Measuring humanitarian need
by Marcus Oxley June 2003

One of the most difficult decisions an aid agency faces is choosing when to respond to an emergency. This is particularly the case for a large international federation like CARE International, which comprises 11 national member organi-sations, with an operational presence in around 80 of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. To allow for greater consistency throughout CARE, help prioritise resource allocations and enable a timely and effective response, CARE Australia has developed a draft set of guidelines to assist in decision-making. The process of drafting these guidelines has highlighted important gaps and deficiencies in the inter-national response system. This article outlines these deficiencies, explains the difficulties they can cause for the delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance, and suggests that more research on measuring humanitarian need is required to enable agencies to reassert and promote principled humanitarian action within an increasingly politicised aid system.

The ideal … and the actual

Ideally, humanitarian assistance should be provided equitably, without discrimination, to all disaster victims throughout the world on the basis of need alone. According to the humanitarian ideal, CARE International would assess emer-gency situations on a country-by-country basis, determine where the greatest level of unmet humanitarian needs lay, factor in considerations of effectiveness and impact, and then prioritise its resources accordingly.

In reality, like all other agencies CARE International has neither the capacities nor the competencies to physically respond to every emergency situation in the world. Global demand for assistance constantly outstrips supply. Institutional factors, such as cost-effectiveness, access to resources and core competencies and capacities, influence CARE’s ability to respond, and are inextricably linked to the decision to launch an emergency intervention. Perhaps contrary to the rather utopian Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct, which states that ‘aid priorities are calculated on the basis of needs alone’, the final decision will always require a principled choice, involving careful consideration of ‘in-country’ humanitarian imperatives in relation to ‘external’ institutional imperatives.

‘Internal’ humanitarian imperatives and ‘external’ institutional imperatives are assessed in parallel. Questions intrinsic to the emergency itself include:

  • are there significant unmet needs?;
  • is there a requirement for external assistance?;
  • is an emergency response feasible in terms of security, access and humanitarian space?

Institutional questions include:

  • does CARE have the competencies and capacities to respond?;
  • is institutional funding available?;
  • are there opportunities for public fundraising in response to the emergency?;
  • what will be the emergency’s profile/coverage in the media?;
  • are there historical or cultural linkages?;
  • what effect will there be on existing country or regional programming?

Within the ‘response decision’ itself, CARE weighs factors like scope, scale and proportionality, cost-effectiveness and targeting, and also decides on timeframes and the phasing out of the response.

Understanding the relative scale of an emergency

Impartiality requires that the level of assistance reflects considerations of proportionality: the greater the degree of suffering (that is, the greater the humanitarian need), the greater the level of assistance. Yet there is no standard, agreed mechanism for defining the scale of a disaster or emergency, and hence for measuring the resulting level of humanitarian need. Instead of a standard definition of what constitutes a disaster or an emergency situation, all too often reporting tends to be emotive and subjective, and based on individual perceptions and interpretations. What may be regarded in a large country, say India, as a ‘minor’ emergency may be seen as a massive humanitarian crisis somewhere much smaller.

The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels maintains an Emergency Events Database based on information aggregated according to disaster type, location and impact. But as yet there appears to be no standard index to rank the vulnerability of the most disaster-prone countries, or agreed criteria to measure the scale and frequency of specific disasters. However, to enable a systematic and rational response to often disparate disaster data, emergency managers must understand the relative scale of events. One suggestion is the adoption of a simple size classification, as measured in terms of the disaster’s immediate impact (number of people killed, number directly affected, and estimated cost of damage).

An understanding of the relative size of a disaster helps agencies to ensure that the necessary resources are available, in time, to meet envisaged emergency needs. Additional research in developing a classification for the relative scale of different disasters would be useful, although agreeing standards may prove technically difficult; to be applicable to all disasters, individual indicators will have to be relative rather than absolute, and indicator cut-off points between categories may have to vary according to different disaster types. For example, a ‘major’ earthquake typically results in more deaths, yet affects fewer people, than an equivalent ‘major’ wind storm.

Understanding the level of humanitarian need

In the absence of comparable indicators of the scale and intensity of a disaster, the decision to respond tends to be influenced by institutional imperatives and the political priorities of donor governments. According to Oxfam, in 1999 the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) spent more money on humanitarian assistance in Kosovo than in the rest of the world put together. Donor governments gave over $207 per person through the 1999 UN appeal for Kosovo, compared with $16 per head in Sierra Leone, and half that in DRC. According to Human Rights Watch, refugees in Kosovo received 11 times more financial support per head than refugees in Africa. By no stretch of the imagination does this reflect relative severity of need. Despite our humanitarian principles and numerous codes of conduct, the delivery of international humanitarian assistance functions within a supply (resources)-driven, rather than a demand (needs)-driven, system.

