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Technical meeting on Emergency Needs Assessment

Dried up maize field

A technical meeting on Key Issues in Emergency Needs Assessment (ENA) held in Rome in October 2003, was the third in a series of consultations aimed at improving the quality and ensuring a minimum standard for ENA, both within the World Food Programme (WFP) and amongst the wider humanitarian community.

Engaging key players in the humanitarian community, this technical discussion aimed at moving towards consensus on four key (but previously problematic) areas, with a view to outcomes being fed into draft WFP ENA guidelines under preparation.

The key areas for discussion were:

The meeting also reflected upon what pre-crisis and baseline information should be systematically collected in WFP operational areas, and what critical data and information should be included, as a minimum, in ENA reports.

The meeting was organised into four technical groups who, informed by 'expert' background documents1, worked in parallel to address the four thematic areas. Asubsequent redivision into two larger parallel working groups reflected upon pre-crisis information and minimum information requirements for ENA reports. Six key crosscutting themes emerged during the meeting.

Transparency and leadership in needs assessment

At present, WFP, in common with many agencies, often subsumes needs assessment data and analysis into programming design and emergency appeals. For host governments, local communities and donors, it is difficult to establish the link between an identified food crisis, its quantification and the proposed relief action.

Tree identified as Chakata famine fruit

The meeting was unanimous that WFP must aim to produce a clear, separate, rational needs assessment document which describes the problem being addressed, the model for analysis being used, the nature and validity of the assessment data being presented and hence, the quantification of the 'food gap' and food insecurity in the region in question. The needs assessment must then propose a range of programming options to address this food gap and insecurity, which may be met by WFP or other agencies as appropriate.

Old models need to change!

The underlying models used for emergency interventions are still essentially those of a social welfare mentality and a food availability analysis. This approach is no longer tenable and needs to evolve quickly. The interplay between food insecurity, aid interventions and local markets is a reality. Increasingly WFP will need to explore where it can use market interventions in parallel to more traditional aid interventions to reduce hunger.

The proven validity of food entitlement theory, and its elaboration in household food economy and livelihood models, should now form the basis of WFP's detailed analysis of emergency situations. Such an approach allows for a deeper understanding of the effects of aid interventions, both in terms of saving lives and affecting livelihoods. In line with WFPs new strategic objectives2, it allows for a greater range of programming options, and offers ways of monitoring an evolving emergency to better target aid.

Pre-crisis knowledge is critical

Maize field

To really understand the dynamics of livelihoods and markets, WFP must have an understanding of the state of people's lives before the crisis. Regular in-country collection and analysis of food security and insecurity information will be an increasing priority for WFP. Whether this generates some pre-crisis acceptable norm, or simply describes a baseline moment in time to compare with, such information allows WFP to better gauge the development of chronic and transitory food insecurity, the impact of its interventions, and the potential longevity of its programmes.

Primary crisis data must get better

The reader of a WFP ENA report must feel confidence in the validity of the data presented, and how representative and consistent it is. The logic of the data analysis must be apparent and clearly relate to the food insecurity model being used. The range of qualitative and quantitative techniques used to gather data must be clear, as must the sampling regimes used.

WFP has to go much further, particularly in terms of the timeliness and representiveness of the primary data it gathers, in an emergency assessment. This inevitably will have implications for the skills needed within WFP country teams, the skills they need to access and the cost of needs assessment missions.

The bottom line is lives and livelihoods

WFP has a clear responsibility to lead and facilitate needs assessments, which demonstrate the available options for saving livelihoods.

An approach, which looks to save both lives and livelihoods, has implications for the longevity of programming and for exit strategies. Livelihood programming is far more open ended that live-saving programming. WFP may, therefore, find itself more commonly in the role of the promoter of livelihood interventions rather than the programmer.

Monitoring and iteration

Taking a more dynamic and analytical approach to emergency programming, based on an entitlements and livelihoods model, also has implications for programme monitoring. First, the methodology for collecting information on lives and livelihoods in an emergency assessment is rapid (over days rather than weeks) and, by its very nature, approximate. These 'best guesses' or assumptions on the impact of external influences and household livelihoods need to be continually tested and refined. Programme monitoring therefore needs to measure not just process and impact indicators, but collect data to validate and adjust the analysis model and hence the programme itself.

Secondly, WFP should be committed to follow up needs assessment surveys, some months into a crisis, to validate the assumptions of the initial assessment, to gain a greater depth and accuracy of knowledge and to help adjust any programming already undertaken.

Proceedings of the meeting and background documents can be obtained from Wolfgang Herbinger at WFP, email:

Show footnotes

1Background documents will be available with the proceedings of the meeting. See contact details at end of the article.

2Save lives in crisis situations (objective 1), and protect livelihoods in crisis situations and enhance resilience to shocks (objective 2).

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Technical meeting on Emergency Needs Assessment. Field Exchange 21, March 2004. p20.



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