Building foresight into humanitarian response and development

A call from Action against Hunger for long-term thinking and participation precedes news from the front, from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Michel Maietta Aarathi Krishnan John A. Sweeney
26 April 2017

Solferino Academy foresight session.

What can the future do for humanitarians? 

By Michel Maietta

$1 spent in preparedness saves $7 in humanitarian response[1]. Humanitarians working in disaster preparedness, early warning, and resilience building have all heard this before. Though it may satisfy public and private donors for reasons of accountability and a no-regrets approach to programming, we need to push past this statistic. What is the true value of pre-empting the future to humanitarian response?

In a context of shrinking budgets, and ever-worsening, never-ending crises, we ask ourselves how to become more effective. Our answer? Start with the future.

From flooding in Mali and Sri Lanka[2] to election violence in Burundi, NGOs investing in anticipation and preparedness have identified, localised, and prioritised vulnerable populations. In some instances, resilience-building mechanisms have been put in place to enable vulnerable populations to better weather the storm – e.g.: dredging out floodwater channels, rolling out sensitization programmes, and pre-positioning hygiene, shelter and medical kits to expectant mothers or health centres.

When this has been done in advance of a crisis, response down the line has been speedier and more effective. Even in scenarios where the anticipated disaster does not strike, the argument for strengthening vulnerable communities holds – as many of the disasters, especially the natural ones, reoccur on a seasonal basis. NGOs working to monitor the impact of these anticipatory projects are explaining time and again how preparedness saves money, time and lives.

That said, the anticipatory work done currently is relatively short term – 3 month windows are the most common, with some organisations planning 6 or 9 months ahead. That said, the anticipatory work done currently is relatively short term – 3 month windows are the most common, with some organisations planning 6 or 9 months ahead.

What happens when we scale up anticipation to 15 years? We know the answer because we[3] do it every day. We plan 1 to 15 years into the future (depending on context) and, crucially, prepare decision makers in NGOs for a number of possible futures. We then use these scenarios to build robust strategies at country, regional, and global level.

Early feedback suggests that thanks to our strategic planning process, operations are more flexible, adaptable, quicker to respond, and therefore cheaper in the contexts where the future has been pre-empted. Civil society actors, citizenship movements, and local NGO partnerships can be developed in anticipation of certain types of crises in order to save time and money later on. If directors identify a likely future crisis, they can integrate this risk into funding appeals and donor discussions. When disaster strikes, these plans are revived more quickly and effectively. NGOs will need to be strategic from the bottom-up.

We’re in the process of integrating existing short-term forecasts with our longer-term foresight model to ensure that across the humanitarian sector, NGOs are looking months and years ahead and in doing so save more lives, more quickly with less money. 

We are at the brink of a truly transforming humanitarian programming, but change will be slow to permeate the sector. NGOs will need to be strategic from the bottom-up: on the ground, where contextual actors and dynamics drive programming as much as at the top, where leaders will need to be visionaries – courageous enough to fundamentally transform a mammoth humanitarian machine which hasn’t seen such change since its twentieth century shift towards secularism

[1] Watch UNDP’s excellent video on this statistic.

[2] Source: START Network Members

[3] We are the IARAN – Interagency Regional Analysts Network—find out more here about our pioneering approach to humanitarian foresight.


Using the future to meet the needs of affected communities: the Solferino Academy

By Aarathi Krishnan and John A Sweeney


Red Cross Red Crescent leaders.The humanitarian sector faces an array of unprecedented challenges: climate change, critical resource shortages, accelerating urbanization, rising populism, protracted conflicts, etc. [1].

The risks, shocks, and threats of today, as well as those to come, are deeply intertwined with an array of trends and emerging issues that portend further sectoral disruption and systemic instability. At present, 600 million youth (ages 10-24) live in conflict-affected or fragile environments. Are we prepared to meet their future needs and hopes? Adopting new technologies has become common practice in the sector, but much of this innovation is borrowed rather than generated from within. Why, for the most part, has the sector been a consumer rather than a producer of innovative strategies and tactics? Global mega-trends shape all our lives, but the impacts of regional and national phenomena are just as essential to understand and anticipate. If the local is just as, if not more, important than the global, how can and might the sector shift scales when needed?

Across the sector, we either underestimate the implications of unfolding changes or lack the skills needed to navigate postnormal times. As Sardar observes: 

The combination of ignorance and uncertainty, as well as a tendency to chaotic behaviour, contradictory analysis and the complex issues of safety and risks – all this means that our current options for ‘business as usual’ are now dangerously obsolete. In postnormal times, conventional modes of thinking and behaving are nothing more than an invitation to impending catastrophe [2].

