How do we choose where to help?

ACAPS staff at work. Photo by: ACAPS

GENEVA  — On April 17, Start Network received an urgent alert from two of its 42 member organizations, asking for rapid funding to combat a cholera outbreak in northeast Nigeria. The other members of the United Kingdom-based humanitarian network were quickly consulted, but they were divided over whether, of all the world’s pressing humanitarian needs, this one deserved some of the network’s precious funds.

By the following day, however, the independent organization ACAPS had completed the rapid assessment of the crisis requested by Start as soon as the appeal came in. It added a crucial new perspective: There was a large population of internally displaced people in the area, whose lack of safe drinking water and sanitation made them particularly vulnerable to the disease.

With this information, Start’s allocation committee voted to release £135,000 ($178,341) to combat the spread of cholera in the area.

“We’re known for the speed with which we make decisions,” said Luke Caley, a former official at Start. ACAPS, based in Geneva, Switzerland, plays a crucial role by providing rapid assessments of humanitarian emergencies wherever they arise around the world.

“They provide us with really useful information, including the context of the crisis and the scale of the impact,” said Caley. “They help us triangulate needs.”

In recent years, both humanitarian actors and donors have pushed for more objective, evidence-based needs assessments to help decide where to direct their support. That goal was included in the so-called “Grand Bargain” announced at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016­ — a set of reforms intended to make the delivery of humanitarian aid more effective and efficient in exchange for an increase in funding from major donors.

A one-year report on the Grand Bargain’s implementation published last year by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute found that even where increased assessments were being done, they often suffered from a particular weakness: When carried out by aid organizations, they “tend to focus on the services supplied by these same organizations, at the expense of providing a more objective overview of needs.”

In other words, a food aid organization will tend to find that many of the needs are dietary; a medical charity will discover large unmet health needs, and so forth. Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said this is a common problem. Such assessment often “doesn't tell you a great deal about relative priorities and the urgency of different types of needs,” he said.

Bonaventure Gbétoho Sokpoh witnessed a similar problem when he was director of the Observatory of Aid Practice in Chad, a French NGO initiative that operated between 2009 and 2012. “When there is a crisis, there are often many organizations on the ground, each gathering small bits of information on the situation,” he said.

What is needed is “a group like ACAPS, which provides an overview,” said Sokpoh, who is currently head of policy, advocacy and learning at CHS Alliance, which works to improve the effectiveness and impact of humanitarian assistance. Moreover, an overview done by an independent, outside group should result in more objective findings.

“ACAPS is neutral,” agreed Start’s Caley. “They have no skin in the game.”

Rapid assessment

ACAPS’ Geneva headquarters is on the fifth floor of a sparse, modern office building overlooking a downtown rail depot. About 20 people work in rooms with floor to ceiling windows, with eight more staff employed in the field. Slogans embodying the group’s approach are painted on the white walls of the hallway, with such messages as “From Noise to Signal,” and “Fail Forward.”

Established in 2009, ACAPS, which originally stood for Assessment Capacities Project, is an independent nonprofit dedicated to providing humanitarian actors with unbiased assessments to improve humanitarian outcomes. It is now a leader in its field, with a $2.7 million annual budget funded mainly by a half-dozen European aid agencies. Implementation of the ACAPS project is overseen by two NGOs — the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children.

“There is more and more data collection in the field, but a lack of analysis,” said Lars Peter Nissen, ACAPS’ founding director, who has lengthy experience in the Red Cross movement. “Our role is to tell the best evidence-based story” to help inform both rapid humanitarian response and strategic planning.

The Start Network pays ACAPS around $200,000 per year to provide a number of products, including up to three rapid assessment reports each week. Like the one produced in April on the cholera outbreak in Nigeria, briefing reports are produced within 12-24 hours of a request from Start. They arrive in a standardized format, typically five to seven pages long, and include an overall assessment on questions such as “Impact” — very low, moderate, or major — and “Need for International Assistance” — not required, moderate, or major.

Half of ACAPS’ employees in Geneva are analysts, each of whom is responsible for 10-15 countries. When a request comes in, analysts start by looking at international and local reporting on a crisis, as well as checking information from NGOs that have a presence in the area and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Analysts also have a roster of trusted informants, mostly humanitarian workers and U.N. officials in the field, as well as outside scholars.

The work is supported by an extensive baseline, updated weekly, on numerous humanitarian situations around the world, with indicators such as infant mortality and disease rates; deliveries of humanitarian aid; social and political climate; and aggravating factors such as insecurity or estimated dates of the cyclone season — all of which can help show trends and put new crises in context.

Along with news articles and conversations with sources, all this information is used to rank the severity of a humanitarian situation based on scores for several key issues, such as the number of people in need and their underlying vulnerability to shocks.

ACAPS also offers more in-depth and longer term analyses of humanitarian hotspots. Seven thousand humanitarian actors have signed up to receive its regular updates. All reports, including the briefing notes for Start, are available for free online, along with notes on how ACAPS carries out its analyses. These, alongside training sessions and workshops, are intended to strengthen the capacity of other humanitarian groups to assess needs and analyze evolving situations themselves.

Lucio Melandri, head of the U.N.’s Children's Fund’s office in Greece, said the resources proved invaluable during the so-called Mediterranean “migration crisis” of 2015 and 2016, when, at times, ACAPS produced daily updates on the situation, including the changing migration routes, and the numbers and conditions of new arrivals. “For us it was extremely important,” said Melandri. “Nobody was ready.”

When the European Union made a controversial deal with Libya to stop the flow of migrants and refugees from its shores, ACAPS helped with analyses of the possible consequences. By giving organizations a basis on which to plan their work, “this led to greater collaboration” among humanitarian groups, Melandri added.

Not only about the data

ACAPS is one of a number of organizations working to improve impartial, evidence-based needs assessment in humanitarian assistance. While it focuses on producing analyses from information collected mainly by others, REACH, another Geneva-based, interagency project established in 2011 as part of IMPACT Initiatives, produces its own primary data through methods such as household surveys of affected populations, interviews with community leaders, and remote sensing via satellite imagery.

OCHA also carries out needs assessments in cooperation with the specialized U.N. agencies, and is promoting the harmonization of assessment criteria, to be able to compare assessments done by different organizations.

Despite growing efforts to deploy aid using evidence-based analysis, observers say significant shortcomings remain. A recent report on the implementation of the Grand Bargain by the U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute found that while progress was made during 2017 toward improving “joint and impartial needs assessments,” there remained a “lack of political will and incentives to bring about the fundamental change in culture and operating practice required” to achieve that goal.

It also pointed to resistance among some humanitarian organizations, which “highlighted fears that joint needs assessments may silence dissenting voices and force them into a single narrative.”

Others pointed out that other considerations inevitably come into play. For example, much more aid goes to Syria than to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose massive humanitarian crisis is less well-known in the West, according to Julia Steets, director of the Global Public Policy Institute.

“It’s not all evidence on needs that drives this,” she said. There are also political considerations, and “reputational risk” — the threat of bad press if an organization neglects to intervene in a crisis that receives a lot of attention in donor countries.

But the fact that there is little information about some emergencies is itself beginning to attract more attention. “Decision-making around humanitarian response planning is often not based on good information, but on the information that happens to be available,” said Elisabeth Vikman, who helps run REACH.

They recently sent a team to evaluate pressing needs in DRC’s Kasai-Central province, which has seen an upsurge in instability. The group’s goal, said Vikman, is “to make sure information is available on all humanitarian crises.” That would provide a starting point for better decision-making.

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About the author

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    Burton Bollag

    Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.