Tolerating Ambiguity: Humanitarian Decision-Making in Chaos and Covid-19

By Johan Eldebo - 02 September 2020
Tolerating Ambiguity: Humanitarian Decision-Making in Chaos and Covid-19

In our continual search for evidence-based decision making we must also maintain our ability to manage and tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. Not every move we make will have a full dataset informing it. This is particularly true for the humanitarian sector during Covid-19, with many things we often took for granted no longer working. World Vision’s Johan Eldebo reflects on the experience of using participatory context analysis and analytical humility to attempt to navigate these changes in 2020.

Sometimes our desire for certainty may actually lead us astray.

We naturally seek certainty and clarity. It is easier to handle than ambiguity and uncertainty, and particularly so in humanitarian endeavours. Organisations build entire systems and collect large amounts of data in attempts to ensure that there is clarity for operations and decisions.In most ways this is good. Yet, after all those efforts there is often a residual amount of ambiguity left.

During this time of Covid-19 that amount of ambiguity is larger than normal, and it does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

For example, we cannot know for sure when there will be good vaccines or treatments, nor who will be fortunate enough to get them. We also do not know for certain where economic despair will turn into civil strife or conflict. Furthermore, the international institutions we rely upon are increasingly under nationalist threat, and we dont yet know how multilateral architecture will fare, nor to what extent international cooperation will prevail.

While we can, and should, conduct scenario-planning around possible futures, neither scenarios nor data-collection will tell us for sure what will take place. In todays world of increased data and a drive for certainty, the art of  being able to live in the tension of inevitable uncertainty is, therefore, crucial. This should not happen instead of investing in data, but alongside those efforts that are imperative to making organisations more effective.

Organisations and individuals need to take the time to make sense of their contexts and what happens around them, by balancing human discernment, judgement and leadership with quantitative data. This is both a process and a culture. Yet, in addition to collecting good data, organisations should keep asking the question does this actually make sense?”.

The key cultural element here is to be ok with not being 100% sure, and to resist the temptation to quantify incomplete data into an equation that allows for a data-driven” and certain” answer in place of human discernment. During an unpredictable pandemic, listening to insightful local leaders for example will be critical for good decisions in the field.

On the flipside, it does not mean that we ignore the data that does exist, nor that we should not invest in generating better data. However, it does mean that different perspectives on the metrics should be sought to add value.

World Visions context analysis approaches attempt to do that. While they are still, by design, under continual review, the GECARR and GEOCARR models seek to collect quantifiable data through reports. They also collect human insights through interviews which are then put to a carefully selected group of people to make sense” of those insights, with the purpose of then operationally applying them.

One of the key benefits of this process is to stop for long enough to look past the headlines and think about what will actually impact people. While Covid-19 itself is a major challenge, economic hardship, growing criminality and food security are harder to measure but likely to have bigger and more lasting impact on millions of children and families globally. This is more ambiguous perhaps than the daily count of Covid-19 cases, but still crucial.

These insights are not the definitive answer”, but a collective understanding of what is happening and what World Vision, as an organisation, can do in that context and the needs we identify through a process of collective learning.

The intentionality of collaboration across multiple functions and perspectives helps prevent tunnel-vision, whilst also providing space for crucial insights from local voices that are instrumental in guiding a global organisation towards local action and impact.

The confidence to function well in the absence of clarity is one of the key attributes an organisation can rely upon by tolerating ambiguity. Indeed, the recognition that we will live and work in the tension of the unknown is ever more important, and requires the analytical humility to acknowledge, develop and maintain a culture of learning during chaos.

The temptation is often to try to ignore this type of uncertainty. But the GEOCARR process recognises the need for analytical humility by giving priority given to good questions over easy answers. Learning the latter is important for humanitarian agencies for multiple reasons and at many levels, but largely because it allows us to approach reality in a realistic way.

It allows us to realise that while having plans and assessments in place now is important, we will likely need to review them in the very near future and need to remain agile enough to do so. For example, a detailed plan that enables good security today may be tragically out of date tomorrow. Nonetheless, a good plan today will help tomorrows agility.

Tolerating ambiguity well also enables us to better focus on what is important, especially at times when there are a great many things that appear urgent at the same time. Putting things in perspective is essential to be able to focus on what is important. For example, it can help us focus on the more significant question of the overall public health situation of a country, rather than the more easily accessible answer of their latest number of reported Covid-19 cases. The former is much harder to quantify and therefore less likely to capture headlines. Yet while ambiguous it is of more strategic and human importance.

This illustrates the importance of making an active decision on what actually matters most, to avoid being tempted in another direction by what is loudest or most present. This is why when we use GEOCARR, one of the key gains is to stop and reflect on what is happening now, what may happen next and what we as an organisation can do about that.

It is about taking the time to gather a good big-picture perspective in order to prioritise well. It is also about assessing the timing of decisions to see if they can wait until there is less ambiguity, or if they are necessary during uncertainty. Waiting and patience are key.

The future of good humanitarian work depends on solid data, but until we reach that future todays humanitarian work depends upon our best efforts to make sense of the tension of living with ambiguity.



Johan Eldebo is Regional Security Director -Southern Africa for World Vision and a co-creator of GECARR and GEOCARR. Johan has 10 years of experience working with context analysis, humanitarian operations and security management across multiple conflict and fragile areas, primarily in Africa. He is also a Visiting Scholar at New York University, focusing on humanitarian decision-making. Johan hold an MA in International Peace and Security from King’s College London and a BA in Politics and Government from North Park University in Chicago. Opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those representing any organisation.

Photo by Airam Vargas from Pexels

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