Featured Member: Laura Glaeser
Laura Glaeser is a founding member of the Program Level Early Warning Interest Group of the FSN Network. Laura is a Technical Officer, Early Warning and Response Specialist working for FHI 360 on FANTA III.
This interview was conducted with Laura in August 2014.
How did you first get interested in early warning?
Laura: My first exposure to food security early warning came when I was working at the Office of Food for Peace. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) gave monthly briefings on the state of food security in FEWS NET countries. I found them really helpful and asked a lot of questions because I was interested in how they do their analyses. That interest evolved into a desire to hone my technical skills in food security and early warning even more, so I took a job with FEWS NET. I worked on their Decision Planning and Support team for a couple of years and strengthened my technical skills profoundly during that time. The analytical skills I honed at FEWS NET have stuck with me since: including how to better understand that factors that contribute to food insecurity and how to identify their presence. I still use those skills when thinking about different food security issues.
When people think about early warning, I think they tend to think about big national systems, and activities like FEWS NET, and sophisticated and complex analyses, but there are a whole series of actions and actors that contribute to those meta-analyses – including project-level early warning in FFP projects – and it is on those that my current work is focused. FFP-funded projects can and do have a role to play in that broader early warning geography, particularly as we think more about community disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation and individual, household, and community resilience to different kinds of shocks.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve seen projects face when trying to incorporate early warning into their projects?
[At FANTA], I have worked directly with projects that are looking to set up a project-level early warning system or are looking at ways to refine what they have.
One of the challenges that I encounter in this work is that food security early warning is both an art and a science. You have to have a strong quantitative evidence-base from which to draw your conclusions, but you also have to understand that evidence in a context, because early warning is specific to geographic, socio-economic, and social-cultural contexts.
At a household level, what might cause a shock in one household might not cause a shock in another household. Similarly, at a community level, what might cause a shock in one community might not cause a shock in another. One of the challenges, then, is finding early warning denominators that make sense across some of these contexts, and complementing them with indicators that are specific to a given context. [For example], in the last round of FFP projects in Haiti, the implementing partners were programming in similar technical sectors, but were working in very different livelihoods contexts. We had to determine a basic set of early warning monitoring indicators that would make sense across those disparate contexts so as to be able to aggregate early warning data and information across the program, but we also had to make sure that these ‘generalized’ indicators were useful to each project’s contexts. Finding that sweet spot where you have good generalizable, verifiable data and information that is useful inside and outside of your context, complimented with information from your specific area can be a bit of a conundrum.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting to set up or incorporate project level early warning for their food security or nutrition project?
Start small and build from what is already there—especially when you’re thinking of implementation at the community level and through the community. When we conceptualize early warning it’s very easy to move quickly to levels of abstraction that involve big systems, but early warning at a community or project level can and should be very practical. What kinds of shocks does the community face most frequently? What are common challenges to its food security? What are pieces of information that signal that you’re heading in the direction of one of those shocks or that a food security challenge is presenting itself? What early warning-related knowledge and capacities already exist within the community? What information and response infrastructures are available within the broader implementing context (e.g., at the departmental or national level) and how can you plug into them? Where are the weak spots? Community or project-level early warning does not have to be about creating sophisticated data collection and analytical systems. It can be about contributing key data from a food insecure area into a monitoring system that already exists. Or strengthening a community’s relationship with an ag extension officer to facilitate better exchange of data, information, and knowledge so that community members understand their options and where to access what they need when rains begin a month late. Project-level early warning is just as much about strengthening communities’ capacities to become the arbiters of their food security context as it is about understanding and responding earlier to anticipated below-normal crop production or increases in incidence of waterborne diseases.
What do you feel is the most valuable part of being a member of the Project Level Early Warning Interest Group?
I feel like there is a wealth of information out there on how projects are assimilating project-level early warning practices into their work. I have found, for myself, and in some of the analysis that I do at FANTA, that I was challenged in trying to find examples of different kinds of projects that had implemented this project element because there was no place clear where people could go to talk about their experiences. I saw communities of practices around related ideas, like disaster risk reduction, but not specifically around early warning. FFP has encouraged the incorporation of an early warning element into their development projects for a long time. However, to this point there hasn’t really been a place where projects could share information on how they’ve implemented that element or ask questions when they hit a road block in the field.
While the purpose of the interest group is not to enumerate who across the world is working on project level early warning, it is an opportunity for people who have knowledge of that technical sector to come together to share information and experiences, ask questions, and develop more of a concerted conversation around that subject matter.