The world is in the midst of the worst food crisis in modern history. As a confluence of geopolitical, economic and climate crises fuel global shortages, a staggering 326 million people in 63 countries are in need of humanitarian assistance, of whom 222 million face severe food insecurity and as many as 50 Millions are at risk of starvation.
The poorest countries have been the most affected by the global increase in food prices caused by the war in Ukraine. And with a climate catastrophe looming imminently that threatens to exacerbate the effects of conflict and supply chain disruptions, the humanitarian sector must take a more proactive and anticipatory approach to the growing hunger crisis.
By building on climate science, we can anticipate risks and address humanitarian needs before they become emergencies.
Until relatively recently, humanitarian organizations did not pay much attention to climate change. However, the proliferation of weather-related humanitarian emergencies has made the sector recognize the threat it poses to low-income countries and the global food system. While the deadly floods and heatwaves that have hit Europe in the past two years have shown that even countries considered relatively safe are not immune to extreme weather events, developing countries are much more vulnerable.
In 2021, 94% of IDPs were internally displaced as a result of weather-related hazards. Last year’s floods in Pakistan submerged a third of this country, claimed more than 1,730 lives, affected 33 million people and caused economic losses estimated at 16.3 billion dollars (15.28 billion euros).
As climate change is causing humanitarian crises around the world, the number of people needing help has increased by 40% in the last year. In response to growing need, funding for humanitarian causes has nearly doubled in the past decade, reaching $31.3 billion (29.35 billion euros) in 2021.
But while funding has increased, the challenge facing international agencies and NGOs today is to maximize the impact of these resources and empower local and national organizations. As it stands today, two-thirds of all direct contributions to humanitarian causes go to United Nations agencies and leading international organizations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent. While these large institutions play a crucial role, community initiatives often have a better understanding of local contexts.
The world’s largest donors and NGOs apparently recognized this when launched the initiative Grand Bargain in 2016, pledging to provide 25% of humanitarian funds to local organizations. But seven years after this deal was announced, the figure is still less than 2%. Until now, the modus operandi of the sector has been reactive.
Whether in Haiti, Ethiopia or Pakistan, the methods are the same: a crisis arises, a humanitarian appeal is launched, funds are raised, and aid is provided for many days (even months) afterward. But by building on climate science, we can anticipate risks and address humanitarian needs before they become emergencies.
In 2021, 94% of IDPs were internally displaced as a result of weather-related hazards
Predictive action, defined as “acting before forecasted hazard events occur with the aim of preventing or reducing severe humanitarian impacts before they become fully manifest”, involves forecasting mechanisms as well as pre-agreed thresholds and triggers to release funds in advance. By responding to needs in this way, we can deliver aid more effectively and with dignity. In 2019, for example, both the Senegalese government and the organization Start Network They purchased insurance policies against drought, which allowed them to receive funds for humanitarian action and coordinate measures to protect communities at risk.
But anticipatory action also has its limits. As a recent Start Network report shows, not all crises can be forecast or modelled. Still, taking this approach would allow humanitarian actors and organizations to be proactive, improve efficiency, and prevent life-threatening events from escalating into full-scale catastrophes.
The global aid system needs rapid reform. While some progress has been made in recent years, much of it has been transactional rather than transformative. Undoubtedly, the problems we face are complicated and multidimensional, and we cannot ignore the political dimension of humanitarian action. Some may believe that necessity or desperation will force the sector into change for the better, but scaling locally led and anticipatory action represents a much more promising path.
The current climate crisis offers a unique opportunity for evidence-based humanitarian reform. In this data-driven world of ours, there is no reason to wait for catastrophe. By anticipating risks and planning ahead, we can protect vulnerable communities and make the world a safer place.
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