The literature on risks includes a range of coloured animals to describe some of its concepts, and two of these are relevant to the issue of agility: the grey rhino and the black swan. The grey rhino is more or less certain to charge if you annoy it; it is therefore a certain and predictable risk, in the face of which you can take preventive action. For its part, the existence of black swans is unexpected. Imagine the surprise of those late 17th century European explorers who had arrived in the Pacific islands: everyone thought that swans could only be white, and yet there they saw black swans in flight. It was this surprise that was the inspiration for the Black Swan theory, or rare event theory, developed by the statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a relatively ground-breaking essay, The Black Swan. In this theory, ‘Black Swan’ refers to an unpredictable event, of low probability (referred to as a ‘rare event’ in probability theory), which, if it takes place, can have potentially very serious consequences.
Ensuring that aid meets needs, remains relevant and creates as little harm as possible is a constant challenge in the face of the predictable risks and permanent uncertainties of crisis contexts. This is where agility comes in. This central aspect of the quality of aid and the accountability of actors towards beneficiaries and donors is relevant on several levels: understanding the situation and possible future developments; whether or not to act and allocate funds faced with uncertainty and risks; the possibility of making a mistake without regrets; adapting administrative and financial procedures to accompany change; and lastly, the constant need to build trust between the different stakeholders of the response to complex, multi-form and changing crises.
Today, risk management is shared between humanitarian and development actors as well as with donors who collaborate more and more often in protracted crisis contexts on multi-annual programmes geared towards reconstruction and/or resilience building. Thus, agility – or adaptive management – is growing in influence due to both the establishment of protracted crises, and the combination of humanitarian and development practices in fragile contexts, two types of context that require specific risk management efforts due to their extended timescales.
Agility, flexibility and adaptability
Agility brings new challenges for operators and donors: it implies that information is gathered, decisions are made and action is taken more quickly. To do this, actors need to be able to anticipate possible developments and prepare for these, use new technologies to make decisions based on data from the field, and accept that brave decisions need to be made in the face of uncertainty. Forty years ago, Robert Chambers developed the concept of ‘optimal ignorance’, that is to say, the level of knowledge needed to make a decision. Where have we got to now with regard to ‘evidence-based’ decision-making in a context of ‘infoxication’ (intoxication due to excess information), and the many different sources available on social networks? How can we make projects more flexible today using new financial and reporting procedures while contexts continue to evolve?
Tools have been developed by a certain number of actors. For certain donors, the aim is to create reserves that can be mobilized to unexpected contexts. Mechanisms called ‘crisis modifiers’ have been set up by the international development departments in the UK and the USA which make it possible to respond very quickly to emergency needs. Another approach consists of modifying development contracts very quickly to guarantee that the resources that are destined for this approach can be re-allocated. Another series of tools aims to instigate agility in an anticipatory way, notably via scenario planning early on in the project design process. Other approaches aim to work on classic planning tools, such as revising the logical framework, or at least making it more flexible.
Flexibility: a discreet (r)evolution
Never in the history of humanitarian action have budgets been so high, contexts so volatile and funding and accountability procedures so time-consuming and complicated. The large number of different document formats, the cumbersome processes required to modify contracts, and the duplication of audit and evaluation procedures all limit the adaptability of operations. There is nevertheless some hope that it is possible to make progress and manage both what is known and what is uncertain: crisis modifiers, the development of “fast tracks” and the increased presence of certain donors in the field to help promote change and dialogue with operators, and to improve understanding of adaptive needs. Nevertheless, serious difficulties remain in relation to some administrative procedures, such as development donors who have begun to get involved in the complicated adventure of accompanying protracted crises. It is also necessary to mention the psychological blockages among operators who reject any responsibility, saying that they are unable to do anything as administrative procedures do not allow adjustments to be made. Instead, they try desperately to respect the logical framework, even if this means that the project becomes less relevant…
Managing risks, adapting or doing harm
We no longer have a choice: technological innovations and social networks mean that our errors are visible, our lack of decision-making is public and our systematic inability to be ‘agile’ is blatant. We therefore need to quickly bring together researchers, operators and donors who feel concerned about these issues in order to discuss the challenges of managing risks and uncertainty, and explore possible new ways forward. Are we capable of adopting the strategies, tools, methods and forms of dialogue necessary to deal with grey rhinos and black swans? It will be a major challenge!
Agility: a topic Groupe URD has been promoting for twenty years
Having been involved in these debates since our creation in 1993, we began a number of operations at the end of the 90s with the aim of making it easier to learn in real time and adapt programmes. Following Hurricane Mitch which hit Central America in 1998, we carried out a series of evaluations that included discussion exercises with field actors. Processes of this kind became known as ‘Iterative Evaluations with Mini Seminars’ (IEMS). We then developed and implemented this methodology in several contexts: Afghanistan, Kosovo, the 2004 tsunami (8 field visits over a period from 3 months to 4 years after the tsunami), Mali (12 field visits between 2012 and 2018), Haiti (15 field visits from 3 weeks to five years after the earthquake), Nepal (7 field visits from 3 months to 3 years after the earthquake). Then, due to requests for close monitoring and ‘coaching’ between field visits, and also to enhance the effectiveness of evaluations and improve practices in real time, we began to set up Observatories. Three were opened: in Afghanistan, Chad and then Haiti, with the aim of bringing learning closer to field actors. Today, in 2019, we have begun two processes to help promote agility: one as part of the RESILAC project in the Lake Chad region, and the other in support of the Key Programme in Mali, which combines IEMS, scenario planning and operational research.
François Grünewald is an Agricultural Engineer, specialised in Rural Economics, and a graduate of the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon. He has worked in the international aid sector for more than 35 years and became Groupe URD’s Executive Director in 1997 after working in different positions for the UN, the ICRC and NGOs. He oversees Groupe URD’s research activities and has carried out numerous evaluations of humanitarian and reconstruction programmes for donors, the ICRC, the UN and NGOs. He has also conducted numerous studies on disaster management. A former Associate Professor at Paris XII University, he has given lectures in numerous institutions in Europe, as well as Canada and the United States.