Information systems in humanitarian emergencies
by Robin Schofield June 2003

Few dispute that the Internet has encouraged an explosive growth in both the quantity and range of information available to aid practitioners. So why do aid workers say that field-based systems are failing them? And what should be done to make them more effective?

Information systems catering to the international humanitarian-assistance community have matured considerably since pioneering events such as the October 1997 UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs symposium on the Role of Information in Humanitarian Coordination, and even earlier attempts at harnessing new technologies such as the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination’s Refugee Nutrition Information System in September 1993. Reuters’ AlertNet, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s ReliefWeb and IRINNews, the International Crisis Group’s CrisisWeb and a host of other sites, including the HPN’s own, all provide a rich source of news reports, analysis and comment. Aid-related sites account for an estimated $20m in donor and private funds; users number in the tens of millions.

Field efforts

Yet aid workers argue that this explosion of centralised information sources at the global level has failed to bring similar benefits to agency operations in the field. Jane Barry, an independent NGO consultant, has seen the UN and other bodies set up many such country-level information projects, but witnessed fewer sustainable successes. She and other aid workers say that operational agencies regularly use e-mail to file reports to and from headquarters. But aid workers in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Horn of Africa and Somalia have found more sophisticated information projects designed to share and organise information centrally of comparatively little use.

Why? ‘It’s a vicious cycle,’ says Mike Gaouette, Save the Children UK’s emergencies officer. ‘The agencies see little value, so they do not contribute and so the project can never really take off.’ Other aid workers complain that projects are too technology-focused. ‘The whole aim is setting up the system, not populating the data and making it work,’ one comments. ‘Technology is touted as the complete solution.’ ReliefWeb’s manager in Geneva, Craig Duncan, identifies an additional problem: ‘Too often field-based systems have been dependent on an individual’s drive and creativity. After a year or two at most, they leave and are either not replaced, or the new person has different skill sets. It took years to develop ReliefWeb’s partnership with information providers. Organisational commitment is only now yielding the kind of continuity that information projects need.’

Many professionals identify OCHA’s Kosovo Humanitarian Community Information Centre (HCIC) as one of the best field-based information projects to date (for more on the HCIC, see the following article). According to former project manager Paul Currion, agencies reported that they found the system practical, reliable and transparent. Multiple-access channels to data resources – including a drop-in centre, printed fact sheets, e-mail, interactive CD-ROMs and a website – all proved popular for HCIC users, both in Kosovo and at headquarters. Significantly, there are also no plans to discontinue the effort – a factor which Pat Banks, IRIN’s global coordinator, identifies as a major constraint on similar efforts in Rwanda. Senior UN officials say they now plan to build on the HCIC’s success. ‘Over the next five years, these kinds of information centres will become a familiar feature in most operations,’ one manager commented. ‘We are planning regional resource centres for southern and west Africa, the Balkans and possibly also Iraq.’

According to the UN, these regional information centres will use existing office infrastructure, but add specific technical expertise drawn from donor bodies and the private sector. Ericsson is reportedly signing a deal to support project communications with equipment and consulting. Further agreements with satellite firms are also reportedly in the pipeline. But experienced aid workers say that considerable changes in the wider aid community are also required if these information centres are to succeed and effectively institutionalise better information flows.

Information systems in aid

Academic models describe five main components to successful information systems:

  • information input;
  • information processing;
  • information output;
  • feedback; and
  • management mechanisms.

However, field-based information centres as currently designed only control processing, output and management functions. While field-based information projects identify their mission as improving the delivery of humanitarian aid to beneficiaries by providing improved information services to operational agencies, the relationships between donor organisations, implementing agencies and beneficiaries are inevitably more complex. Indeed, many aid workers assert that operational agencies have already implemented all the information systems they really value: they know donor funding criteria; they analyse the donor’s priorities and look for a good fit with organisational strengths; and they report back to the donor on how its money was spent. According to Jane Barry, agencies working in emergencies simply do not see information as a priority: ‘It is very embedded in the culture. Some agencies have worked for decades in Sierra Leone and still do not have a copy of the government census. Until donors insist on better grounding to projects this will not change, even with better information availability as a result of improved central systems.’

The need for change

Initiatives around information systems will not realise their full potential until operational agencies find good reason to value the results. ‘The best information system in the world will achieve little if the organisational model is wrong,’ one analyst comments. ‘Information is still often seen as threatening as it challenges the status quo. If agencies cannot see an advantage, and they know donors will accept the data, then why go to that effort? You can work more quickly, but it is not good programming in the long run.’ Indeed, there is concern that improved use of information systems could further erode the operational independence of agencies by enabling donors to exert ever-greater day-to-day control over their activities.

Centralised, field-based information centres can do much to help aid practitioners involved in international humanitarian relief efforts – but they cannot be seen in isolation. Operational agencies have to both use the centres effectively, and see themselves as components in a mutually-dependent system of relationships that will fail if their contributions are ineffective. For inputs to improve, operational agencies need to integrate information collection, management and analysis into their core programming functions, rather than seeing these activities as optional extras. Immediate improvements could include:

  • Information systems only thrive where they support a practical need – do not collect information for its own sake. Instead, design information products that will improve programmes, and then design the information-processing and collection activities required to generate these results.
  • Successful information systems require substantial time, effort and organisational commitment to develop – allocate sufficient resources and staff to achieve realistic goals. Do not try to squeeze a useful system out of the remains of an administration budget.
  • Information systems cannot succeed in isolation from programme departments.
  • Technology can be more of a hindrance than a help if staff cannot easily operate systems – realistically assess the ‘common technological denominator’ in your organisation and base your procedures at this level. Money spent on expensive software and server computers might be better spent on training staff to use the packaged software and basic desktops they already have.
  • However urgent the immediate humanitarian need, develop at least basic systems to research any response programme before it is designed. Both programmes and supporting information systems can increase in scope and complexity to respond to changing needs.

Robin Schofield has worked on NGO, EU and UN information projects in the Balkans, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the African Great Lakes. He is a consultant at Accenture, formerly known as Andersen Consulting.  Robin can be contacted at <robin.schofield@accenture.com>.

Web resources

For background information on the symposium on the Role of Information in Humanitarian Coordination of 1997, see ReliefWeb, <www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf>

The UN Refugee Nutrition Information System <acc.unsystem.org/scn/Publications/html/rnis.html>

IRINNews <www.reliefweb.int/IRIN>

AlertNet <www.alertnet.org>

CrisisWeb <www.crisisweb.org>

For more information sources relevant to the humanitarian sector, go to the Link Library at the HPN’s website, <www.odihpn.org.uk>

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