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; leaving decision makers in an uncertain position when deciding if and when to issue an early warning that will result in a response that will cost money and use other 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 (2011) provides an insightful review of humanitarian response in pastoral areas of the Horn of Africa where, 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 continues 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:

  • The demand for multiple assessments and evidence before senior management and owners accept that there is a problem
  • A lack of trust in early warning assessments
  • Limited understanding of the situation in rural areas
  • Lack of shared information and decision-making
  • Lack of transparency about analysis and rationale for warnings
  • Lack of thresholds, difficulty distinguishing 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?


Levine, S. (2011) System Failure? Revisiting the Problems of Timely Response to Crisis in the Horn of Africa. commissioned and published humanitarian practice network; Overseas Development Institute.

Further reading

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

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University