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Links between needs assessment and decisions in food crisis responses

Summary of published review1

Workers wade into the Sea to collect WFP food at the southern Somali port of Merka

A recently completed study under the WFP Strengthening Emergency Needs Assessment Capacity (SENAC) project explores the links and disconnects between needs assessment and decision-making, in WFP and its partners, in response to food crises. The study is based on four in-depth case studies conducted in the latter half of 2006 (Sudan - principally the Darfur crisis, Pakistan - the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Somalia and southern Africa - principally Malawi). Each study involved travel to the regions in question and interviews with key actors in WFP and other bodies. In addition, a number of other 'reference' cases were reviewed through documentation and interviews. The report suggests that the function of needs assessment in relation to decisionmaking is three-fold: to inform internal decisions about response throughout the life of a programme, to influence others' response decisions, and to justify response decisions and appeals for funds.

Informing internal decisions

The study found that in most of the cases reviewed, WFPs own initial decisions about response were under-pinned by adequate information and analysis from assessments, whether conducted by WFP itself or through a collaborative process. Although WFP assessment practice has, in some respects, embraced a wider food security perspective, it is often still geared around one set of response questions, i.e. how much food aid is required and by whom? The rationale for the proposed food aid strategy is not always clear from the analysis of context in assessment reports and is rarely articulated against a wider range of potential response options. Furthermore, progress in informing initial programming decisions is not yet matched by an ability to make informed decisions throughout the life of a programme. The study recommends that WFP adopt an information strategy for all major responses and that this be budgeted explicitly. Overall, the study team concluded that there is a relative under-investment in the information and evidence base to support response decisions, particularly in monitoring and re-assessment. This is particularly evident in protracted crisis response through Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations (PRROs).

Different information requirements were identified in relation to four types of crisis: rapid onset, slow onset, chronic insecurity/ displacement and transition/recovery. What is good assessment practice depends on the context, nature of the crisis, and timeframe for decision-making. The rapid onset cases considered showed the need to agree simple methods for determining initial resource requirements, clearly articulated working assumptions, and the necessity of re-checking those assumptions as situations develop. The slow onset cases showed the importance of agreed triggers for action, based on leading risk indicators or defined thresholds, for effective prevention. The conflict and displacement cases had all these plus other requirements, including ways of assessing unmet need in currently inaccessible areas, ways of understanding the links between food insecurity and exposure to violence, and more robust methods for calculating the needs of dispersed as well as camp populations. The transitional contexts showed the need to invest more in mechanisms (including surveillance) to determine when a programme should change course or wind up.

According to the study, some of the data and analysis currently produced are simply not relevant to the needs of decision-makers, or are not presented in ways that show their relevance. Some important types of information are often not available - such as people's relative dependence on food aid or other assistance, and how this may change over time and space. On the other hand, a number of good new tools (including market analysis) were found to be in use, even though the results did not always appear to inform response decisions. The study found a preponderance of quantitative over qualitative methods of analysis and suggests that a better balance needs to be found between them, particularly in livelihood related assessment.

The study team felt that more use could be made of external (local and international) as well as in-house expertise in conducting situational analysis. This could include sociological and anthropological perspectives in addition to more traditional food security approaches. Good needs assessment - particularly in conflictrelated situations - is often dependent on the quality of political and social analysis, as much as on anthropometric or economic analysis.

Another finding was that analysis from the existing information and analysis mechanisms - early warning, Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM), Emergency Needs Assessment (ENA), food security monitoring, etc., is not well integrated. In particular, the relationship between VAM analysis and ENA in informing crisis response decisions is often unclear and demands further attention.

Too little attention is given to feedback of information from the operational level, and the need to build in better 'feedback loops' is essential to more responsive programming. At times, the pressure to implement an agreed programme according to plan - especially where complex logistical processes have been established - appears to militate against adaptive programming as needs change or as analysis is refined in the light of local realities.

Influencing external decisions

The link with external decisions was relatively weak. In some cases, decisions - particularly donor funding decisions - clearly precede any formal needs analysis. Many are based on projections of future need, particularly in the case of protracted crises, although the basis for these projections is not always clear.

Donor representatives often claimed that WFP does not help them prioritise between contexts, pointing to the need for a common reference standard and more explicit WFP judgements on relative priorities.

Recent efforts to strengthen needs assessment in WFP have had a significant effect in building credibility. However, trust in WFP assessment reports is clearly still an issue. Donors expressed varying degrees of scepticism, and some felt that there was a tension between the credibility of WFP's assessments and the messages it put out through the media. Regarding the latter, there was a perceived tendency to talk up the scale or severity of a situation and WFP's own role, which was felt to be at odds with objective needs analysis. These credibility barriers appear to be overcome when a robust but constructive relationship exists between donor representatives and WFP country office staff, such that donors can 'interrogate' WFP's findings locally or be directly involved in the assessment process.

Justifying decisions

Moves by WFP towards greater transparency in the assessment process - notably in the practice of publishing assessments reports on the WFP website - have gone a considerable way to providing stronger justification for response decisions, as well as enhancing the influence of the assessments themselves. From the assessment reports reviewed for the study, it is apparent that there is a need to distinguish situational analysis from response option analysis more clearly - but also to make the links between them more explicit. Assessments that are heavily geared towards a particular organisation's response options have limited potential for informing and influencing others' response decisions, and provide a relatively weak platform for justifying the organisation's own response decisions. Demonstrating the links between situational analysis and response options is essential.

There appears to be little incentive (and some disincentive) for WFP country programmes to re-assess situations or to monitor change and impact, particularly if this is likely to indicate a scaled down programme. More generally, there appears to be little demand for information and analysis once an operation has commenced, except when a decision to continue or to exit has to be justified.

The diversity of donor practice in decisionmaking was found to be one of the single biggest variables in the study. Greater harmonisation of donor decision-making is a necessary condition for more timely and appropriate allocation of funds. The tendency to allocate funds at the time of greatest media coverage can lead to delayed response (in slow onset crises), frontloaded funding (in rapid-onset) and underfunding in protracted or low profile cases.

Overall, the study team concluded that WFP has a significant opportunity to take a lead in establishing good assessment practice across the sector. This involves a combination of rigour, adaptability to context, effective collaboration and good communication - providing timely information to decision-makers (internal and external) in a form they can use.

Show footnotes

1Darcy. J, Anderson. S and Majid. N (2007). A review of the links between needs assessment and decision-making in response to food crises. Study undertaken for the World Food Programme SENAC project. Humanitarian Policy Group, May 2007. Available at

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Links between needs assessment and decisions in food crisis responses. Field Exchange 33, June 2008. p9.



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