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Crisis modifiers: A solution for a more flexible development-humanitarian system?

Do crisis modifiers enable development actors to act early, address climate and conflict risks, and work coherently alongside humanitarian actors?
Sharon Taylor


By design, the humanitarian–development aid architecture is strictly segregated, divided by mandates and rules that were originally designed to meet different kinds of needs. Today, this rigidity is hampering the aid system’s ability to manage risks and rapidly respond to crises. Pre-planned development programmes do not have the flexibility to quickly reallocate funding to address spikes in need. Humanitarian organisations are largely confined to funding instruments that prevent longer-term engagement in vulnerability reduction.

To address these issues, donors and NGOs are trialling a new set of innovative risk financing options to help deal with small-scale crises that impede development progress. A humanitarian fund Providing Humanitarian Assistance for Sahel Emergencies (PHASE) has been embedded into the multi-year Building Resilience to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme. This ‘crisis modifier’ is designed to enable early action and rapid response to new humanitarian needs that manifested in the project areas, and in doing so, protect development gains BRACED projects had made.

This paper* showcases evidence from the use of the PHASE crisis modifier and situates crisis modifiers as a potential ‘solution’ for a more flexible aid system – if they are accompanied by a fundamental shift in the way development actors design their programmes and respond to predictable risks.

*Download the full paper from the right hand column.

Methods and Tools

This crisis modifier was accessed by development agencies working long-term in the Sahel through BRACED. Eight BRACED projects applied to the PHASE crisis modifier in the first year. The full report examines three of these interventions in depth, investigating each step in the process: observing a changing situation, designing an appropriate response, applying to the fund, the fund’s decision-making process, implementation of an intervention and how the ‘regular’ BRACED programme carried on after the humanitarian support was provided.

The study asks what the added value of a crisis modifier is to resilience-building programmes, and synthesises the diverse case studies to draw recommendations about implementing a crisis modifier effectively.

Key messages (abridged)

This study identifies common challenges, both technical and political, in responding to a crisis in the context of a development project. It calls for six changes to maximise the ability of a crisis modifier to deliver effective support, briefly summarised as follows:

  1. Make contingency planning a prerequisite. The first step to ensuring a project itself is resilient to shocks and stresses involves having a contingency plan in place.
    • A contingency plan can include specific triggers for early action to embolden field staff to react to anticipated crises.
  2. Act at a pace that reflects the urgency of the situation. For donors, crisis modifiers should be accompanied by more flexible processes that enable much shorter timeframes for decision-making and disbursal of funding.
    • Crisis modifier interventions by their very nature mean that waiting too long could render the support ineffective, missing crucial windows of time before affected people resort to migration, selling productive assets or other potentially negative coping strategies.
    • Forging a culture of trust and transparency between the donor and the implementing organisation is essential to facilitate faster decision-making.
  3. Prepare for transitions into and out of recovery periods. As the crises subsided, unique needs arose that pre-planned BRACED activities or short-term humanitarian assistance did not cover. In some cases, BRACED partners incorporated actions designed to improve recovery into their PHASE interventions.
    • Transitioning out of crisis is vital for the success of development projects affected by shocks and stresses, but recovery-oriented activities do not necessarily need to be funded by a crisis modifier if project budgets are flexible enough to be reallocated to tackle recovery needs.
    • Principles of adaptive programming offer potential here.
  4. Adhere to humanitarian norms when targeting beneficiaries. Without guidelines, BRACED partners encountered ethical questions about who should receive support from a crisis modifier. Should funding go exclusively to project beneficiaries, or those who were worse affected?
    • Generally, good practice was to respond to crises that occurred within the project’s catchment area, and target support to people who were worst affected, drawing on advice from local governments and humanitarian teams.
  5. Start responding to the right signals. Though only one slow-onset crisis was included as a case study in this report, PHASE interventions were initiated after people began enacting distress coping strategies, such as distress migration or sales of productive assets when prices were low.
    • In this context, the crisis modifier had a specific mandate to protect development gains, having been designed for early action before people’s livelihood systems were eroded.
    • Responding to negative coping mechanisms raises important question about whether, and how, agencies can act earlier and start responding to the ‘right’ signals.
  6. Harness existing social infrastructure. Evidence shows crisis modifier funding furthered BRACED consortia’s relationships and social standing with communities and government officials, which helped further collaborations that were important for BRACED interventions.
    • In turn, community groups created in the context of BRACED helped deliver the crisis modifier interventions more effectively.
    • Deploying the crisis modifier brought a range of intangible benefits to the BRACED partners – increased trust and social capital, for instance – and this enhanced their operating environment.

Lessons Learnt

From the findings of this study, several conclusions and recommendations are drawn as follows:

  • Crisis modifiers should not be treated as a simple bolt-on to projects. The reality is that working to address crises in development projects requires a fundamental shift in the way development actors design, think and act.
  • High-level efforts to rethink the humanitarian–development nexus have so far lacked practical application for operational agencies. Crisis modifiers offer a means for development and humanitarian actors (where desirable and appropriate) to work coherently together to address disaster risks in specific locations.
  • To be effective, crisis modifiers should be deployed alongside adaptive programming approaches, to ensure there is sufficient flexibility to deal with transitions into recovery and back to ‘normal’ development programming.
  • Crisis modifiers are not a singular solution to managing risk, but are one of a number of innovative financing mechanisms being trialled to better manage shocks and stresses. Others include forecast-based finance, shock- responsive programming, adaptive social protection and insurance.

Suggested citation

Peters, K., and Pichon, F., 2017. Crisis modifiers: a solution for a more flexible development-humanitarian system? BRACED.

Further reading

BRACED: Disasters and national economic resilience

BRACED: Evaluative learning for resilience: Providing Humanitarian Assistance for Sahel Emergencies (PHASE)

BRACED: Climate extremes and resilient poverty reduction

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