Early Warning Early Action in East Africa: mechanisms for rapid decision making

Humanitarian and development partners alike have shown commitment to doing things differently, investing in research to better understand how to manage risks rather than crises. But is this change enough to produce a substantially different outcome next time? And if not, what else needs to be done and how?

The “Early Warning Early Action in East Africa: mechanisms for rapid decision making” research project led by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), in partnership with Oxfam, Save the Children, FAO and WFP, seeks to answer these questions and to provide key components of an effective system to make the case for further investment. It builds on a number of initiatives, reports and documents.

The operational research took the form of a literature review and interviews with a large number of stakeholders and practitioners in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia to take stock of progress, and to identify the characteristics of a well-functioning government-led Early Warning Early Action (EW EA) system. It was guided by a diverse Steering Committee, which included representatives of IGAD and national governments, donors, Red Cross Societies, UN agencies and NGOs.

Early action means ‘different’, not just ‘earlier’. The early actions being discussed here are not traditional humanitarian activities, although they need to be undertaken with a humanitarian sense of urgency. Indeed, any ‘humanitarian’ response to a slow-onset disaster is a late response. Early action is a paradigm shift for people and agencies which have grown accustomed to equating humanitarian action with crisis response. Communities which have adopted this paradigm shift appreciate the opportunity to make decisions about how to avoid recurrent extreme losses.

This report looks at the existing early warning and early actions systems in each of the three countries, as well as at regional level, and presents a model system. It builds on many ideas and examples that came to light during the research process, and combines these into a single model. It considers both the components of the system, and the environment in which it operates. It is, of course, idealized, but it provides a benchmark against which progress can be measured, and some indications of the path ahead. Although there is a lot to be learnt from community level EW EA systems, due to the timeframes, this was not addressed within this research project. However this is planned for the coming months.

Finally, this research seeks to identify the most important areas for further investment to address substantial gaps. Some of these gaps are in ‘hardware’: proven appropriate responses in water and education; more substantial surge models; different funding arrangements. But some of them are ‘software’: agreements on appropriate indicators and triggers; increased coherence on key issues between development and humanitarian actors; and more effective national ownership and leadership. Additional work to increase confidence in the early warning systems and analysis is a critical precursor to be able to address most of the gaps.

To conclude, there is a strong commitment to work differently, to learn from experience and to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. The importance of the agenda is not in debate: it is evidenced by the breadth of stakeholders who engaged with the research process through its steering committee, and by the findings from broad consultations. But this enthusiasm and willingness is not sufficient: the scale of most programming is too modest, the surge models is largely untested, the flexible funding schemes are insufficient, both the humanitarian architecture and contingency planning approaches are designed for traditional responses, and the coordination is too weak. So lots more need to be done.

We, IFRC, OXFAM, Save the Children, WFP and FAO, believe in partnership and are committed to work together on this issue supporting IGAD and national government planning and coordination platforms.