Of course, knowing the relative allocation of resources per beneficiary for different emergency situations is no guarantee of impartiality. Funds will always be used according to the wishes of donor governments, particularly when they are being disbursed in countries deemed to be of strategic importance. Limited access to indepen-dent resources and conditional access to affected populations will always make it difficult for NGOs to respond to emergencies in accordance with the humanitarian ideal. However, raising political will and mobilising public opinion in order to reduce national bias and overcome these constraints will always be more effective when it is based on a broad consensus of hard, objective and conclusive information.

The need for a more effective means to lobby and influence the way donor governments allocate resources is becoming increasingly important given the blurring distinction between humanitarian and political objectives. One illustration of this is the Australian government’s Humanitarian Program Strategy, published in May 2001. In the strategy, humanitarian objectives are brought into full alignment with the Australian government’s overseas aid objectives, which in turn are closely integrated with its broader strategic objectives. The strategy is no doubt built on Australia’s desire to act effectively and responsibly in South-east Asia, and is a response to increased conflict and social upheaval in neighbouring states. These developments have resulted in an increased need for humanitarian action – and have raised the threat of mass migration by refugees and asylum-seekers to Australia’s shores.

Within this strategy, Australia’s global engagement beyond the Asia-Pacific relies largely on the ‘international humanitarian system’. However, given the continued decline in overseas aid from OECD countries and the increasing prevalence of bilateral funding at the expense of multilateral (UN agency) funding, many vulnerable but non-strategic countries are being abandoned by the world’s richer nations, relegated, like Afghanistan, Sudan or Angola, to the status of ‘forgotten crises’. If the Australian government’s approach to humanitarian assistance reflects current OECD thinking, NGOs without access to independent funding will increasingly find themselves acting as instruments of donor-government foreign policy.

forgotten emergencies

The case for further research

The development of CARE Australia’s emergency- response guidelines has highlighted the require-ment for some mechanism by which we can objectively measure humanitarian need. In this area, additional academic research would be extremely useful, not only for CARE’s policy-makers and practitioners, but also for the broader humanitarian sector.

A universal system of classification for disasters would enable managers to understand the relative scale of events, estimate the likely resource implications and select the most appropriate response. Such a system would also allow a more detailed analysis of the magnitude and frequency of the various disaster types and their impact on society. This would increase understanding of the patterns and characteristics of different disasters, support the development and prioritisation of better disaster-preparedness measures, and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of disaster-prevention and mitigation strategies.

The second, and closely related, issue is to do with the lack of agreement over terminology; currently, the reporting of disasters is subjective and inconsistent, distorting our language and undermining its authority. Humanitarians need to be more proactive in influencing the way disasters are reported. Given the importance of accurate information in informing public opinion, mobilising political will and raising resources, it is in our interest to reach a consensus on the appropriate terminology to describe the range of emergency situations. This could also improve the consistency and effectiveness of our education and fundraising activities.

Third, the development of universal indicators of humanitarian need would support a broad consensus among agencies on the relative levels of human suffering. This would lead to more effective inter-agency cooperation, help agencies set aid priorities, and provide a credible basis on which to lobby and advocate for a more independent, impartial and equitable allocation of global financial resources – particularly in support of humanitarian action for the world’s ‘forgotten emergencies’.

As agencies struggle to assert humanitarian values, improve accountability and enhance their effectiveness within an increasingly politicised aid system, consistent, impartial and objective data will become increasingly important. On its own, this will not change the political economy of humanitarian aid. But it will help agencies rationalise their decision-making, and in the process provide a compelling justification and strong moral authority on which to build a more just, equitable and humane international relief system.

Marcus C. Oxley is Emergencies Manager for CARE Australia. This paper has in part been abstracted from CARE Australia’s draft Emergency Response Guidelines. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s own and not those of CARE Australia.

The author would like to thank and acknowledge the contribution from the SCF-UK Emergencies team, particularly Jane Barry, who provoked thinking and shared policy drafts whilst developing the response guidelines. For further information contact:

The Australian government’s Humanitarian Program Strategy is available at the AusAID website,