RIVAF Conference Recap – Part I

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On July 14th and 15th, Global Pulse hosted “Towards a Real-Time Understanding of Emerging Vulnerability,“ a conference for UN partners from 9 agencies and 8 countries to share research findings on how the world’s most vulnerable populations were affected by the economic crises in different sectors, and to explore whether (and how) we can do crisis impact assessments more rapidly in the future.

As background, the initial research projects were funded through the Rapid Impact & Vulnerability Analysis Fund (RIVAF) which was launched by the United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative in December 2009 with the generous support of DfiD and the Government of Sweden. The fund supports innovative, real-time data collection and analysis to help develop a better understanding of how vulnerable populations cope with impacts of global crises.  In 2010, Global Pulse awarded research grants to 8 RIVAF teams, comprised of various UN agencies including: UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNWTO, ILO, UNSPIDER, WFP, UNODC, and UNESCO. 

This month, the eight RIVAF research teams were invited to New York to share their research findings, surface ideas around challenges in doing rapid impact assessments, and turn them into actionable plans.

The RIVAF conference was organized around two primary elements.  First, to discuss the researchers’ findings from the series of rapid impact assessments (i.e. projects designed to dive deeply, and quickly, into particular issues identified by agencies to be of critical importance in understanding how the 2008 financial crisis impacted the most vulnerable). 

Second, to build on the experiences of (and overarching challenges faced by) the RIVAF projects to develop a roadmap towards understanding the future of rapid impact assessments. The workshop discussions were designed to elicit preliminary ideas around the question: “What could rapid impact assessments look like in the 21st Century?”

We hope this discussion will provide guidance for a potential future round of RIVAF funding. 


During the first day of the conference, research teams presented their findings from the 8 unique studies.  The projects explored across a variety of sectors how vulnerable populations were affected by the global economic downturn.  A few take-away points were:

  • UNODC’s study on unsafe migration from Central America to the United States showed that the economic conditions in the destination country did not have a significant effect on the decision of migrants to undertake unsafe and illegal migration.  Overall the volume of migrants did not change throughout the period under investigation.  However, UNODC did find evidence of increased vulnerability of migrants. What also changed were the prices charged by smugglers, which increased.
  • Early results from UNDP/UNICEF’s study on coping mechanisms in the Philippines and Kenya highlighted that poorer households had far fewer options available to them than their richer counterparts. This made them more prone to adopt coping strategies that were likely to result in negative human development outcomes. The study pointed out that the first strategy employed by poor and rich households alike was to access borrowed finance; however, richer households were more likely to be able to access loans, either through formal institutions such as banks or informal mechanisms such as friends and family.  Thus, the poor had less access to this primary coping strategy than higher income brackets.  UNDP also noted that at the very low-income levels, a change in diet to reliance on staple foods was one of the first coping mechanisms, and that this changed rapidly as one goes up the income ladder.
  • UNSPIDER, working with the Rochester Institute of Technology, developed an online tool to pull together and visualize disparate sources of information on a map to better understand the complex relationship between global shocks, such as the global economic crisis, and natural disasters. The study concluded that it was difficult to establish direct negative impacts of the global economic crisis on vulnerable communities and their ability to cope with future natural disasters. The researchers found that in some regions of Guatemala, the global economic crisis may have actually served to ease some of the pre-existing risk conditions, particularly through decreased food prices.
  • Finally, some impacts could only be detected by looking at unofficial or informal impacts on institutions or households.  For example, while UNESCO’s study on the effects of the crisis on schools showed no official trends towards the introduction of new school fees, both parents and principles reported in surveys that new school fees have been enacted, at the discretion and per the need of the local school.  UNFPA’s study in Jordan about the effects of the crisis on access to reproductive health found that service provision did not change throughout the crisis, but demand from individuals went down all the same, indicating that the appropriate lens through which to look at health services is through the household.  

In addition to specific findings, some overarching themes were of great interest for Global Pulse moving forward.  In particular, in many of the presentations it was acknowledged that the financial crisis could not be “seen” by looking at aggregated numbers, which seemed to indicate that the impacts of the financial crisis were less severe in developing countries compared to developed countries. 

It was only when drilling down to a more granular level that the affects on institutions, communities and individuals could be detected.  This has implications on Global Pulse going forward, because as we speak about “big data,” we need to balance the ability to be agile in how the data is disaggregated with privacy concerns.  Some of the ways that data needed to be disaggregated was:

  • In some cases, this meant drilling down by economic sector.  For example, the UNWTO/ILO study focused on the effects of the crisis on employment of poor and vulnerable population groups in the tourism sector in the Maldives, Costa Rica and Tanzania.  The impacts in each country were different, but what was clear across countries was that even within the tourism sector, some “types” of employees were affected more acutely than others, in particular unskilled and migrant laborers.  Similarly, UNDP/UNICEF’s study on coping mechanisms noted that in the Philippines, the “most vulnerable” to the financial crisis could not be defined by geographic area, or by a particular income segment, but rather by specific sectors of the economy.
  • In others, it required focusing on particular geographical areas.  For example, the UNFPA study in Colombia found that the effects of the crisis were most significant in the country’s Eje Cafetero region due to its heavily reliance on remittances.  Detailed analysis of this region revealed powerful secondary effects, including an increase in family split ups, overdue mortgage payments and suspension in medical insurances. The WFP/UNICEF study pointed to the fact that – in the context of the economic crisis – many of the existing food security monitoring systems were too limited in their geographic coverage.  Systems had been designed to look at agro-climatic shocks, and were not oriented to the very different vulnerabilities posed by other types of shocks, for example, macro-economic shocks.
  • Similarly, several researchers highlighted that the right level of aggregation depended on the issue at hand.  For example, it was noted in UNODC’s project on the impact of the economic crisis on crime that the most significant correlation between certain types of violent crime and economic indicators could be found at the city level. The study also highlighted the difficulty – expressed by many researchers — of establishing clear correlations between very different variables, such as crime and economic development.

The discussions at the end of day one set the agenda for day two, and particularly focused on the challenges faced by rapid impact assessments.  Challenges faced ranged from bureaucratic issues to data access and collection to analytical issues.

However, it was agreed by all that the most pertinent issue in relation to Global Pulse was that of understanding the multitudes of challenges in accessing relevant data faced by agencies.  Related to this, it was noted that Global Pulse needs to play a role in helping connect those challenges to new opportunities in real-time data, in part by simply letting agencies know “what’s out there.”

From these discussions, it became clear that we needed to spend a good part of the next day exploring the existing data gaps, the work Global Pulse is doing to help develop and unlock new real-time data streams, and better understand how to connect the two.

(Find a recap of Day Two, here.)

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