Understanding uncertainty to prevent humanitarian crises

The international humanitarian and development community does not like uncertainty. Although increasingly effective in many ways, recent crises in East and West Africa have exposed long-standing weaknesses in how that community copes with uncertain information about emerging risks and future threats.

Take the warnings leading up to the 2011 food crisis in the Horn of Africa — part of the problem was that they were based on probabilities from rainfall forecasts and the possible effect on pastoral and farming livelihoods.

The result was that despite these warnings, the humanitarian system failed to respond on an appropriate scale prior to emergency declarations and widespread media attention — that is, once there was no uncertainty. The chance to prevent the crisis was missed.

While international humanitarian and development actors are attempting to address this by strengthening systems to build more resilience for emergencies, all too often these efforts fail to foster the kind of dialogue needed to manage risk — and truly engage with at-risk communities.


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