If there is one thing that unites many, if not most, working in the humanitarian and development sectors, it is that business as usual – from service delivery to operations – cannot and must not endure. “Our current options for ‘business as usual’ are now dangerously obsolete.”

In response to the challenges of today and those lingering just over the horizon, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched The Solferino Academy as an initiative to use the future as a resource in meeting the needs of affected communities.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is over 150 years old, and has evolved over time, but it recognises the need to be more agile and relevant in times of dynamic change. Anticipating future crises means not only developing more forward-looking and efficient relief delivery mechanisms and protection strategies but also forecasting possible political, social, and economic contexts that can and might shape the future of humanitarian and development need.

Ultimately, the Solferino Academy was designed to pioneer innovative methods, from gaming to experiential futures, and institutionalize foresight within operations, as well as planning, policy, strategy development processes. The IFRC Secretariat with the support and collaboration of the Italian Red Cross, British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross, Danish Red Cross, Mexican Red Cross, and the Kenyan Red Cross leads the Academy. The IFRC Secretariat with the support and collaboration of the Italian Red Cross, British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross, Danish Red Cross, Mexican Red Cross, and the Kenyan Red Cross leads the Academy.

The Academy’s primary aim is to ensure that we continuously explore possible futures in order to exploit uncommon opportunities as they arise. We work with Red Cross societies globally so that we can continue to understand and meet the changing and complex humanitarian and development needs of the communities we serve in the most effective and efficient means possible.

Think and do

Designing participatory and collaborative spaces for engaged learning, we combine external research and knowledge with the robust intelligence of our leadership, staff, and volunteers to create localized initiatives designed for maximum impact. Solferino is both a “think” and “do” tank that also capitalizes on insights from leading experts and partners in various fields and disciplines.

At present, we are designing a massive multiplayer online game with partners from Newcastle University’s OpenLab to crowdsource ideas and insights on the future challenges, opportunities, and changes facing the movement. No one can predict the future, but we can and must help national societies become more agile and proactive to anticipate possibilities for what lies ahead, engage with new partners and stakeholders, and seek out uncommon opportunities. Knowing what is causing change and being able to act upon our insights is not the same thing, and we have a long journey toward evolving the IFRC’s organisational culture. This is why we have aligned our futures and foresight work with a broad innovation approach aimed at scaling transformative strategies and tactics to shift the paradigm.                                                                           

On February 22-24 2017, senior leaders representing the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Secretariat National Societies from Egypt, Ghana, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands traveled to the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio to inaugurate the Solferino Academy.

This initial gathering was centered on how a futures and foresight approach could be used to strengthen the IFRC at the local, national, regional, and global scale. As part of IFRC’s broader innovation agenda, futures and foresight have been used to create more agile, adaptive, and anticipatory organizations by using the future to create change in the present.

How can the IFRC institutionalize a forward-looking approach as a means to strengthen its capacities as the world’s largest humanitarian organization? The Bellagio event provided a hands-on introduction to key futures and foresight concepts using proven methods, such as trend analysis, emerging issues, and scenarios. A three day journey ­– from sensing to integrating to creating – guided participants through the art and science of using futures and foresight methods while also generating actionable insights and concrete takeaways.

We set out to inspire and empower champions – internal leaders – who will carry the torch of futures and foresight across the organisation, and, so far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Since Bellagio, we have run similar events in Panama City, Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur with Red Cross Red Crescent leaders from Australia, Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean and Suriname.

The status quo that has underpinned the sector will not continue. The time for change has come and if we do not adapt, we risk running irrelevant programs that are unwanted by the communities we serve. If we do not adapt, we risk running irrelevant programs that are unwanted by the communities we serve.

Leaving no one behind

Change involves recognizing that neither individuals, nation-states, or the humanitarian and development sector itself, in its current form, has the tools and capacities to confront and combat the systemic changes unfolding all around us [1].

In order to continue meeting the needs of affected communities, we must undertake a fundamental shift driven by our principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. As we are a values-driven organisation, we have put dialogue and engagement around our guiding principles at the heart of our work at the Solferino Academy.

Creating a unified narrative – one that brings together futures and foresight with our grassroots efforts on innovation – will help us navigate the complexities of today and help the Red Cross Red Crescent movement continue to be able to serve affected communities in the way they need it most: leaving no one behind.

[1] Ferris, E.,  Megatrends and the future of humanitarian action, International Review of the Red Cross, December 2011.

[2] Sardar. Z. Welcome to Postnormal Times. Futures 42 (2010) 435–444.

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