Measuring humanitarian need: needs assessment and decision-making in the humanitarian sector

April 2003 to March 2004

Putting into practice the humanitarian principle of impartiality - that assistance should be given on the basis of (and in proportion to) need alone - demands both an understanding of what constitutes 'need' and a way of measuring it with reasonable consistency.

The project approach

This study, led by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, considered ways of achieving a more consistent and accurate picture of the scale and nature of the problems people actually face in humanitarian crises, and how to ensure that decisions about response are properly informed by that understanding.

The way in which needs are defined and prioritised has real-world implications for millions of people. Improving humanitarian needs assessment demands greater consistency in the way problems are framed, in terms of observable symptoms, proximate causes and acute risk factors. It also demands that assessment be given greater priority in practice. Improving assessment practice cannot of itself address the issue of inequitable resource allocation; but it is a necessary condition for effective prioritisation and appropriate response.

The study found that needs assessment as currently practiced is inadequate to provide the information upon which to base genuinely impartial responses. A ‘core’ agenda of humanitarian concerns is suggested by which to judge the minimum necessary scope and content of appropriate assessment. Too little priority is given to the process of assessment throughout the course of a crisis; and it is too closely aligned to the ‘front-end’ fund-raising process. While there is room for improvement in assessment methodology, current techniques should allow reliable information to be consistently generated in most contexts against key ‘outcome’ and risk indicators. Doing so may be as important to gauging the impact of interventions as it is to informing their design. This requires that decision-makers demand and make use of critical information, and consistently ground their decisions in evidence-based judgements about acute risk and related needs.