Putting needs first: Making effective use of data and analysis for a needs-based approach to humanitarian action

UNWDF’23 Thematic Area 2: Maximising the use and value of data for better decision making

According to UN-OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Overview for 2023, more than 300 million people around the world are currently in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, and addressing these needs would require over 50 billion USD in humanitarian aid funding. These needs are further aggravated by global mega-trends such as forced displacement, conflict, food crises, climate change, and increasing poverty.

In this global context where the scale and severity of humanitarian needs are constantly increasing, while the availability of resources to address these needs are not, it is becoming increasingly important to maximise the usage of available data to enable more evidence-based humanitarian action within and across crises. Global policy developments like the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and resulting Grand Bargain framework have further highlighted the importance of this, with one of its commitments being to “improve joint and impartial needs assessments” for more efficient humanitarian response.

As a result, there has been significant inter-agency work over the past years towards developing more robust analytical approaches to understanding the breadth and depth of humanitarian need, including the development of a Joint Intersectoral Analysis Framework, and a wider roll out of Multi-Sector Needs Assessments (MSNA) across humanitarian contexts. Since 2016, IMPACT Initiatives (through its flagship REACH Initiative) has also been scaling up its MSNA research efforts, and in 2022 alone, implemented this data collection exercise across more than twenty countries around the world.

The primary goal of the REACH-facilitated MSNAs is to provide robust crisis-wide data to inform more effective, context-appropriate and equitable planning and delivery of humanitarian assistance, especially as part of the Humanitarian Programme Cycle. By collecting and analysing household-level multi-sectoral data from different geographical areas and population groups, the MSNA enables humanitarian actors within each crisis to better understand 1) what is the prevalence and severity of needs within and across sectors, 2) which population groups are most affected and where, 3) what are the key drivers of these needs, and 4) what is the co-occurrence of needs between sectors. For instance, in this recent analysis conducted for the MSNA in Ukraine, we can see that almost half the households were found to have extreme or very extreme needs, primarily due to gaps identified in livelihoods, shelter, and protection. By further disaggregating the analysis, we also see that female-headed households and households in rural areas were more likely to report extreme needs, compared to male-headed and urban households.

In addition to providing this crisis-wide needs overview, MSNA data can also be used to promote a more holistic understanding of the priorities and perceptions of affected communities, and ultimately enable a more accountable and people-centered approach to humanitarian assistance. To further maximise the utility of an MSNA beyond informing short-term humanitarian planning, such data has also proven useful to inform longer term recovery and development efforts in contexts transitioning away from humanitarian emergencies. For instance, in Iraq, REACH MSNA data has been used to draw attention to the persisting needs and vulnerabilities among displaced populations (especially when camp closures were becoming a reality), as well as to provide a multi-year longitudinal analysis of evolving humanitarian needs in times of transition.

Going beyond this use and value of MSNAs for in-crisis planning, the volume of standardised household-level data available across so many crises also represents an opportunity to maximise its usage to inform cross-crisis prioritisation and planning. Over the past years, IMPACT has engaged in research and development around how best to draw conclusions across crises, especially testing different analytical approaches using data from REACH MSNAs conducted from 2019-2022. This work has highlighted several key challenges, including the need to find a balance between the contextualization of assessments in dramatically varying situations, as well as developing standardised and absolute ways in which to measure the severity of humanitarian need. Ultimately, however, those engaging in strategic planning at the global level, especially donor agencies, have consistently demonstrated an appetite for stronger data on which to better base cross-crisis decisions. There is thus a need to continue identifying the most robust and feasible way(s) to better analyse humanitarian needs from a global, cross-crisis lens. Internally, IMPACT has started looking at how to make better use of its country-level MSNA datasets to address this, for example by producing analysis that provides 1) global comparison of sector-specific gaps between different crises (see here), 2) regional overview of the prevalence and severity of humanitarian need in the Central Sahel (see here) and, 3) more holistic understanding of accountability to affected populations across different crises (see here). IMPACT has also used past MSNA data to inform global policy discussions, for instance by contributing to this effort by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, drawing attention to the impact of internal displacement for children and youth around the world. On a larger scale, the INFORM initiative steered by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre through a multi-stakeholder forum has also been a significant effort in that direction.

Overall, the present reality is that humanitarian needs around the world are higher than ever before, but humanitarian funding is unable to keep up with this growing scale and severity of needs. Making evidence-based decisions around prioritization, both in-crisis and across crises, is therefore more important than ever. The examples above have sought to demonstrate how inherently powerful a standardized household-level dataset like an MSNA can be, especially in terms of looking at the data from a wide variety of perspectives to understand needs of crisis-affected populations, depending on whom and what decisions we want to inform. However, maximizing the use and value of data for better decision-making cannot be a siloed effort by any single individual or entity, and requires collaboration, coordination and responsible data sharing across a range of different actors. Ensuring effective collaboration is especially relevant now as the humanitarian community is undergoing a “data revolution” of sorts, with organisations collecting and producing more data than ever before. Collectively understanding the opportunities this brings, especially in terms of responsibly sharing and using available datasets, will help ensure that humanitarian actors are able to effectively address the most urgent needs of affected people in this difficult global environment.