Rapidly exploring future humanitarian impacts of the Ukraine conflict

Life, they say, is just one damned thing after another. And we seem to have had an unusual number of damned things recently. Everyone’s tired. Two years of huge emergency after huge emergency — from the Covid-19 pandemic’s various variants to evacuations from Afghanistan and a series of storms battering the UK — our people are tired, yet the need for humanitarian aid continues to grow. And then the Ukraine crisis boiled over.

We have always struggled to plan for the many uncertainties the future may bring, but the massive disruptions of the last couple of years made us realise that grappling with uncertainty is not an option.

So, the British Red Cross’s Strategic Insight and Foresight team has been developing a way to rapidly construct scenarios about the future, helping our teams get a sense of likely people’s short-term and longer-term humanitarian needs, as well as the potential ripple effects caused by a crisis.

How we rapidly built our first set of scenarios

As the late-night doomscrolling turned into a kind of professional doomscrolling, we began by writing a rapid early action assessment. This is a short document that gives a brief overview of the situation alongside a set of vignettes about how the UK could be affected, what the consequences might be, and how well prepared we are to respond.

These vignettes are what we call drivers of need, covering everything from a worsening of the cost of living crisis, through the potential for cyberattacks on critical infrastructure like banks or hospitals, to the possibility of radiation reaching our shores borne on the wind. (I never imagined I’d have to write the word ‘nuclear’ in a work context…)

Our rapid early action assessments

Writing this kind of analysis can be a bit of an ineffable process but it essentially involves thinking about systems. As an example, take cyberattacks: we researched the history, explored recent trends and what was known about the current situation, and looked at previous examples within the UK (such as the 2017 ransomware attack on the NHS) and elsewhere. One of the tricks of good anticipatory thinking is feeling empowered to speculate based on your own knowledge and critical thinking.

We accompanied our rapid assessment with a much more detailed analysis of the likely needs of people fleeing Ukraine and seeking protection in the UK — and how needs might differ depending on whether people arrive through the visa schemes or seek asylum via other routes, or the differing needs of the first groups of people arriving (mostly women and children) compared to people arriving later having faced more of the traumas of war. We also considered how Ukrainians already in the UK might require different kinds of support, such as contacting loved ones or legal advice about their immigration status, among other things.

Given the fast-changing nature of the conflict as well as the UK Government’s support, we shared these as live, collaborative documents so our colleagues could always see the most up-to-date analyses, as well as feeding in their own information and insights.

Making the future simpler

These two documents ended up being rather long and detailed: we didn’t have time to make them shorter.

To make all these complexities simpler to understand — and, so, more likely to be useful to decision-makers — we held a rapid mini-workshop to categorise all our drivers of need based on their likely impact and how uncertain we think they are.

Impact-Uncertainty Matrix prioritising the drivers of need

From here, we presented the main drivers of humanitarian needs in three ways, borrowing from Shell’s classic scenario planning approaches:

  1. Predetermined potential impacts — medium-to-high impact phenomena that are fairly well understood, such as increased poverty from higher costs of living.
  2. Critical uncertainties — highly uncertain and high-impact phenomena, such as potential destitution for Ukrainian refugees after official support ends, or how public goodwill towards Ukrainian and other refugees might change.
  3. Ripple effects — Potential high-impact humanitarian impacts further into the future, such as the possibility of future refugee crises after global food shortages and subsequent conflicts (espically in Middle East and Africa), or how short-term decisions around energy supply might affect climate change.

As well as sharing this with British Red Cross colleagues, Clare Darlow — our Strategic Insight Lead — presented this simplified analysis to members of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) and we have made it publicly available.

How did the scenarios help?

● Our UK-focused scenarios informed high-level strategic decisions and prioritisation by the British Red Cross’s executive leadership team, alongside international scenarios produced by our colleagues.

● Our UK services, including the national support line and wheelchair loaning services, used our scenarios in planning their potential responses.

Business in the Community used our work to inform discussions about how their members (mostly FTSE 350 companies) could do to help.

What’s next?

We’re constantly keeping our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground for any signals of change — possible disruptions writ large or small that could lead people in the UK to need humanitarian support. Over the past few months, we’ve been building a detailed analysis of how the cost of living crisis could affect people now and in the medium-to-longer term. And we’re also putting together some anticipatory analyses to inform broad strategic planning. I’ll write more about these soon.

Was our Ukraine scenario planning useful to you (or not)? Have you spotted anything on the horizon that you feel we should be paying attention to? Get in touch.

[This post was originally published with IARAN: the Inter-Agency Research and Analysis Network.]

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Supporting how British Red Cross designs, delivers and improves its services in the UK

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Matthew Gwynfryn Thomas

Matthew Gwynfryn Thomas

Anthropologist, analyst, writer. Humans confuse me; I study them with science and stories.

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