Needs Assessment and Decision Making in Emergencies
Summary of published report1
Sorghhum plant hit by drought
Researchers from the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) recently undertook a study looking at needs assessment and decision-making in the humanitarian sector. The methodology involved analysis of primary and secondary literature, complemented by over 200 interviews with key informants in agencies and donor bodies, at both field and headquarters levels. These focused on five case studies - two field studies conducted in November 2002 in southern Africa and South Sudan/Somalia, and three desk studies on Afghanistan, Serbia, and a range of recent rapid-onset natural disasters. The following were included among the findings.
Analysis should be based on acute risk, understood as the product of actual or imminent threats and vulnerabilities. The study found that standards and benchmarks were not consistently applied and do not constitute a set of universal benchmarks defining a common agenda. Even where data were collected, standards were not consistently applied, as demonstrated in a place like southern Sudan where there is a tendency to accept high levels of acute malnutrition as 'normal.'
In many of the most serious humanitarian crises, there was a lack of crucial information available to decision-makers. Formal assessments were not the only, or most important, trigger for response. Many programme decisions were based on a 'rolling' review of programmes. Surveillance systems that allow changes in the external environment, including changes in key indicators, to be monitored, are the essential complement to the use of cross-sectional surveys. However, in southern Africa and elsewhere, too little attention was given to surveillance.
There were few examples where individual assessments were undertaken according to an agreed common strategy in an attempt to provide a complete picture of relative need. Agencies tended to assess situations in relation to their own programmes, making it hard to generalise from results or to aggregate data. The benefits of joint agency approaches to assessment - including consistency of results and the countering of individual agency biases - generally outweigh the disadvantages, which can include a tendency to cumbersome process, the danger of creating false consensus, and the collection of data which remains unanalysed and therefore useless.
In the aftermath of rapid-onset disasters, there is frequently an absence of adequate baseline data against which to measure the impact of the disaster. Uncertainty over population figures and demographic information constitutes one of the main barriers to accurate needs assessment. The notion of the vulnerable group - typically based on assumptions about socio-economic status - can introduce artificial distinctions, which do not necessarily reflect the real needs of a population.
The study reached a number of conclusions about the various food security assessment approaches:
Overall, food security assessments must provide a basis for determining a broader range of intervention options than is currently the case. At the very least, there should be a common minimum data set for all agencies (raw data that all agree to collect). Common principles and minimum standards of emergency food needs assessment are desirable. Optimal and adaptable means of combining and coordinating nutrition and food security assessments need to be developed. Finally, assessments should distinguish more clearly between situations where the primary rationale for food assistance is to save lives, and situations where the main rationale is to protect assets or livelihoods.
Overwhelmingly, needs assessments are conducted by operational agencies, often in order to substantiate a request for funding. This allows for the close correlation of needs analysis with the design and execution of responses, but raises major questions about objectivity of analysis. It also encourages supply-driven responses and risks distorting the scale of the threat and the importance of the proposed intervention. A wide range of factors influence decisions about response, some of which are extraneous to consideration of need - notably the political interests of donors and the marketing interests of agencies.
There is a need for a simple basis of comparisons between humanitarian contexts. The study opted for (on feasibility and cost grounds) an approach based on consistent sector-based surveillance, including routine measurement of mortality rates and prevalence of acute malnutrition.
In theory, the consolidated appeal process (CAP) provides the basis for coordinating and linking decision-making of agencies and donors. In practice, however, field level coordination mechanisms tend to provide information about decisions already taken or progress reports on existing programmes. The CAP is not currently seen as an effective prioritisation mechanism. The appeal is constructed around agency projects (almost exclusively UN) and so does not reflect a process of issue-based or sectoral prioritisation between agencies, based on joint assessment and analysis. The way in which the appeal document is presented gives little sense of relative priorities. Donor's response to appeals reflects preferences for certain forms of response over others, and for certain geographic areas over others.
Although improvements in the CAP and Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP) have resulted in a stronger process of joint analysis, the sense persists of a disconnection between the analytical/strategic component and the related portfolio of agency projects. Developing the role of sectoral working groups would help to overcome the perceived weaknesses of the process, and strengthen its ability to establish priorities for response.
1Darcy, J and Hofmann, C (2003). According to need? Needs assessment and decision-making in the humanitarian sector. HPG report 15. September 2003. See online at http://www.odi.org.uk/hpg/papers/hpgreport15.pdf
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 21, March 2004