Beating Hindsight: Forecasting for Humanitarian Planning and Preparedness

Why is the future important?

All human endeavours are based on forecasting, i.e. attempts to narrow down possible future outcomes to a manageable range. We generally find forecasting extremely challenging due to psychological biases and cultural conditioning, but recent research has shown that better forecasting can be achieved through a particular combination of mental habits and skills, which some people already possess and most people can be trained in.

Why we struggle to see ahead

The challenges to forecasting in the humanitarian sector can be divided into two categories:

1. Outside

Humanitarian emergencies are often felt to be fundamentally unpredictable, due to a combination of three factors:

  1. The complex nature of human-caused emergencies such as wars and the resulting refugee flows;
  2. The unpredictability of wider political and economic systems in which humanitarian action is embedded.

2. Inside

Internal challenges are likely to be more difficult to resolve. Evidence provided by early warning projects has historically not lead to improved response due to the lack of political will inherent in a sector where incentives to respond are poorly aligned and decisions are not evidence-based. Early warning has been of limited success for a number of reasons, including:

  1. The sector has a high barrier to entry that external experts find difficult to breach, requiring a large investment in partnership work;
  2. The community struggles to incorporate new conceptual models into its workflows, since those workflows have been developed in an ad hoc and reactive manner.

The Humanitarian Forecasting Tournament

The best available evidence suggests that forecasting tournaments are the most effective way to achieve better forecasts and improve forecasting skills. We could envision such a tournament managed by the Start Network, but developed with existing and new partners. Individual Start member agencies might wish to play a role in developing and managing the tournament, but participation would be open to staff of all agencies regardless.

The first stage

will be to design such a tournament, to be tested with 4–5 Start member organisations. It is likely to be more effective if it focuses on a single response, and might be incorporated into Start’s plans for country-level consortia. We would aim to identify 4–5 national and international staff from within each participating member to take part in the initial tournament round, preferably a combination of field, regional and HQ staff.

  • Damage estimates following major earthquakes
  • Likely duration of long-term crises such as droughts
  • Possible outcomes of conflict negotiations

The second stage

will expand:

  1. The Participants to include forecasters from outside the sector who would be interested to participate in the tournament as a way of contributing towards better responses. This expanded tournament will make it possible to test to what extent mixed forecasting groups (i.e. humanitarian professionals and non-professional forecasters) can achieve better results than solely humanitarian participants.
  2. The Audience to include decision-makers within the sector who might benefit from better forecasts. This will require monitoring and evaluation to establish to what extent such forecasts improve the quality of decisions, and gain greater insight into what organisational processes are needed to embed this type of evidence-based analysis into the sector. This will also act as proof of concept for further investment in forecasting in the sector.

The third stage

will encourage humanitarian organisations not just to use existing forecasts provided by third-party organisations, but to promote forecasting within their own organisation. This should not be limited to data or policy units, but encouraged throughout the organisation to improve the quality of decision-making more generally; it will be especially important to incorporate into monitoring, evaluation and learning processes.

Positioning the Tournament

The tournament should be positioned as complementary to other future-oriented activities. The Start Network is involved in a number of such activities, including pilots based around insurance mechanisms and future roundtables that encourage encourage discussion about the long-term development of the sector. Partnerships should be encouraged with other platforms in this space, along three main axes:

  • Platforms that aggregate analytical material to support better decision-making, e.g. INFORM. This was launched in November 2014 by a coalition led by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Team on Preparedness and Resilience and the European Commission. It is a “global, open-source risk assessment for humanitarian crises and disasters” that provides shared evidence from a range of partners, but does not provide any kind of forecast based on its rankings.
  • Platforms that use a similar approach to forecast in related areas, e.g. the Early Warning Project. This was launched in December 2015 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is based on a combination of statistical risk assessment and an expert opinion pool (i.e. a tournament approach). The EWP aims to forecast mass atrocities as part of wider early warning in order to prevent such atrocities from occurring. This gives it a more tightly defined and overtly political aim than a Humanitarian Forecasting tournament would have.

Conclusion: can forecasting save lives?

Forecasting offers a tremendous opportunity for the humanitarian community to increase the timeliness and efficiency of its responses, leading to improved outcomes for disaster-affected communities. Existing approaches to preparedness and planning — particularly in key areas such as logistics and security — could be improved by better forecasting, and operational responses in fast-changing environments could be made more flexible.

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I live in the city because I got tired of living up the mountain.

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Paul Currion

I live in the city because I got tired of living up the mountain.