The future of humanitarian aid? Pilot scheme stops drought leading to hunger

An early intervention approach tested in Pakistan and Senegal unlocks aid for predictable and predicted extreme weather before communities suffer

Women in Mbacké, a small town in central Senegal, receive cash from NGOs to help them prepare for a drought (Photo: Catholic Relief Services)


When the Pakistan Meteorological Department forecast significantly reduced rainfall in the final months of 2020 and well into 2021, humanitarian experts had rarely been so ready to respond.

For more than three years, practitioners had been working with University of Reading in the UK to develop an agricultural drought prediction model for Pakistan. The aim was to use scientific modelling to inform early intervention and protect communities from climate shocks before they hit.

At the end of 2020, the model was deployed in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, drought-prone areas which are also the country’s bread basket. Using high resolution satellite imagery, the model was able to identify where the winter wheat wasn’t growing properly and trigger an alert for early intervention.

Pakistani NGOs had made a response plan with local communities, identifying what kind of support they needed so a failed crop did not lead to hunger and penury.

Grant-based funding had been arranged with the UK and Dutch governments and by June, as the meteorological department raised its drought warning to severe, a nutritional programme was already being rolled out in schools and to mothers with young children.

This was the first use of a funding facility designed by the Start Network, a coalition of more than 50 aid agencies and NGOs, for a new era of climate impacts.

Pakistan’ pilot scheme is due to run until December. Results so far show “a huge success,” Amjad Ahmad, a retired army officer and the network’s country lead in Pakistan, told Climate Home News.

Fewer children have dropped out of school, people haven’t had to sell their cattle to buy food and fewer people have migrated to the cities in search of work.

For Ahmad, the initiative’s bottom-up approach was paramount. “This is probably the future of humanitarian assistance,” he said.

NGOs in Pakistan hold an awareness session for mothers about the impacts of the heat and drought on children in Jacobabad, Sindh province (Photo: Start Network in Pakistan)

The Start Network’s mission is “to bring change to the humanitarian sector” at a time when demand for  aid is ballooning, Sarah Klassen, the network’s policy and advocacy advisor, told Climate Home.

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that global temperatures will continue to increase until mid-century under all emissions scenarios. This will lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, heavy rainfall, agricultural droughts and the proportion of intense tropical cyclones.

“Local communities want to adapt and mitigate climate risks but the humanitarian community has been slow to catch up,” said Klassen.

The network was created out of the frustration of aid workers over the “begging bowl” approach to humanitarian aid by which disasters need to unfold before funds for victims can be unlocked.

Given improvements in forecasts and risk information, Klassen said this wait-and-see approach had become “morally difficult to justify”. “We are responsible to act on the information that we have,” she said.

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Start Network analysis of UN appeals suggests that at least 55% of crises are somewhat predictable but less than 1% of funding is released for early action.

Its funding facility, due to launch around the Cop26 climate summit in November, aims to address this imbalance and a nearly $19bn funding gap for humanitarian aid. The network is in discussions with a number of donor countries including the US, the UK, the EU and Germany.

Besides Pakistan, the network is piloting the approach with governments in Senegal, Bangladesh, Philippines, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

In each country, the network and its local partners identify climate risks faced by communities such as flooding, cyclones, droughts and heatwaves. Local humanitarian groups then work with local communities to develop response plans to foreseeable crises.

They work with scientists to model the risks and determine what the trigger point should be for the response plan. This could be based on the level of moisture in the soil or growth rate of staple crops.

Pre-arranged funding, through grants or insurance, is then quickly unlocked. The network pools risks to use donor’s funds more efficiently, allowing money to be used where and when it’s needed.

A mother and child in Senegal received support from NGO workers to help her prepare for a drought (Photo: African Risk Capacity)

There have been some cultural barriers to overcome. In Senegal, many people in vulnerable communities were reluctant to contemplate a negative future.

“So if you ask people what they would do if there was no rain in the next six months, many replied by saying ‘Oh God forbid such a thing would happen’,” Amadou Diallo, the network’s country lead in Senegal, told Climate Home.

Eventually, Diallo and his colleagues were able to understand what the community might need and where the gaps lay.

With funding from the German government, the Start Network purchased an insurance policy from the African Risk Capacity (ARC), an initiative championed by the G7 that helps African governments and humanitarian actors access insurance at a discount, to finance the response plan.

In November 2019, forecasters sent an alert for a severe, large-scale drought in Senegal.

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ARC paid out $10.6m to Start Network – the largest ever early action investment received by civil society. The Senegalese government, which had also purchased a policy, received $12.5m to cover losses from crop failures.

The assistance was rolled out across seven regions, supporting 335,000 people, with cash transfers, fortified flour and an awareness campaign around hygiene and nutrition.

With clear plans in hand to deal with the drought, NGOs were better equipped to respond to the first wave of Covid-19 infections, which hit Senegal around the same time.

“It was a really complicated situation but we all knew what we were supposed to be doing and having the funds in place really made the difference in allowing us to access the population,” Diallo said.

An internal assessment found that by June 2020, 86% of households said they had received the cash distribution early enough to prepare for the lean season, and 85% said the quality or quantity of their food had improved. The number of people going a whole day without eating declined and so did the number of children under 18 who were sent to work.

Diallo said this anticipatory approach to disaster response had meant the drought was not in competition with the coronavirus pandemic for limited government funds.

NGO workers with the Start Network distribute money and bags of flour to vulnerable people in the small town of Mbacké, Senegal (Photo: Catholic Relief Services)

The use of insurance to respond to the loss and damage caused by climate impacts has previously been controversial.

In 2017, ARC took nine months to pay out $8.1m to the government of Malawi when a state of emergency was declared over a drought, due to a faulty assumption was about the type of crop farmers were growing.

At the time, campaigners at Action Aid criticised the initiative for “reinforcing an ill-informed rush to roll out insurance, overlooking better alternatives and causes of structural vulnerability”.

Clare Harris, a technical lead at Start Network, acknowledged the shortfalls of the model used in Malawi.

“Definitely, [ARC] learnt some lessons,” she told Climate Home. “More work was needed at the national level to make these models and data systems much more locally led.”

Insurance is “not a silver bullet for addressing climate change,” Harris said, but it can be an effective tool when used “at the right time and for the right reason” such as severe disasters that don’t tend to happen more than once in a decade.

However, scientists warn extreme weather events that used to happen once in 10 years will happen more frequently in an overheated world.

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Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator at ActionAid International, told Climate Home that climate change was making many risks uninsurable, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable.

“The insurance industry itself is starting to acknowledge the limitations of its compensation schemes to cover climate disasters… as they become more frequent, intense or even inevitable,” she said.

ActionAid argues that insurance mechanisms put the financial burden on those least responsible for the causing the climate crisis. Instead, it calls for debt relief and grant-based finance to support countries recover from climate disasters. “Billions could be raised through progressive taxes and reinvesting fossil fuel subsidies in a just transition,” said Anderson.

Harris said Start Network will have to adapt its financial mechanism as more frequent and intense disasters push up the cost of protecting people.

“But the long and the short of it is that we’re going to need more money,” Harris said. “And once you can start quantifying that you can start making real arguments for adaptation financing,” which, she said, funding for early intervention cannot replace.

Read more on: Climate finance | Loss and damage