BLOG: HEW2017 and the state of evidence-based practice in humanitarian crises

by Fahad Malik, MSc Public Health student

On Monday 6th November, the Health in Humanitarian Crisis Centre at LSHTM hosted a panel discussion as part of Humanitarian Evidence Week (HEW17) – an initiative led by Evidence Aid – which highlights topics related to generation, use and dissemination of evidence in the humanitarian sector.

The panel discussion was chaired by Jeroen Jansen, of Evidence Aid, with Bayard Roberts, speaking on LSHTM’s RECAP project, Alice Obrecht, representing ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) and Gareth Owen representing Save the Children.

The discussion focused on the area of research and use of research in humanitarian crises response and epidemic response. Bayard Roberts presented an overview of the RECAP project, which has recently been launched at LSHTM. Over four years, RECAP aims to conduct research and strengthen research capacity to help improve decision-making and accountability in response to humanitarian crises and epidemics. It is a partnership between universities in the United Kingdom, Sierra Leone and Lebanon and some of the leading humanitarian NGOs.

The panel talked about accountability in this sector and the need for organisations responding to crises to have transparent accountability procedures – both to donors, and crucially to the crises affected communities themselves. Another major part of the discussion highlighted the mass of information that is collected by organisations responding to crises around the world, but the little use this gets put to – often because there simply isn’t time to properly analyse it, and because it’s very difficult to know what data to collect from the start which will actually tell you something interesting at the end.

This leads to the question of how data, even if you can collect and analyse it, can be used in practice. Gareth Owen provided an anecdote from his office at Save the Children, where one of his team questioned the cost-benefit of sending rescue boats to save people stranded in the Mediterranean. He argued that this team member missed the point – people don’t make decisions based on cost-benefit analyses, they make decisions based on iconography, morality, and ‘heart’… as well as what makes political and financial sense.

As someone who wants to work in this sector in the future, it is disheartening to see the lack of evidence-based practice, and indeed the acceptance of this by most agencies and organisations around the world. RECAP, as a project, hopes to change that and what would be truly beneficial is to produce guidelines aimed at setting up new projects in relatively high paced situations such as the time of crises. Gareth Owen and Alice Obrecht both emphasised there are often many factors at play in a crises – one cannot rely simply on a ‘the evidence’ to produce perfectly efficient systems in each situation. Instead the aim must be to produce guidelines that are adaptable for different situations. We came away with some exciting questions to ponder about the future of evidence-based practice in humanitarian crises – how does the sector need to change to be ‘fit for purpose’ in today’s world? Will the next version of humanitarianism see crises affected communities taking control and agency back for themselves? And what will that look like?