Examining the role of anticipatory action in complex crises

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Examining the role of anticipatory action in complex crises


Anticipatory action is commonly designed to address one specific hazard, such as drought, but several people today experience myriad overlapping hazards and challenges. 

Given this reality, there is a need to better understand how anticipatory action fits within the context of these complex crises. How is anticipatory action assistance perceived and used in complex crises? And what is the ‘right’ timing and type of assistance for these situations?

Anticipatory action ahead of a complex crisis in Ethiopia

Our recently published study explores how an anticipatory action intervention was perceived and experienced among Ethiopians living with drought, alongside other crises including conflict and inflation. The intervention, which took place in the Somali and Afar Regions in 2021, was facilitated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, funded by the Central Emergency Response Fund, and implemented by an array of UN agencies. Our research focused on the assistance provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which included different packages of assistance depending on the target group: (1) cash and seed packages; (2) an animal health campaign and treatment services; and (3) cash and livestock supplementary feed.

Our research conducted qualitative interviews with people who received anticipatory support from FAO, as well as with other key stakeholders such as community leaders. Altogether, 520 people were interviewed, with approximate gender parity among those receiving FAO assistance, and 70 per cent male respondents for key informant interviews.

Last year, there was also tribal conflict around our area; in addition, there is also an increment on the price of cereals… Thus we face such challenges also in addition to the drought. The drought exacerbates the situation.

Multiple challenges: drought, conflict, inflation

The anticipatory actions were designed to address the impacts of drought, but the people interviewed described numerous other challenges. These included the conflict in Tigray from 2020 to 2022, local conflicts in several regions, a locust invasion, and escalations of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab in the Somali Region.

Inflation was also reported as a secondary impact of conflict. 

One respondent in Dolobay, Somali Region, explained: “Last year, there was also tribal conflict around our area; in addition, there is also an increment on the price of cereals… Thus we face such challenges also in addition to the drought. The drought exacerbates the situation.”

In the Somali Region, reduced food consumption was the most frequently mentioned challenge; this was experienced by 62 per cent of respondents. This was followed by livestock death, experienced by 21 per cent of respondents in the Somali Region. Five per cent of respondents in this region reported selling their houses to survive. In Afar Region, livestock death was mentioned most frequently, followed by livelihood loss and fodder shortage.

The positive – but likely short-lived – impact of anticipatory action

Positively, respondents described all types of anticipatory assistance as useful. 

A respondent in Dollo Ado, Somali Region, told us: “It helped our family since, during the drought season, the aid received helped cover our household consumption, which was the main reason our family survived.”

Cash assistance was mainly spent on food (45 per cent of respondents in the Somali Region and 35 per cent of respondents in the Afar Region), followed by other immediate needs such as healthcare. The feed and animal care benefited 7 per cent of respondents by helping their livestock to recover from diseases. This illustrates that, in several cases, FAO’s anticipatory actions had positive impacts on people.

However, these impacts were likely short-lived. Respondents indicated that the size of the assistance package – a one-off cash transfer of 40 US dollars per household, plus livelihood support – did not feel adequate, due to large family sizes and inflated food prices. At the same time, it is important to note that the intervention was designed to address only one season of drought, rather than the multi-year drought the region has experienced. Furthermore, it was only designed to offer one month of cash assistance; this may explain some of the participants’ experiences.

Overall, these findings highlight the need for broader reflections by the humanitarian community on how best to provide anticipatory assistance if multiple shocks – in this case, below-average rainy seasons leading to drought – occur in close succession, alongside other shocks (e.g., conflict, inflation), and in contexts with high levels of need and limited assistance.

Earlier assistance… but to achieve which outcome?

Many respondents felt that receiving the assistance earlier than they did might have been more helpful, and particularly at the “beginning” of the drought (i.e., after the first below-average season). 

As one person in Dolobay explained: “We need assistance at times when we face such [a] type of drought. If we had received the aid two months before, it might [have been] most helpful for us.”

We cannot know whether these families might have been in a situation of less need had the assistance arrived earlier. However, these findings highlight a need to clarify what the ‘right time’ means in terms of realizing the intended outcomes of anticipatory actions. If the purpose is to keep people alive, then the several answers we received that were similar to the one above suggest success.

Yet several interventions, including this one by FAO in Ethiopia, also aim to protect livelihoods and help populations to maintain acceptable levels of food consumption. Based on our results, it seems unlikely that the amount of assistance provided can achieve this, due in part to the multiple, complex challenges people faced.

The need for more discussion about anticipatory action in complex crises

Our findings point towards a critical need to increase discussions, in policy, practitioner and donor circles, on how best to use anticipatory action to assist populations facing extreme events that become protracted or occur alongside significant other challenges. These discussions should be heavily informed by recipients of anticipatory action, and include their representation whenever possible. In this regard, qualitative research is highly valuable in enhancing our understanding of people’s situations and can thus inform the design of anticipatory action frameworks for complex crises. Better understanding the impacts of the type, timing and amount of assistance to populations experiencing extreme events as part of complex crises is an important step towards delivering more effective anticipatory action.


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