When science and humanitarian action come together, more lives are saved

On the 5th June, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, more than 300 people attended a conference organized by the El Día Después incubator about risk prediction models applied to humanitarian action. The workshop was organized by IS Global and two of the alliance’s communities: Cooperation and Global Governance and Environment and Health, and had the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation.

Leire Pajín, Coordinator of the Cooperation and Global Governance Community, introduced the session by recalling that “the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the essential role that science in sustainable development and emergency management has”. She emphasized the need to have a greater connection between science and humanitarian action, as they do not always work together and they often talk different languages.

Humanitarian experts and scientists come together to value how risk prediction models can influence more effective humanitarian interventions

The workshop was held in two parts with different dynamics. The first part, moderated by Leire Pajín, debated the role of science and prediction models in terms of the effects of climate change on people’s lives. Ugo Blanco, Deputy Representative of UNDP for Barbados and Eastern Caribbean States, Manuel Sánchez Montero, Director of Advocacy at Action Against Hunger and Belén Benito, Professor of Geophysics at UPM and expert in seismic risk, introduced the debate and explained the main needs to which humanitarian action and science must respond when developing their work together.

In addition, the General Director of Doctors Without Borders Spain (MSF-España), Marta Cañas, Director of International Cooperation and Humanitarian Action of Save the Children (Spain), David del Campo and Manager of Climate and Health Programme at ISGlobal, Xavier Rodó, discussed the epidemiological models based on climate information that may be useful in humanitarian responses.

Therefore, various prediction models were presented by Xavier Rodó which were complemented by field experience by Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children. 

In this dialogue, the panellists also responded to some questions from the public regarding the roadmap that the SDGs provide for emergency management, as well as the usefulness of having a multi-stakeholder platform such as El Día Después that builds common languages and facilitates the connection between scientific production, spaces for action and decision-making.

The second part, moderated by Marta Ares Godoy, Manager of Sustainable Development and Social Programme at Fundación Iberdrola, was proposed as a space for “innovation”, with co-creation dynamics in which the results of the survey carried out to the attendees before the event were shown, thanks to the illustrator Sergi Moreso. This was then commented on by the panellists Javier Mazorra, Representative for Alianza Shire and specialist in access to energy in developing countries and Miguel Luengo-Oroz, Scientific Director of UN Global Pulse and Manager of initiatives like Malaria Spot. 

At the end of the meeting, Leire Pajín concluded that we have enough technology and science to alleviate the worst effects of disasters. What we can do is connect this with those who have the problem and apply the required responses, a very timely mission for platforms such as El Día Después.

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The panellists shared specific experiences that showed both what could be offered from science and the humanitarian field. Below is a summary of some of the questions and answers.

What role can science and knowledge have in predicting the effects of climate change and in the life of people?

For Ugo Blanco, science and humanitarian action are still talking very different languages and they do not always work with similar time frames. Innovation always comes across challenges and resistances that are not necessarily part of the DNA of the organizations in charge of emergency response.

Manuel Sánchez Montero reclaimed the need for a multidisciplinary approach in analyzing and applying risks, including non-quantitative and non-qualitative data in order to understand the causes and effects of problems.

How can the results of scientific research in humanitarian actions be optimized?

Belén Benito supported that research and humanitarian action must be related and interact. Research must not only be based on scientific articles “because those articles do not save lives”, but actions that apply scientific knowledge. It is important to have a comprehensive chain from researchers to decision-makers, and transfer the obtained results to society. Furthermore, she stressed the difficulty that the scientific sector has in convincing politicians on the need and importance of prevention, for which she considered the important work of platforms like El Día Después.

It is necessary for scientific findings to influence decision-makers and not remain in papers.

Marta Cañas, from Doctors Without Borders, emphasized the use of models and tools to predict viral outbreaks or natural disasters which, despite their limitations, allow risk and uncertainty to be reduced for decision-making in emergency contexts and, thus, save more lives. She gave the example of the locust infestation that currently affects the Horn of Africa, with environmental, health, social and political implications of a rarely seen magnitude. This kind of context shows a constant challenge to which science can respond more closely and comprehensively.

Where can we start so that humanitarian organizations can incorporate the scientific sector in their prediction work?

The action plans proposals that go beyond theory and go towards practice are key for the stakeholders working in the field to put scientific research into practice, as Ugo Blanco indicated. In this sense, Xavier Rodó pointed out the need for support from other sectors in order to facilitate communication and transferring knowledge from the scientific sector to decision-making centres and humanitarian organizations that have greater capacity for local action. Rodó explained several projects developed by ISGlobal’s climate and health research department that have positive implications for humanitarian action.

Humanitarian action requires scientific innovation that can be adapted to disaster areas. It is usually necessary in record time.

How can a culture a joint work between science and humanitarian action be facilitated?

According to the answers in the questionnaire given to attendants, the most relevant difficulty when working together is the use of different languages, which slows down the ability to align concepts and common objectives. Thus, having people and partnerships that work to make these connections between science and humanitarian action a reality, in a stable and long-term way, is a key aspect for Javier Mazorra, who indicated that “the majority of research are not operational because there is a lack of translators from science to implementation”. Miguel Luengo-Oroz pointed out that “there is a lack of scientists with experience in the field and likewise, humanitarian experts with time to work on scientific innovation”. Incentives are important to motivate that connection, but the best of them is when a humanitarian need poses a scientific challenge that demands an applicable response.

As well as highlighting public-private partnerships, both experts indicated the need to overcome the subsidy model and promote multi-stakeholder platforms or alliances when searching for synergies around SDG17, which mobilize intelligence and all capabilities, and offer stability for long-term work by consolidating multidisciplinary teams.

In addition to the questions answered in the discussion and those that were shared by the public, the illustrator Sergi Moreso completed a live graphical summary with answers from the public in the questionnaire on the obstacles between science and humanitarian action, as well as including the answers given by the panellists. 

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