Humanitarian action is part of climate response – but must be early and locally led

Humanitarian actors could be key players in the global climate response, especially through their efforts to address climate-induced loss and damage. But their actions must be pre-emptive and locally-led. Anna Carthy and Simon Addison look at a new funding mechanism that helps humanitarians scale up local efforts and proactively address climate risks.

Anna Carthy's picture Simon Addison's picture
Insight by 
Anna Carthy
Simon Addison
Anna Carthy is a researcher and Simon Addison is a principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group
13 October 2021
Men queue in front of a table. A woman hands them bags.

Humanitarian response in Yida refugee camp in Unity state, South Sudan (Photo: Arsenie Coseac via FlickrCC BY-ND 2.0)

The onslaught of recent climate disasters shows the worsening impacts of climate change. Extreme flooding in Europe, Asia and Africa, catastrophic storms in the Philippines, drought-related famine in Madagascar and life-threatening heatwaves in the United States and Pakistan all show how rich and poor countries alike are experiencing unprecedented climate shocks.

As the climate heats up, these disasters will become more frequent and intense causing loss and damage that devastates lives, economies and ecosystems.

Calling on humanitarians: you are part of the climate response

Climate change is driving more need for humanitarian aid and there is growing awareness that the climate crisis is a humanitarian crisis.

By reducing disaster risks and launching timely responses, humanitarians can help tackle climate-induced loss and damage. They can protect lives and livelihoods, maintain essential services and help affected communities bounce back better.

Yet many humanitarian organisations have not worked out how best to address the climate crisis. As climate disasters increase in severity and frequency, affecting new regions and communities, the scale of humanitarian need is increasing rapidly.

But humanitarian actors are struggling to keep up; they must change how they work to keep pace as climate-related disasters escalate.  

Humanitarians can help to address the climate crisis in two key ways: supporting locally-led humanitarian action and implementing early responses.

Local must lead: shifting the status quo

There is growing consensus that climate action must be locally led, demonstrated by the strong endorsements of the principles for locally-led adaptation (LLA).

Local leadership ensures action is effective and sustainable, and local organisations are often more accountable to community members. Through locally-led action, people on the frontlines have a say in the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods, and by drawing on local knowledge, actions can address communities’ most pressing needs and priorities: they know their context better than anyone else.

While the LLA principles focus on adaptation, they also apply to actions that tackle loss and damage, including disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response, and have been endorsed by several humanitarian agencies.

Local communities, civil society organisations and authorities are best placed to respond to climate-induced shocks. They are normally the first responders and their actions inform and support the subsequent humanitarian actions of governments, INGOs and UN agencies.

But despite commitments to localise humanitarian action in, for example, The Grand Bargain 2.0, a tiny proportion of humanitarian funding reaches local actors (PDF) and a triple funding gap – with huge shortfalls for humanitarian, adaptation, and loss and damage actions – hits hardest at local level.

Anticipating shocks

Acting before shocks occur helps communities cope more effectively with a crisis, minimises loss and damage and reduces the economic costs of response and recovery.

Using early warning systems to predict shocks, local actors can prepare and respond more effectively, triggering timely actions to save lives, protect livelihoods and safeguard assets. 

But to act early, communities and local organisations must have access to good quality early warning information, and early action protocols and systems, as well as human and financial resources in place well before a crisis happens. In most least developed countries and many Small Island Developing States these critical resources are sorely lacking.

While donor governments and UN agencies have made commitments “to galvanise a collective push to act ahead of crises”, very little finance for early action is earmarked to reach local actors.

The Start Network's Financing Facility (SFF) offers one innovative mechanism that promises to get much needed financial support to the climate frontline.

Start Network: locally-led, pre-emptive action

IIED has been working with Start Network to investigate how humanitarian actors can act on climate change. The global network of over 50 humanitarian agencies from five continents provides a promising model for delivering proactive, risk-informed, locally-led action to address climate risks at scale, and to minimise loss and damage.

Start Network promotes climate risk informed anticipatory action – where forecast-based humanitarian operations are implemented prior to the shock occurring. By delivering timely finance to a large network of local organisations – well-informed about local contexts and risks – the network can respond quickly and appropriately to shocks in hard-to-reach places.

The SFF is a new financial delivery mechanism, created to get finance to the right place, at the right time and minimise the impacts of climate shocks. Building on lessons learned from a series of innovative anticipatory action pilot projects, Start Network recognised its efforts could deliver greater impact at scale if connected through a shared financial infrastructure.

The SFF serves as a platform to aggregate and channel finance to local humanitarian responders so they can manage crises proactively. It provides predictable funding at scale for predictable crises, using risk analysis, collective planning and pre-positioned financing.

Through this financing mechanism, the network can deliver anticipatory finance to local actors across a wide geography. By shifting power and funding into local hands, people on the frontlines of crises – those who know best – can define and lead action to proactively deal with the climate risks they face.