.

Mutual self-interest and not compassion will increasingly be an acceptable underpinning for dealing with humanitarian preparedness and response. Ways to collaborate with the private sector and social networks, for example, will become increasingly important.

Factors to guide the design of a Sector Survey

The Sector Survey design will take into account a number of factors, including:

  1. Lack of integrated surveys for the humanitarian sector exist. The fact of the matter is that there is no integrated survey that brings together new types of potential risks and ways to mitigate them at a global level. There are sectoral analyses, e.g., pandemics, climate change, nuclear fallout, but there is no single compilation of crisis threats that integrates the range of plausible risks and the ways that they may interact in various locations over time. Without a multi sectoral and integrated survey, we will remain stuck in fragmented silos with limited access to synthesized, practical information and guidance on how best to think about and factor humanitarian futures into the sector overall and into organisations with humanitarian roles and responsibilities.
  2. Failure to recognise fluid space and time dimension and its planning consequences. The dominant discourse among humanitarian organisations continues to view the world in terms of a persistent North-South divide. This perspective ignores both local capacities and the emergence of new actors (states and non-state actors – legitimate or otherwise – and the private sector). It, too, ignores the fact that crisis drivers and crises will be increasingly interactive across continents, and their impacts will persist well after a particular event has subsided. Such perspectives are rarely reflected in strategic or operational planning.
  3. Any event will spill over into a host of others in space and time, accelerated for good or ill by the consequences of transformative technologies. That means that integrated planning methods are essential, and that the use of an array of relevant technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning should support decision-making as well as integrated planning. In so doing, means to anticipate the full dimensions and dynamics of potential and actual crisis drivers will be significantly.
  4. Little evidence that the opinions of local and community organisations about longer-term threats are explored by humanitarian organisations. Despite the fact that a series of studies have shown that many communities, for example, in Africa are adopting transformative technologies, there appears to be little discourse on their negative and positive consequences from a longer-term perspective.

Proposed sectoral survey methods and outputs

The Humanitarian Futures Sector Survey will involve an extensive desk-top review of future crisis threats, and measures being undertaken by the private sector as well as by governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to anticipate and mitigate such threats. Following the desk-top review, the survey would involve follow-ups in selected countries to provide case material on futures planning. Finally, the survey would identify the activities of a wide range of organisations involved in innovations and innovative practices that could be used by those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities for futures planning.

The Sectoral Survey outputs would include

  1. A readily accessible, interactive ‘map’ of key actors and institutions engaged in futures work, reflecting types of risks, and their economic, social and geographic contexts;

  2. Report based on desk-top review, which would include the kinds of crisis threats and risks that should be on the humanitarian radar screen, a range of humanitarian organisations that are doing futures work, and emerging strategic planning gaps and opportunities;

  3. Key competencies guide for essential humanitarian futures capabilities, including a section on relevant terminology, and measures to fast-track and finance innovation at scale;

  4. A portfolio of specific case examples and success stories about futures processes and organisational preparedness, based on the work undertaken in the three stages;

  5. Two participant meetings, bringing together Sectoral Survey supporters to monitor and assess the project’s processes and findings.

The products would be housed on a web-site, available to all relevant organisations to use and update. Humanitarian Futures and Incitare will also seek to identify host institutions that could be the information repository for the Sectoral Survey products, and would be willing to engage in future updating work and fostering exchange on the survey findings.

With these objectives in mind, would you be

  1. Interested in helping to design the survey, including identifying topics and geographical areas that you find of particular interest?
  2. Interested in determining how the survey might best be used to enhance futures planning for those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities?
  3. Interested in exploring how the survey might be geared in ways that could specifically help your own organisation’s futures planning?
  4. Willing to have members of your staff help with agreed aspects of the survey, including those staff who might be available in country offices as well as at headquarters?
  5. Interested in helping update the survey on an annual basis?
  6. Interested in carrying the survey on your organisation’s website?

If you would like to participate, please contact us to register your interest

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