Dear Colleague

In this months newsletter
  • Future Proof: The opportunity to transform the UK's resilience
  • Covid19: Make it the Last Pandemic
  • Six factors for Managing Global Threats

We are arriving at two critical junctures in dealing with plausible global threats, now and in the future. Both spill over into effective humanitarian action for dealing with the types, dimensions and dynamics of future crises.
The first is the emerging concern about the ways that the weaknesses seemingly inherent in government decision-making and policy planning stood out all too clearly in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The second suggests that we don’t need even more organisations to anticipate and mitigate humanitarian threats. Rather what the international community needs are clear pathways for using the systems and networks that already exist.

Future Proof: The opportunity to transform the UK’s resilience to extreme risks – as the title suggests – concerns the first. Issued in June 2021, the report looks at ways to transform the UK’s approach for dealing with extreme risks. It suggests that the government has many important and in some instances world leading capacities for doing so. However, the authors from Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk believe that these are not adequate to deal with some of the most fundamental threats that the UK and the world more generally will have to face in the future.

They focus their roadmap for resilience around four themes:
  • Biosecurity - Rapid developments are being made in synthetic biology and biotechnology. These bring great benefits, but also offer harrowing prospects of misuse.
  • Artificial Intelligence - A human-level artificial intelligence that is not aligned with the objectives and values of humans poses extreme risk, as does widespread deployment of today’s existing capabilities.
  • Risk Management - There needs to be greater cross-government accountability to ensure that such extreme risks are addressed, that adequate plans are drawn up and that the latest science and research lead to changes in risk policy.
  • Research & Development - research on extreme risks remains significantly underfunded given its importance. Total funding on AI safety, for example, is significantly smaller than the total funding going into private investment to accelerate its capabilities.
The roadway for addressing such threats is very well spelled out in the report and for anyone concerned with ways that complex institutions can begin to address extreme risks, take a look.

Related to Future Proof’’s concern with government capacities is the May 2021 report, Covid19: Make it the Last Pandemic, by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. Led by two former senior United Nations officials, the clarion call for governmental reform to deal with global threats is very evident in the report’s introduction:
The new millennium has seen the havoc which global health threats like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola and Zika can cause. Experts have been warning of the threat of new pandemic diseases and urged major changes in the way we protect against them — but the change needed has not come about. As soon as a health threat or deadly outbreak fades from memory, complacency takes over in what has been dubbed a cycle of panic and neglect. This cycle must end…. Presidents, prime ministers and heads of international and regional bodies must now urgently accept their responsibility to transform the way in which the world prepares for and responds to global health threats. If not now... ?
Some key conclusions include:
that surveillance and alert systems at national, regional and global levels must be redesigned, bringing together their detection functions — picking up signals of potential outbreaks — and their relay functions — ensuring that signals are verified and acted upon. Both must be able to function at near instantaneous.
that the failure of most countries to respond during February was a combination of two things. One was that they did not sufficiently appreciate the threat and know how to respond. The second was that, in the absence of certainty about how serious the consequences of this new pathogen would be, “wait and see” seemed a less costly and less consequential choice than concerted public health action.
that the highest level of global concern specified in the international, legally binding, health regulations did not lead to an urgent, coordinated, worldwide response.
that the combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis.
You can see the full report here.

As one looks to the plethora of proposals for learning from the pandemic, a fundamental question arises: Do we need to create new and more agile systems to manage ever more complex global threats, or do we need to use what we already have more effectively to deal with such threats? The latter underpins a call for using what we have more effectively and not get trapped into trying to create more systems which will further crowd the global risk management space.

There are six ways to do this, as discussed in Six Factors for Managing Global Threats: A call for action.
  • Mapping
  • Data Challenge
  • Knowledge sharing 
  • Horizon scanning
  • Transformative technologies
  • Platforms for facilitation
Take a look and see what you think.

Before closing, the HF Team would be very grateful if you would send us any comments you have about the substance of the newsletters, and, of course, any suggestions about issues that you might want to have followed-up. Also, might you want to have any of your own articles, included in HF Newsletters.

In the meantime, our very best wishes,
The Humanitarian Futures team

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