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Constructive memory and collective knowledge: information gaps in humanitarian action


A week spent at the HPG/PRDU Advanced Course on Conflict, Crisis and Transitions, held in York for the third year running, was a week invested in reflection. The aim of the course is to provide space and constructive support for practitioners and policy-makers to think about conflict, crisis, and transitions. It covers a host of challenging issues, from humanitarian action to durable solutions, international law and transitional justice, stabilisation, mediation, evaluation. And there certainly was a lot of thinking. But it left me wondering if our relationship to knowledge and information is one area in which more sustained reflection might be of use.

Many of the unresolved issues that came up during the course, it struck me as I listened, are profoundly embedded in the relationship that the aid sector has to information. How do we gather information? And why? What kind of information is useful, in which situations, and who should be responsible for it? What is the difference between knowing and understanding?

These are big questions but ones that have a bearing on the appropriateness and effectiveness of all programmes of action, no matter their scale. They also posed a challenge to the Advanced Course, particularly evident in the moments when discussions sought to break down the all-too-common (and often dubious) divide between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. Even if we accept that access to information in conflict or disaster-affected zones, for a variety of reasons, may be difficult, more reflection is needed on the dynamics that affect our relationship with information.

In modern international relations, humanitarian and development action and conflict resolution are often part of an international enterprise. They take place in an internationalised environment and rely, much of the time, on mechanisms and structures that cross borders and connect disparate sets of actors. While an increasing emphasis is placed on national or regional actors, it remains the case that the architecture for aid or peace-building is international in reach and largely Northern in design. Moreover, the people who devote themselves to these efforts are generally, by nature, cosmopolitan and internationalist.

Nonetheless, their actions must be grounded by locally relevant understandings – of culture, religion, politics, geography, history. In order to be effective, those who work in the system, whatever their role and background, must learn to combine an internationalism of the mind with a meticulous attention to local detail. ‘Context, context, context’ was the mantra of the course and few would – or could – disagree with the basic tenet that, for humanitarian action or peace-building initiatives to be effective, context analysis is a must.

Yet, as many have already acknowledged, such analysis is time and again neglected by international actors. Many reasons have been advanced for why this is the case. The sense of urgency that drives relief efforts may work against analysis, often assuming that it is not a friend of rapid action. Financial resources may be scarce, and staff or organisations may be reluctant to allocate them to preparations instead of operations. Access to information, again for a variety of reasons, may be difficult. The very complexity of the situations within which aid operations take place can make analysis least reliable where it is most needed.

Where information has been accumulated and knowledge generated, the challenge becomes how to share and retain it. Clannish linguistic habits hinder discussions across contexts or areas of expertise (think of the proliferation of acronyms, whose original meanings are regularly forgotten even by those who use them most). In sectors with a high turnover of personnel, institutions often ‘lose’ their knowledge with the departure of a particular individual and experienced staff can become gatekeepers of information. Inexplicable failings in institutional memory – lack of archives for assessments and evaluations, for instance – can hobble an endeavour in which experience is transferable but knowledge of a particular context is precious and takes a long time to build up.

Finally, the way that past experience is channelled deserves some examination. The topic of history came up several times during the course discussions, notably highlighting the importance of understanding the history of countries currently experiencing crisis. It is, or should be, part of context analysis. A different dilemma arises from efforts to build upon past experiences of action: how can information about past experiences be used to learn useful lessons, rather than import unhelpful legacies or ill-adapted frameworks?

Above all, more efforts are needed to shift attitudes around information away from a kind of fetish for data, scarce as it can often be, and towards the collective generation of more meaningful and sustained knowledge and understandings. Institutional memory is an important part of this, and initiatives like the Rift Valley Institute’s Sudan Open Archive highlight some of the practical ways it might be encouraged. And an attitude shift might help with one of the most fundamental issues in aid action and conflict response: the feeling that it is always on the back foot, increasingly fast to act but slow to learn.