Humanitarian Information Systems and Emergencies

Summary of published paper1

Mother with her child, Bujumbura Rural Province

In countries that are both poor and exposed to frequent episodes of debilitating drought or chronic conflict, information needs tend to differ from the straightforward, early warning/ commodity accounting models of information systems that have proven reliable in past emergencies. A recent paper describes the interdependent components of a humanitarian information system appropriate for this kind of complex environment. It notes the analytical links between the components, and the operational links to programming and policy. By examining a series of case studies from the Greater Horn region, the paper demonstrates that systems lacking one or more of these components will fail to provide adequate information - and thus incur humanitarian costs.

The paper identifies the essential components of a Humanitarian Information System (HIS) as the following;

Three case studies are presented to demonstrate the humanitarian cost of incomplete information systems. In the Ethiopia crisis of 1999- 2000, there was a lack of a pastoral Early Warning system, lack of adequate baseline data and lack of institutional mechanisms for linking limited humanitarian information to response mechanisms.

In the Kenya situation between 1999-2002, while there was good information predicting the onset of the emergency, there was poor context monitoring. Thus, little was done to identify community priorities and opportunities for recovery. Also, there was little information on the impact of the large amount of relief food distributed.

In the Burundi case (1996-2001), there was an almost complete lack of early warning information, while the baseline information was severely constrained by the security situation. Unlike the Ethiopian and Kenyan cases, most of the information that was available was generated by humanitarian agencies rather than government.

Empirical evidence on the costs and benefits of improved information systems is difficult to find. However, HIS can be very economical investments. The World Bank (1995) estimates that a good information system combined with rapid response would save $40 million over 20 years in Kenya in livestock assets alone. Even a small savings in the expense of poorly targeted food aid in Kenya could generate enough cash to run the system.

The authors conclude that effective programming in a state of chronic vulnerability or recurrent humanitarian crises requires, in some form or another, all the components or types of information discussed. Few currently existing systems include all these components. As a result, programmes may be based on poor information, or worse, on presumptions. The absence of one or more of these components can lead to serious mistakes in analysis and deficiencies in programming, regardless of how well the other components function. The authors finally conclude that the cost of operating humanitarian information systems - particularly in some of the chronically vulnerable areas of the Greater Horn - is high, but the cost of not having information, or having incomplete information, is higher still.

Show footnotes

1Maxwell, D and Watkins, B (2003). Humanitarian information systems and emergencies in the Greater Horn of Africa: logical components and logical linkages. March, 2003. Disasters, volume 27, no 1, pp 72-90

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Humanitarian Information Systems and Emergencies. Field Exchange 21, March 2004. p5. www.ennonline.net/fex/21/humanitarian