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Beyond good intentions: evidence in emergency response

Posted by Dr Ellie Ott Humanitarian Evidence Programme and Communications Manager

16th Aug 2014

Credit: Geno Teofilo/ Oxfam

In the run up to World Humanitarian Day, Ellie Ott looks at how evidence-based practice is transforming how humanitarian programming reviews and improves its effectiveness.

On last year's World Humanitarian Day, Oxfam's humanitarian director Jane Cocking wrote about how the day isn't just for honouring aid workers: but also about honouring the people that humanitarian workers serve. These are the women, men, and children we see daily on the news reeling from bombings in Gaza, preparing for famine in South Sudan, and rebuilding their lives after the typhoon in the Philippines. She asked the all-important question: how can we help them get back on their feet?

Part of the answer is using humanitarian programming driven by principles and practical sense. Programming that ensures dignity, builds on existing structures, and reaches individuals regardless of their age, gender, religion, or other markers of diversity. In the past seven years, Oxfam GB has more than doubled the number of individuals we help in crises, to over six million, through supporting local partner organisations and reinvesting where outside capacity is needed. We have led in market analysis and in providing cash assistance in emergencies to preserve dignity and fragile markets.

If we fail to examine the evidence, then we fail in our duty... and can even potentially cause harm. 

Another part of the answer is continuing to examine the evidence to see what works and what doesn't in humanitarian practice. If we fail to examine the evidence, then we fail in our duty to help communities and individuals get back on their feet, and can even potentially cause harm. 

So, as part of our ongoing commitment to monitoring, evaluation and learning, on World Humanitarian Day this year, we're launching the Humanitarian Evidence Programme, a partnership between Oxfam GB and Feinstein International Center and funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The programme's mission is to improve humanitarian policy and practice through systematic and literature reviews of what works and what doesn't, with a special focus on putting research into practice.

Challenging our assumptions

Human beings are not perfectly rational, and sometimes what we think will work does not. We have to challenge our assumptions and listen carefully to the feedback that comes from the communities we assist. The WASH Consortium in Liberia did a survey and found that information campaigns successfully changed knowledge, but did not change practice. They have since developed interventions built on research and will evaluate whether these new interventions will mean more Liberians acting upon health and sanitation knowledge. This work may help lessen the spread of Ebola in the current crises and even prevent future crises.

For many years, the standard treatment for malnourishment in emergencies required attending a clinic. But then research found that community-based therapeutic care using ready-to-use therapeutic foods, such as 'plumpy nut', saved more lives than conventional treatments. And now these ideas are being rolled out more widely. From promising practices and small evaluations such as the upcoming one in Liberia to massive programmes like 'plumpy-nut', the humanitarian field continues to innovate towards more effective programmes.

So, how can we best use all this evidence? 

We can combine evidence around practices through reviews that outline their criteria before beginning. This sounds obvious, but it is new idea for non-medical humanitarian work. In the humanitarian field, we are used to reacting to crises that are in progress with well-intentioned - but often unproven - methods.

We can do better. For medical interventions in crises, we now have a clear listing of systematic reviews for recommended practices thanks to EvidenceAID. In the development field, we have evaluations and reviews thanks to organizations such as the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the Campbell Collaboration, and the International Initiative on Impact Evaluation (3ie). We have seen that, although microfinance is popular, evidence on its impacts is inconclusive, and it may even make some people poorer in sub-Saharan Africa.

one thing is clear, humanitarian work... should be based on more than good intentions

We can build on existing evidence synthesis movements in other fields and the growing one within humanitarianism. As Jeannie Annan, the Director of Research and Evaluation at the International Rescue Committee, recently wrote, there is growing momentum to generate an evidence base in the humanitarian field, from organisations such as her own and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). While the details about how to evaluate and use evidence still need to be clarified, one thing is clear, humanitarian work, like other interventions, should be based on more than good intentions

Caroline Sweetman wrote that good Monitoring, Learning and Evaluation system is an activist's best friend, I would add that good evaluation is also a humanitarian's best friend. Evaluation and evaluation syntheses help us to realise what we do and do not know. It can help us to do our work better, save lives, and preserve dignity. And it can provide part of the response to that question: how can we help them get back on their feet?

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Header Image: Nurto's son holds a packet of Ready to Use Therapeutic Food, (RUTF) commonly called Plumpy Nut. Credit: Geno Teofilo/Oxfam

Blog post written by Dr Ellie Ott

Humanitarian Evidence Programme and Communications Manager

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Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Ott