Humanitarian crises represent some of the world’s most complex problems, and there are no easy answers for how to best support the nearly 168 million people affected throughout the world as of 2020. The increasing number of people affected by climate change, increased fragility, and complex conflict, coupled with dwindling financial support due to donor fatigue and global economic trends has made humanitarian funding and support to these populations even more difficult to achieve in recent years. Climatic shocks, infectious disease outbreaks, and intensifying and protracted conflicts have resulted in global needs increasing by more than 22 million people globally in the past year alone.
To add to this complexity, humanitarian emergencies are no longer just about quick, lifesaving assistance for people in acute crises: the average humanitarian emergency now lasts more than 9 years, and global trends indicate the length of crises will only continue to extend. As a result, humanitarian agencies and affected populations alike now have to do more with less resources, and not only in the short term, but beyond acute crises and through the duration of long-standing protracted situations.
While humanitarian agencies have focused on innovative approaches to delivery channels and operational models, behavioral science can add to the growing body of innovation by redesigning programs and protocols with an explicit focus on the science of how people make decisions and take actions. A growing body of evidence suggests that behavioral interventions can help global programs across a variety of sectors by supporting the complex decision-making and action-taking that recipients of humanitarian assistance—as well as service providers such as the humanitarians themselves—must undertake in order to make the most effective use of resources. For example, we know from the science on cognitive scarcity that having less safety, security, or cash to fulfill basic needs dents any person’s ability to concentrate on information, make difficult decisions, and take productive actions. What people need in humanitarian crises is help doing just that—putting aside the noise, focusing on the right information, making the most beneficial trade-off decisions, and acting on those decisions. Behaviorally informed programs and policies—which are derived based on how real people think and act—can help people get there.
Behavioral interventions can range from larger policy overhauls to smaller programmatic tweaks that can be implemented more quickly and improve outcomes at very little additional cost. While good behavioral design cannot fully offset the negative effects of structural challenges—such as limited funding, access constraints, and legal and regulatory barriers—they can help affected populations derive maximum benefit from available humanitarian assistance in the face of such challenges.
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