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Early warning and decision making

Defining a set of conditions that will trigger an early warning is a difficult task.

In reality, that exact set of conditions may not occur. This leaves decision makers in an uncertain position when deciding if and when to issue an early warning that will result in a costly response, in terms of money and valuable resources. Even with the benefit of a monitoring system, we often put off making such decisions, hoping for greater certainty whilst jeopardising that valuable window of anticipation.

Levine, Crosskey and Abdinoor (2011) provide an insightful review of humanitarian response in pastoral areas of the Horn of Africa. Over the past 30 years, drought, as a result of the failure of two successive rainy seasons, has been a regular occurrence. Whilst mass fatalities are now rarer, effective and early interventions to limit the damage to livelihoods continue to have limited success, often arriving too late. The famine declared in 2011 had been predicted over a year before, and Levine reports that many aid professionals tried to persuade agencies and others to respond in order to prevent the worst of the crisis. He identified a number of contributory factors, including:

  • Demands for multiple assessments and evidence before senior management and donors accepted that there was a problem
  • A lack of trust in early warning assessments and a lack of transparency about the analysis of and rationale for those warnings
  • Lack of clear thresholds – how to distinguish normal or bearable seasonal hardship from ‘real’ crisis

Your task

What could agencies do to overcome some of these problems and ensure decisions can be made on the ‘balance’ of evidence?

Further reading

Darcy, J., Stobaugh, H., Walker, P., and Maxwell, D. (2013) The Use of Evidence in Humanitarian Decision Making: ACAPS Operational Learning Paper. Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University


Levine, S., Crosskey, A. and Abdinoor, M. (2011) System Failure? Revisiting the problems of timely response to crises in the Horn of Africa [online] available from https://odihpn.org/resources/system-failure-revisiting-the-problems-of-timely-response-to-crises-in-the-horn-of-africa/ [28 April 2020]

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University