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Measuring humanitarian need: A critical review of needs assessment practice and its influence on resource allocation

Working papers

This discussion paper, prepared for Montreux IV: Donor retreat on the CAP and coordination on humanitarian emergencies, February 2003, describes some of the preliminary findings and provisional conclusions from the ODI ‘Measuring Needs’ study, one part of the research programme commissioned under the Humanitarian Financing initiative. The study is due to be completed in April 2003. Based on five case studies and focussing on the international humanitarian system, it explores the link between needs assessment and decision-making (by agencies and donors) about response and resource allocation. The underlying concern is with global funding disparities: levels of funding do not seem to correlate with levels of need, and the most urgent cases are not consistently prioritised. Yet the humanitarian ‘system’ lacks a consistent and objective basis for deciding which those cases are, and the means to decide about the allocation of resources between competing priorities.

We propose two principles as a basis for decision-making in this context. The first is that the primary goal of humanitarian action is to protect human life. The second is that the international response to a given situation should be proportionate in scale and appropriate in nature to unmet humanitarian needs in that situation. We believe that consistent needs-based decision making – taking that to be our goal – depends on:

(i) the definition of ‘need’ adopted and the criteria by which proportionality and appropriateness of response are judged;

(ii) the ability to assess situations consistently against those criteria; and

(iii) decision-making that is informed by consistent use of such assessments.

We explore each of these in turn in the study. Given the range of actors involved in the humanitarian ‘system’, we do not expect that a single set of criteria could be agreed to cover the whole gamut of humanitarian concerns. Reducing human suffering is clearly a guiding principle here, but one that it is open to many interpretations. However, if protecting life is agreed to be the primary goal, we would expect mortality rates (actual, potential) to be a ‘core’ criterion, together with health and nutritional status. These should be related to – but not dependent on – the use of relevant indicators, quantitative and qualitative, physiological and economic/social.

In examining the practice of needs assessment, we focus more on process and mechanisms – including the coordination issues – than on methodology, on which much work is being done elsewhere. The aim here is a process that can deliver a ‘good enough’ basis of analysis for the decisions that need to be taken. We propose, inter alia, criteria for good assessment and a minimum ‘package’ of information that might reasonably be expected to inform decision-making in relation to different types of crisis. We explore the benefits and disadvantages of multi-agency and multi-sectoral assessments, bearing in mind the goal of a system that is ‘needs responsive’.

In relation to the decision-making process, we consider how information is shared and communicated, and how it is used by decision-makers in agencies and donors. While recognizing that a range of other factors will influence the allocation and prioritisation of resources, a commitment to needs-based decision-making requires both an ability to generate objective analysis of needs, and a demand for and use of that analysis. The fundamental concern, we suggest, is to ensure that in those cases where life or health is threatened on a wide scale, the system consistently delivers a commensurate and appropriate response.

James Darcy