How do you prepare for an uncertain future?

Article origionally published at Thompson Reuter Alert Net

35816772493_1c54cd5c2f_z (1)
Image: Marc Sayce

Games to try out options, winning political buy-in and recognising that changes takes time all are key

Just how well-equipped is the development sector to deal with uncertainty? And what could we do to prepare it for future change?

We know that development planning is often heavily oriented toward the near-term, with little room for manoeuvre or contingency. In addition, planning cycles rarely run beyond three- to five-years. Many of these shortcomings are as familiar to the operational environments of non-governmental organisations as they are to the activities of national and local governments or donor agencies.

One option, proposed by the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance, is to promote Flexible and Forward-looking Decision Making (FFDM).

It’s not the catchiest name in the world, but the thinking behind it is that FFDM can help organisations achieve the structural changes they need to better deal with future change and uncertainty.


Our recent paper  goes into detail on how we can make it happen. But in short, FFDM means:

  • Recognising that change will happen and requires adaptation (even if the direction is uncertain)
  • Assessing the impacts of different drivers of change on development trajectories
  • Identifying enablers and initiating steps to overcome barriers to adaptation.
  • Making changes to structures and planning processes to implement adaptation effectively (incremental or transformational)

As a basic concept, FFDM is relatively straightforward to understand. However, it is often hard to communicate and relate to complex real-world problems. The African Climate Change Resilience Alliance therefore needed to find a way of translating an abstract term into tangible processes and tools. To do this the programme developed a game, and linked it to reflection sessions so that participants could relate game-play to their day-to-day activities in the real world.

This approach was trialled in three Africa countries: Uganda, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. In so doing, the resilience alliance sought to investigate two main questions:

  1. Whether FFDM is of value to local and national policy-makers
  2. Whether innovative and interactive tools are effective in promoting FFDM (or other conceptual approaches to supporting development)

After two years of research and capacity building, those findings are documented in a new Overseas Development Institute report.

The research highlights three key lessons:

1. Understanding the context is crucial: Any initiative that aims to encourage better planning and decision-making needs to be mindful of the complex political situations that local and national policies operate within. For example, a key determinant of the success of the resilience alliance’s activities in all three countries was the ability to secure political buy-in from local leadership and to identify suitable ‘champions of change’.

2. Investing in better communication can bring development dividends: Communicating an abstract concept is difficult (whether that’s FFDM or resilience), but a ‘game-enabled reflection’ approach can help decision-makers understand the need for change and how to go about putting it into practice.

The alliance’s approach showcased practical ways to deliver change while working within the current system. Indeed, it even spurred on new partnerships: creating closer links between the National Meteorological Office and district governments in Uganda for better uptake of seasonal and decade-long weather forecasts.

3.  Recognising that delivering meaningful change will take time and resources: Organisational structures, mind-sets, and the incentives facing development actors are deeply ingrained and often slow to change.  Encouraging organisations to better deal with future change and uncertainty will, in many cases, require transformation and an overhaul of current practices.

This often translates into considerable financial and time investments to support such a transition (even something as seemingly trivial as a game can take many months to design and test). To some extent this is a welcome challenge, as safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that new policies are indeed better than the old ones (and without rushing to encourage transformation simply for the sake of it).

The resilience alliance’s findings show that reforming planning processes to better deal with future change and uncertainty is not easy. Games won’t change the world. But they are a start. They help people to break down the complexities of the real-world, identify the basic problem and work towards solution. We need more such innovations.

How can we measure resilience? Mobile phones – and the right questions – can help

Article published origionally at Thompson Reuter Alert Net

Image: Erik (HASH) Hersman

Phone surveys and efforts to ask people what they think makes them resilient may change some old ideas

People and communities around the world are struggling to deal with the impacts of climate extremes and disasters. At the same time, international finance for supporting people’s resilience to shocks and stresses is limited.

That means understanding how to effectively build resilience is crucial – but to do that we first need to be able to track and measure resilience – something that is often fiendishly difficult.

For example, we might consider a resilient household to be one that can take precautions after receiving early warning of an imminent flood; bounce back quickly from a recent drought; or adapt to increasingly frequent heatwaves. But deciding what factors contribute and are most important to a household’s resilience is a matter fierce debate. Dozens (if not hundreds) of different resilience frameworks exist, each with a unique mix of indicators and ideas.

To make matters worse, collecting information on resilience is hard work. Face-to-face household surveys are expensive, time consuming to run and can take months to set up. This is where the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED)’s Rapid Response Research (RRR) is making a difference.

RRR is a survey effort that collects information on resilience and post-disaster recovery, currently focusing on the east of Myanmar (in the township of Hpa-An). The initiative is trying two new methods that have the potential to drastically change the way that we collect resilience information.

The first is the use of mobile phones to gather information from households affected by disasters.

With a rise in mobile phone usage across the developing world, contacting people and collecting data has never been quicker, cheaper or more secure. As part of the RRR effort, 1300 mobile phones and solar chargers were given to households across eight villages in Hpa-An. A call centre based in Yangon then administers short surveys by phone once a month, with households receiving a small financial reward – in the form of airtime credit – for every survey they complete. If households are busy, they’re simply asked for a preferred time to be called back.

This means that not only can we can collect data at roughly a third of the cost of traditional surveys, but it can also be collected when people are on the move. This is necessary in a place like Myanmar where people are increasingly mobile – often seeking temporary work in cities and abroad. Crucially, it means that we have an easier (and less intrusive) way of contacting people after disasters, when gaining access to communities can be slow and high riskThis could be especially useful in instances where people have relocated after a disaster, which would not be possible through normal survey methods.

So far, these methods have allowed the RRR survey to retain 96 percent of the original survey respondents after four separate rounds of surveying. That’s a number that has far exceeded expectations!

The second innovation trials new ways of judging subjective measures of resilience. Resilience has traditionally been measured via objective means – where resilience ‘experts’ come together and decide on a list of indicators that they think make people resilient. This typically includes things that we can see and observe such as household income, education, access to social safety nets, etc.

While methods like these are no doubt useful, they struggle to capture many of the intangible aspects of resilience, such as social networks. Subjective tools, like the ones the RRR effort is trialling, take a very different approach. They start from the position that people have valuable knowledge about what they think makes them resilient.

What have we found so far? Subjective views of resilience are strongly associated with education, poverty, number of household occupants and so on. While traditional assessments reflect many of these, a number of interesting differences exist with objective assessments of resilience.

For example, female-headed households in Hpa-An think of themselves as better able to deal with disasters compared to households headed by men. This flies in the face of many objective surveys that tend to find male-headed households more resilient.

Could it be that female-headed households are able to leverage better social support networks, or tend to have more diverse sources of livelihood pursuits? Could it instead be that there is a psychological difference in how women and men rate themselves? These are questions that the RRR will delve into in the months ahead.

The RRR effort continues to collect large swathes of data. To make this information accessible to all we’ve launched the Resilience Dashboard. This site allows anyone to look in real time at the relationships and trends for themselves.

We hope to learn from those making use of the site to see what potential this new technology and method has, as well as what new ideas it can spark. Above all, we want RRR to generate enthusiasm about innovating and experimenting with different ways of collecting resilience information to help further our understanding of the drivers of resilience.

Only then will we be able to answer the important question: How do we best prioritise limited resources for supporting resilience?