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Issue 18 Editorial

By Fiona Watson

Fiona Watson has been involved in assessment and evaluations of emergency nutrition and food security programmes for the last 10 years. She is currently a member of an ODI (Overseas Development Institute) team involved in critically reviewing needs assessment practice and its influence on resource allocation.

The politics of humanitarian needs and how needs are currently assessed are two main themes of this edition of Field Exchange. George Kararach, in his article on nutrition assessments in Zimbabwe, emphasises the political nature of the crisis in Zimbabwe and how this in turn has impacted on the way in which assessments have been conducted and interpreted. He argues that technical considerations have, in some instances, been swept away in favour of pragmatic political considerations, and he describes how the government and humanitarian community are sometimes at odds because of their differing agenda.

Zimbabwe is one of the countries affected in a far wider crisis currently hitting southern Africa. The article by Mark Wright on the evolution of the southern Africa crisis describes how, despite evidence of a deterioration in food security, the response of donors and national governments was initially sluggish. Only after intensive lobbying, and a nutrition survey which showed a large increase in global malnutrition in one district of Malawi, were the governments of Malawi and Zimbabwe willing to declare an emergency and donors prepared to react with humanitarian aid. The article highlights the fact that 'hard' evidence based on malnutrition is often required to convince the humanitarian community to act.

The article by Gaelle Fedida of MSF France also challenges how the humanitarian community defines and prioritises need, but from a different perspective. The article contrasts the case of Angola, which has very high levels of malnutrition and mortality, with southern Africa where malnutrition and mortality rates have generally not yet risen above 'normal' levels. Yet, the 'new' emergency in southern Africa has received much more donor attention and money than the 'old' emergency in Angola. The article raises an important point - that there is a global mismatch between absolute needs and the focus of donor attention.

The inequity in the allocation of humanitarian aid is the subject of various current research projects which have yielded startling statistics. For example, one recent paper1 notes that in the year 2000, South Eastern Europe received $185 per person compared to $87 per person in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and less than $50 per person in Sudan, Angola, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, North Korea, Somalia, Tajiskistan, Uganda and Guinea-Bissau.

The 'humanitarian imperative' demands that people have a right to aid whatever the reason for their plight, whether it is as a result of environmental disaster, poor governance, chronic poverty, conflict, a disease such as HIV/AIDs or any combination of these factors. As the MSF article stresses, humanitarian needs should be assessed independently, and there is a clear need for easily accessible, comparable data to increase transparency and accountability across the humanitarian system. This would lead to greater equity in response, or at least would highlight inequities.

The need for comparable data raises the question of which indicators are universally comparable and appropriate? There has been a call to compare the rates of malnutrition and mortality in different contexts (e.g. by USAID). However, by the time malnutrition and mortality rates have risen, it may be too late to prevent a catastrophe. What is needed is agreement on early indicators of deterioration in food security and other causal factors for malnutrition, which can be used in needs assessments. Currently, several methods have been developed to assess food security. Generally, these are agency specific and have different objectives.

One of the best known methods is the Household Economy Analysis (HEA) developed originally by SCF-UK. The field article by Sonya LeJeune and Julius Holt describes how the HEA was used in Burundi to assess food aid needs for WFP. Although HEA assessments may identify the need for a range of responses, they have mainly focused on food aid needs. The method relies on qualitative data collection and assessors require a high level of training. Furthermore, nutrition data are not collected as an integral part of the HEA though surveys may be conducted simultaneously. The HEA method, therefore, is not easily replicable and doesn't necessarily link food security and nutrition information.

The Nutrition Causal Analysis (NCA) approach to assessment bears many similarities to the HEA approach. Both rely on qualitative, participatory data collection techniques, include some form of wealth ranking and rely on participants to make quantified estimates. The field article by Paul Rees-Thomas describes how the method was used in Mandera, Kenya to understand the causes of malnutrition from the population's perspective. The article highlights how this information can be used for advocacy purposes. Again, the method relies on a high level of training and does not directly link food security and nutrition information.

An innovative approach to needs assessment has been used in southern Africa and is mentioned in the articles by both Mark Wright and George Kararach. The emergency assessments were carried out in all affected countries of southern Africa by the Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) in August 2002, and again in November/ December 2002. These assessments have integrated an analysis of household economy, coping strategies, dietary intake, agricultural inputs and nutritional anthropometry. The assessments are unique in their vast coverage and in the fact that they have been carried out by a group of UN agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross and others working collaboratively. Although the assessments have suffered from methodological weaknesses, they represent an attempt to improve needs assessments and so accountability and transparency in the humanitarian system. This type of initiative could help to reduce global inequities in humanitarian aid, and improve the quality of needs assessment information.

Show footnotes

1Financing international humanitarian action: a review of key trends. HGP Briefing Number 4, November 2002. Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

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Fiona Watson (2003). Issue 18 Editorial. Field Exchange 18, March 2003. p1. www.ennonline.net/fex/18/fromtheeditor

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