Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

Previous blogs in this series have highlighted how farmers’ responses to ‘drought’ are focused on adaptive adjustments to farming and livelihood practices that unfold as a ‘performance’. A drought is not a single event, but emerges over time, and responses are not singular or time-defined, but continuously evolving.


Farmers’ responses are therefore ones attuned to uncertainty – where future outcomes are unknown – rather than risk – where future events can be predicted, forecast or anticipated. However, most external interventions are, as we have seen in respect of sovereign insurance in the previous blog, framed by a risk and control mindset.

A whole paraphernalia of approaches are now central to ‘disaster risk management’ approaches and part of humanitarian responses. With various technical inputs and sophisticated models, they assume that droughts can be predicted, early warnings offered and insurance pay-outs provided to prevent disasters happening.

There is a growing confidence it seems in predictive models, centred on approaches such as ‘anticipatory action’ as well as parametric/index insurance of different sorts. This confidence is boosted by a belief that increased access to information from satellite imagery, ‘big data’ analysis, machine learning and so on can improve the predictive power and calculative capacity of such mechanisms. The UK’s new ‘international development strategy’, for example, is replete with such techno-optimist claims.

But what if such approaches, now so central to the humanitarian and aid machine, don’t work or only do so partially because of prevailing uncertainty and ignorance? And, as discussed in an earlier blog, even if predictions are made, will farmers’ believe in and act on them?

The long history of early warning systems in Africa suggests that problems of data availability and credibility will remain. As Margie Buchanan-Smith and Susanna Davies (now Moorehead) argued back in 1994, “Improved capacity to predict drought‐induced famines has not led to a concomitant improvement in famine prevention.”

From managing risk to generating high reliability

Instead of relying on technical fixes that assume risk, what if a different approach was adopted, one that started by embracing uncertainty, not pretending that we can predict and plan, even with improved knowledge? Could farmers’ responses, based on sequential adaptation, learning and flexible responses help us rethink approaches to drought and disaster response?

A recent open access paper in Development Policy Review – Providing social assistance and humanitarian relief: the case for embracing uncertainty – chimes very much with the Zimbabwe experience. As we argue, rather than blaming failures on poor models, implementation gaps, targeting errors, exclusion by design, lack of co-ordination, poor governance and sometimes vague, black-boxed notions of political economy, an alternative approach that genuinely embraces uncertainty is proposed. Based on case material from Ethiopia and Libya (but could as well have been Zimbabwe or nearly anywhere…), it suggests four challenges for humanitarian and social protection efforts addressing uncertain disasters.

Skills, practices and capabilities — If uncertainties cannot be planned away, then systems require the continuous capacity to spot uncertainties, address surprises and avoid areas of ignorance. This requires horizon-scanning, thinking about the longer-term future, as well as being aware in real-time of unfolding situations on the ground. Drawing on work on ‘critical infrastructures’, we show how networks of ‘high reliability professionals’ – including farmers, government officials and aid agency staff based in the field – can act as brokers and translators, linking and negotiating multiple sources of knowledge. Identifying such networks and building their capacity should be central to investment in disaster responses, we suggest.

Organisational change — The sort of flexible, adaptive learning by high reliability professionals in turn needs to be embedded in organisations, incentivised and rewarded. A more modular organisational arrangement, with decentralised, networked decision-making can facilitate a more nimble, responsive action, we argue. Building in redundancy means that organisations can change gear quickly and have the flexibility to respond. Allowing for innovation, as well as learning from and sharing this, is essential. The cumbersome, hierarchical organisation of standard governmental or development/humanitarian agencies therefore has to be rethought.

Financing mechanisms — Standard approaches to financing in disasters are notoriously poor at addressing uncertainties. Single, predictable funding pipelines linked to fixed budgets, planned according to defined risks and negotiated on assumptions of stability and uniformity are inadequate for unpredictable shocks and surprises. Appropriate financing mechanisms to respond to uncertainty include contingency funds, advance commitment funding and contingency credit arrangements, linked to emergency funding reallocation systems. Under conditions of uncertainty we argue that this must go beyond standard index insurance systems as well as anticipatory risk planning and pre-shock identification of the most vulnerable. We equally must not assume the existence of effectively functioning state delivery systems and infrastructure. Instead, more hybrid, ‘mutual’ approaches that build on local response systems, but are combined with focused, strategic external financing offer a way forward.

Accountability relations – Too often in disaster responses, accountability relationships run upwards. Vertical monitoring, evaluation and audit control systems follow. But, if accountabilities are extended downwards and outwards, then other participants become involved. Those delivering and receiving social assistance and relief are as a result no longer just passive recipients, but are actively involved in the response, operating through locally-embedded networks, connecting implementing agency professionals with so-called beneficiaries. If networked arrangements and horizontal accountabilities are built in from the start, a more collectively-owned approach for high reliability, based on combined knowledge and action can emerge, we suggest.

Rethinking disaster responses, why embracing uncertainty is essential

A focus on uncertainty therefore shines a particular light on incomplete (or absent) knowledge about the future, where standard techniques of prediction, anticipation and preparedness don’t work. An acceptance that uncertainty and ignorance are central fundamentally undermines our capacity to plan, manage (even adaptively), and so ensure stable, predictable and targeted outcomes. This has profound implications for the mainstream, risk and control oriented approaches to disaster response, especially in settings affected by crisis and conflict and where state capacity is weak (which is of course quite a lot of places, including of course Zimbabwe).

The paper concludes,

“Reversing patterns of accountability, incorporating new knowledges and actors, thinking about networks and encouraging systematic and reflexive learning all challenge.. standard approaches. Ignoring uncertainty—and not accepting inevitable ignorance and surprise—can be misleading, even downright dangerous. Standard risk-management approaches paper over cracks that can open up, causing major problems. Fixing these by arguing that all that is needed is better planning, implementation, correcting errors, and improving co-ordination does not deal with the core issue.”

Instead, the paper goes on,

A ‘high-reliability’ approach, which embraces and works with uncertainty and complexity, is needed. And this requires fundamental changes in everything from programme design, professional practice and skill-sets, organisational culture and incentives to funding, monitoring, and evaluation regimes.”

Without such a shift, the paper argues, the continued failures of aid and humanitarian interventions in disaster settings will continue. Embracing uncertainty means jettisoning now much-favoured tech-heavy approaches in favour of a more sophisticated, grounded, uncertainty-centred approach centred on generating ‘high reliability’ in real time. And to do this, learning from farmers, pastoralists and others who must always live with and from uncertainty will be essential.

This is the fourth and final blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first, second and third blogs here, here and here.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Post published in: Agriculture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *