The humanitarian reform agenda recognises the need for evidence-based decision-making in emergencies. However, current approaches to humanitarian needs assessment often do not provide a sufficiently coherent picture of humanitarian requirements and, therefore, are unable to effectively inform decisions. Multiple, independent, uncoordinated assessments often represent significant duplication of time, effort and funds, provide a fragmented picture of need and risk neglecting certain beneficiary groups and leaving gaps in information. These efforts may not meet commonly promoted humanitarian standards of accountability to vulnerable groups affected by crises.
For all these reasons, coordinated needs assessments are increasingly seen as crucial for the more efficient use of resources, to obtain a more comprehensive picture of needs and to promote a shared understanding of needs and priorities, laying a good foundation for a wellcoordinated response. However, conducting coordinated needs assessments is not an easy process, and convincing partners of the added value of such an approach is a key challenge. Diverse mandates and sector-specific approaches make it difficult for agencies to allocate the time, staff and resources required to participate in a coordinated exercise.
Coordinated needs assessments: a renewed partnership
Agencies participating in the Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project are strengthening their ability to carry out coordinated needs assessments in five multi-agency consortia. The benefits of a coordinated approach such as greater coherence and usage of results, stronger and more uniform data analysis and new opportunities for closer operational coordination in the field are becoming more widely appreciated, and are beginning to counter the negative perceptions associated with the time and resources required to deliver a coordinated assessment.
To build on this momentum, ECB Project field teams are working in close partnership with the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), using small technical teams to train field staff on developing common assessment approaches and data capture and providing guidance on how to analyse and effectively use the data to inform programming decisions. After signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with ACAPS in 2010, ECB Project agencies began their collaboration in Indonesia, then expanded the scope and reach of their pilot initiatives to disaster-affected areas in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Kenya, Niger, Somalia and Uganda. The partnership has resulted in the release of secondary data reviews (SDRs) for use during the early stages of humanitarian crises, the confirmation of standard criteria against which to collect pre-crisis indicators, online database development, assessment tool design, the implementation of coordinated needs assessments and joint publications.
Niger has experienced rapid population growth and environmental change over the last 40 years. Arable land is decreasing, the population has increased fourfold and the country is regularly affected by major food crises (in 1974, 1984, 1998, 2005 and 2010). Following erratic rainfall in 2011, the famine early warning system (FEWS NET) estimated that close to three million people were at risk of food insecurity. In November 2011, ACAPS and ECB Project agencies undertook an initial SDR on the food security situation, which identified the need for a more coordinated approach to information collection and analysis. The following month, a food security assessment by the Cellule de Coordination du Système dAlerte Précoce (CC/SAP), the government body in charge of early warning, found that more than 5.4 million people (35% of the population) were food insecure. Given this situation and the negative projections for the hunger gap season, the seven ECB Project agencies in Niger decided to conduct a multi-sector coordinated assessment, supported by ACAPS. The ECB Project agencies in Niger are CARE, CRS, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Plan, Save the Children and World Vision. This was informed by an updated secondary data review, published at the end of December 2011.
The aim of the coordinated assessment was to gain a better understanding of food security in Diffa (an area with large numbers of pastoralists and few humanitarian partners, and about which there was relatively little information) and Tillaberi (one of the most affected regions). The target outcome of this collaboration was to create a common understanding and shared awareness of the situation among consortium members, and to begin discussions on response options.
The design phase of the assessment started in January 2012, focusing on the methodology (information needs, analysis plan, sampling, site selection, tool design) and coordination aspects (roles and responsibilities, mobilisation of resources, team-building, training, logistics and administration and developing a collaborative platform). Coordination with other actors (CC/SAP, the World Food Programme, other NGOs, local authorities) was a priority, to avoid duplication and maximise the value of the information collected. The assessment was jointly designed and covered various sectors in addition to food security. It resulted in a shared questionnaire format, methodology and single final report. The final assessment report is available in English and French at www.ecbproject.org/resources/library/tag/Niger.
The Niger coordinated exercise led to two major outcomes:
- Strengthening collaboration among the ECB Project agencies and within the wider humanitarian community, including the national government and the UN.
- Building the assessment capacity of each ECB agency and enabling them to make more informed decisions and replicate assessment skills in other areas of Niger.
The coordinated needs assessment was credited with laying the groundwork very early on for better collaboration between actors responding to the food crisis. Indeed, it was one of the rare occasions when international organisations brought their resources together and worked in partnership in the face of a humanitarian crisis. Bringing together ECB partners that had previously worked on other joint activities facilitated further engagement and participation in each step of the assessment, from questionnaire design, data collection and analysis to reporting and dissemination.
“Without question, the coordinated needs assessment has been the single biggest step towards a common approach to responding to the food and farming crisis of 2012. It allowed ECB Project agencies to pool their efforts, their talents and their resources to get an accurate picture of the crisis at a time when there were great differences of opinion with regard to the scale and seriousness of the emergency.” Aboubacar Djimraou, Deputy Director, CARE Niger
The final assessment report enabled more frequent and informed dialogue between ECB Project agencies, partners, government staff, donors and the UN. This included supporting collaborative work and informationsharing between ECB Project agencies and UN agencies such as WFP and UNICEF. Closer coordination on advocacy and the publication of a joint press release The joint press release is available at http://www.ecbproject.org/ resources/library/228-press-release-niger-communities-say-they-willrun- out-of-food-before-next-harvest-joint-study-shows. provided the media with key information and drew attention to the extent of the crisis and the need for further humanitarian engagement at both national and international level.
This joint exercise also resulted in improvements in emergency response coordination. The seven ECB Project agencies in Niger jointly planned their programme activities and ensured that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Cellule de Crises Alimentaires (CCA) and the early warning system representatives (CC/SAP) also attended the assessment planning workshop.
ECB Project agencies agreed which agency would lead on the response in locations where there was traditionally no permanent agency presence. These pre-agreements ensured that the lead agency informed everyone else of any new crisis information or security issues arising in the area. Further joint discussions focused on the different developments and scenarios for programming, as well as response options following a deterioration in the situation.
The results of the coordinated needs assessment generated further proposals for emergency projects, and brought together sector and support staff from the ECB Project agencies to share other approaches. For example, human resource managers planned further discussions on different agency policies on staff welfare.
Building assessment capacity
“This was a formative procedure for our emergency staff and the rich qualitative and quantitative data generated by this report could be used as reference information within the framework of our own 2012 emergency response assessment.” Bill Rastetter, CRS Country Representative, Niger
In addition to the collective benefits of collaboration and coordination, the joint exercise also allowed individual agencies to strengthen their own capacities. Agencies used the data from the coordinated needs assessment in a variety of ways, and in accordance with their own mandates. For example, Plan reproduced the assessment in the Dosso region, using a similar approach and adapting the tools to the context. Save the Children confirmed that the outcomes of the exercise corroborated the findings of its household economy analysis in Diffa.
Collaboration and building trust remain at the core of a successful coordinated needs assessment. As any coordinated assessment process evolves it is important to ensure a clear understanding of the human, logistical, communication and financial resources needed to implement the assessment. In Niger, although the ECB partners are used to working together on other capacity-building initiatives, some coordination problems were noted.
Including multiple sectors, interests and communities in the first coordinated assessment provided useful results for the humanitarian community, yet some actors felt that the methodology and the sample chosen resulted in an assessment that did not sufficiently represent the overall situation across Niger. ECB Project agencies and partners will need to ensure that future assessments strike a balance between what is realistic, in terms of reach and coverage, and the expectations of participating agencies.
Dealing with the sensitivities of a food crisis is often very difficult and, depending on the context, may mean proceeding with caution. This assessment took place in a context where actors held different opinions on the severity and scale of the crisis. ECB Project agencies reached a broad consensus on how to interpret the assessment results; they are committed to coordinating and disseminating any updated results with the government and other major institutions, and working together with these decision-makers to ensure that assessment results provide useful inputs when making important decisions and determining priorities at all levels.
The experiences of ECB Project agencies in Niger and other countries with ECB consortia demonstrate that there are tangible benefits in adopting a coordinated approach to needs assessment. As well as providing a platform for agencies to increase coherence and coordination across a crisis-affected area, the resulting analysis and assessment report contribute towards more concrete and more informed discussions amongst decision-makers at the institutional and global inter-agency level. While it is safe to assume that a coordinated needs assessment will reduce assessment fatigue among disaster-affected people, it is also plausible to assume that a clearer, common understanding of the needs of those affected should result in better and more targeted aid delivery and improved working relations between agencies during the implementation phase. However, there is currently insufficient evidence as to the benefits for affected communities of a coordinated approach.
Agencies involved in the ECB Project and ACAPS will continue their action research to improve secondary data reviews, criteria development for pre-crisis data collection, assessment methodology development and training on coordinated needs assessment and data analysis. A new task force is refining its response to floods in Bangladesh, while a team in Indonesia is collecting pre-crisis data that can be entered directly into an online database. ECB agencies hope to develop further training opportunities for field staff based in Somalia. Highlights from the Somalia initiative are available at http://www. ecbproject.org/joint-needs-assessment/field-data-collection-forhumanitarian- needs-assessments-in-somalia. In Kenya the ECB Project agencies, ACAPS, OCHA and UNICEF are planning further rapid data collection training for partner organisations and national NGOs, and developing a coordinated needs assessment approach similar to the one piloted in Niger. For more information on these assessment activities contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Zahairou Mamane Sani and Andrea Stewart work with the Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project The ECB Project is a global initiative of CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision International. The goal of the ECB Project is to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of the humanitarian community in order to save lives, improve welfare and protect the rights of people in emergency situations. The ECB consortium in Niger has been active since January 2009. For more information visit www.ecbproject.org. and Caroline Draveny is with the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) The Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) is dedicated to improving the assessment of needs in complex emergencies and crises by providing tools, assessment specialists and training before, during and after crises. For more information visit www.acaps.org.