Opinion: Today is World Humanitarian Day, drawing attention to delivering things such as food, healthcare and shelter in times of crisis – essential work.

But scanning through headlines about climate change, global food shortages, pandemics, refugees, and wars, it is easy to feel a bit overwhelmed. This is the age of the “megacrisis”.

There is a record 300 million people who need humanitarian assistance and the United Nations chief of humanitarian affairs has been warning that global megacrises threaten to undo years of development.

If this is a time when crises are starting to overwhelm our ability to respond, then we can’t afford to keep waiting until the crisis starts before we act. We have to prioritise prevention.

So why do we always seem to wait? Why did we wait for the invasion of Ukraine before we cared about peace? Why wait for floods and fires to devastate communities before responding to climate change?

It’s not as if we don’t know that these problems exist. Scientists have warned about climate change for decades, and there has been separatist fighting in Ukraine for eight years.

It isn’t hard to understand why prevention isn’t prioritised. Ultimately, you don’t get credit for what hasn’t happened. Indeed, prevention could be described as invisible in its success.

And this invisibility makes it difficult for prevention to compete for the money and attention it needs. It doesn’t naturally jump to the top of our priority lists.

As difficult as it seems, it is possible to overcome this natural disadvantage prevention faces.

Consider public health. Described as “the science and art of preventing disease”, it identifies potential threats to health and then acts to address them before disease strikes. And it works.

In 1999, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 25 years of the 20th century’s 30-year increase in life expectancy is thanks to public health measures.

These days, we don’t wait until a cholera outbreak starts before we fix problems with our sewerage system. We know its role in disease prevention is vital, so we choose to prioritise it. That same choice needs to extend to other humanitarian fields.

My research focuses on war prevention. I look at Proactive Peace work, which is work that addresses conflict risk-factors before any violence has started.

Despite the lack of academic, media and financial attention given to this kind of preventative work, it is still happening all the time. For example, one of the organisations I’ve partnered with as part of my research is a Kenyan NGO, AfriNov.

Their Turning The Tide programme trains and supports local groups in identifying the root causes of tension in their community. It then supports those groups to address these issues before they escalate.

This might involve educating people about their rights; confronting corrupt officials; or providing practical assistance to disadvantaged groups. It is conflict prevention because they are addressing local conflict risk-factors before a crisis event develops.

Of course, no one will ever be able to say that violence was averted on this particular day because of these particular actions. But neither can anyone say that we would have had a cholera outbreak on a particular day without our sewerage system.

We can’t point to which cars would have crashed without appropriate speed limits. We can’t point to who would have died from lung cancer without anti-smoking campaigns.

In health we take prevention seriously and invest the money, time and resources necessary into producing those dramatic increases in life expectancy. In an age of humanitarian megacrises, it is time to take a lesson from public health.

Climate change, food shortages and war are not crises we can afford to deal with. We don’t have the time, money or resources necessary to deal with crisis on that scale. We must start to take the task of prevention seriously.

Let’s respond to conflict risk-factors with the same investment that we respond to health risk-factors.

And if we spend even a fraction of the cost of responding to an immediate crisis on prevention, then we might find that our crises aren’t so mega any more.

In an age of megacrises, prevention may be the only option we have left.

Ashley’s thesis examines Proactive Peace Work undertaken by communities, which successfully prevents outbreaks of violent conflict. She writes about this idea at the blog https://proactive-peace.org

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