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Viability of an ENN research initiative

Summary of pilot study findings1

Over the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to improve active learning and sharing within the humanitarian sector. In the nutrition sector, research has led to significant advances in emergency programming, however there remains a considerable shortfall in the evidence base of emergency interventions. Opportunities to engage in formal research activities are often not capitalised upon, while informal operational data is typically under used and poorly shared within the sector. Whilst the ENN captures a substantial amount of relevant research, evaluation and programmatic experiences through the preparation and publication of Field Exchange, based on it's current modus operandi it cannot be exhaustive in this process.

Recognising the need for complementary initiatives to minimise information loss within the nutrition sector, a preliminary proposal was developed by the ENN aimed at prompting and sharing research in the emergency food and nutrition sector amongst humanitarian agencies. Such an initiative would involve supporting agencies to undertake analysis, write up and dissemination of research and would culminate in a trade fair/ research workshop. In order to investigate the viability of the proposed ENN workshop, a pilot study was undertaken to assess research activity within a cross-section of humanitarian agencies, to identify obstacles to research and to participation in an ENN workshop initiative, and to identify the resources necessary to implement the project.

Between March and September 2002, a crosssection of humanitarian agencies and academics were targeted with a questionnaire on research interests and activity, supported by phone and email contact. From 22 agency contacts, eight questionnaires were returned, significant feedback given by an additional four agencies, and reasons for incomplete information offered by six agencies. Amongst academics, fifteen questionnaires were returned, while a further 26 of those contacted gave significant email and/or telephone feedback. As the study progressed, potentially relevant initiatives, institutions and individuals were identified and investigated. A web-based literary search for evidence to support the proposal, to identify any complementary initiatives, and to investigate issues raised by the respondents was also carried out.

Overall, the agency and academic response to the proposed research initiative was positive and welcomed. This study confirmed that a substantial amount of formal and informal research exists in the emergency food and nutrition sector, at various stages of completion. Such research includes unanalysed or underused data sets from project monitoring, qualitative surveys, programme reviews, evaluation findings, and protocol-led research. Research findings were more often shared internally or with a limited external network of contacts, and less frequently entered the wider public domain. Agencies typically relied on routine data collection and retrospective analysis to answer research questions, while recognised opportunities for planned operational research were not capitalised upon.

A number of significant, but surmountable, obstacles were identified which may at least partly account for poor information sharing and research processes within aid organisations. These included lack of designated funding, time constraints, lack of expertise, lack of processes within agencies to encourage data analysis or 'deeper' reflection on programme implementation and problem solving, and poor capacity and confidence in statistical analysis, the publication process, and writing up of these findings. Dilemmas over the ethics of research in emergencies were a concern of many agencies, while information sensitivity - both politically and in terms of securing donor funding - also discouraged open information sharing. Both academics and agency staff expressed concerns regarding the quality of accumulated data, which currently impedes analysis and may detract from embarking on new initiatives. Agencies who responded were willing to share research findings in an ENN forum, but the majority felt that they should have the ultimate say over how and whether information was used. Academics were available and willing to offer technical expertise in a wide variety of nutrition competencies, which complemented the operational activities and research interests of the agency respondents. Many felt it was critical that academics were involved with agencies in the early stages of research planning and all were willing to share research findings in an ENN forum.

The study concluded that the proposed ENN research workshop is a viable and necessary project. Strategies to deal with the practical constraints to emergency research activity are necessary, and must take into account the factors at individual, agency and sectoral level that may encourage or impede information sharing. Whilst funding is critical to supporting any research activity, funds alone are unlikely to be sufficient stimulus for research initiation and information sharing. Given the ENN's 'neutral' position in the aid sector and active involvement in emergency nutrition, an ENN research initiative could prove to be the peerled catalyst of change required to stimulate open and equal knowledge sharing amongst agencies in the nutrition sector.

A full copy of the report is available online at www.ennonline.net, or contact ENN at: fiona@ennonline.net

On the basis of the pilot findings, a proposal is being finalised to support an ENN-led research workshop. A consultative meeting will be held by the ENN within the next six months to establish contact between interested agencies and academics and to identify research opportunities, with a view to establishing a scheduled plan of activity (Ed).

Show footnotes

1Nutrition research in emergencies: an investigation of the feasibility of an ENN research workshop, Pilot study report, Marie McGrath, Jeremy Shoham, Fiona O'Reilly, Emergency Nutrition Network (ENN), March 2003,

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Viability of an ENN research initiative. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p7. www.ennonline.net/fex/19/viability

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