Bridging the gap: Increasing the role of evidence in the humanitarian sector

By 8 September 2016

The use of evidence has become integral to the field of development, as policymakers recognise the need to contextualise their ideas, and develop programmes and projects that are backed up by robust research. However, one area of development which lags behind the rest in this regard is the humanitarian sector. There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, the devastating effects of humanitarian crises often mean that collecting quality data is fraught with difficulty. Secondly, it’s usually more important to ‘respond immediately’, as opposed to using rigorous evidence to determine how and when to respond. Using evidence within this context is therefore particularly challenging. We must tackle two aspects of this issue: first, to increase the availability of evidence and second, to improve the uptake of research and evidence in the humanitarian sector.


Many have argued that it is especially important to inform our humanitarian interventions with evidence. Mahmood et al., 2010 state that ‘the international humanitarian community’s ability to collect, analyse, disseminate and act on key information is fundamental to effective response’. Therefore, greater emphasis on evidence in the humanitarian sector is required not simply for the sake of it, but to significantly enhance its ability to make a difference to people’s lives. Evidence also matters for accountability. Donors, affected states and taxpayers legitimately want to know ‘how, and how well, money is being spent’ (ALNAP, 2013).

The World Humanitarian Summit, which took place in May this year, was roundly criticised by major humanitarian organisations. Médecins Sans Frontières called it ‘a fig leaf for international failures’, and Oxfam described it as ‘an expensive talking shop. Still smarting from these punches, there is no better time for the humanitarian community to examine ways in which it can be more effective. With this in mind, the question that we must answer is: how can we ensure that evidence plays a bigger role in the humanitarian sector?


First, we need to better understand the research and evidence that currently exists, so as to identify what we know, where our understanding could be strengthened, and where the outright gaps are in our current body of knowledge. Organisations such as 3ie are working towards this end, through the use of ‘Evidence Gap Maps’  which are thematic evidence collections focused on a particular topic area, such as health or education. Gap Maps provide a clear graphical display of ‘what works’, by identifying where there is strong, weak or non-existent evidence on the effectiveness of development programmes and initiatives. Further, Systematic Reviews   can be useful in terms of mapping out current available evidence, critically appraising it, and synthesising the results (DFID, 2016). A further example is the Humanitarian Evidence Programme, created by Oxfam and The Feinstein Institute, which synthesises available research on humanitarian interventions. The aim of this is to enhance the availability of the research to decision makers. Under the broad categorisation of making better use of existing evidence, these efforts represent a step in the right direction. Going forward, they could be adopted more widely across the humanitarian sector.

Second, we need to make existing research more useful and relevant. e.g. by requiring researchers to talk more about their methods (who was interviewed or surveyed, why, over what time frame?).  This would enable others to see which research processes had been followed and understand how the conclusions had been reached. In his article for Research to Action Sharing the whole research map’, Bruno Paschoal similarly argues that research relevance, accessibility and accountability can be increased by sharing the entire research map. In the humanitarian context, making evidence more accessible in this way could help increase its uptake, and therefore the role it is able to play.

A recent webinar hosted by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) dealt with this and other questions regarding evidence in humanitarianism; specifically, how it should be used in planning humanitarian programming. Roxanne Krystalli highlighted the importance of making clear what we mean by ‘people’ when we refer to those affected by humanitarian crises. This would involve using identity factors to make distinctions; for example, a crisis might have affected primarily men or women, young or elderly people. If we are to measure humanitarian efforts by the change they make to people’s lives, it makes sense to disaggregate what we mean by the term ‘people’. This change will require an increased role for evidence, research and data.

In summary, the need for greater emphasis on evidence in the humanitarian sector is abundantly clear. It has the capacity to make humanitarian efforts more accountable and more effective. Over the last 5 years, DFID’s spending on humanitarian emergencies has trebled, from £433m to nearly £1.3bn. Although funding commitments are important, simply throwing more money at the complex and multifaceted humanitarian crises around the world is unlikely to create profound or lasting change. Using evidence more, and more effectively, could yield far better results.

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Tom Brady

Tom Brady is a postgraduate studying an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies at the London School of Economics, having completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Bath. His interests include conflict and its relationship with development, and the debates surrounding the politics of development policymaking and practice. His main skills are written communication and conducting research, and he is currently working at CommsConsult.