On the Basis of Humanitarian Need? The Confounding of Operational Decision Making. (Hum. Assistance Webcast 14)

Release Date: 
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A central tenet of international humanitarian assistance is to fulfill the needs of a population unmet by the state in time of crisis. As such, a great deal of importance is placed upon how this need is calculated, how the collection of information might be standardized, and how the gathered information might be better shared. Despite this emphasis, it is unclear to what extent this information is used by operational decision makers.

Indeed, action on the basis of need is seen as the hallmark of professionalism in the humanitarian community. According to the Humanitarian Charter, “… assistance must be provided according to the principle of impartiality, which requires that it be provided solely on the basis of need and in proportion to need.” Similarly the General Principles of the Good Humanitarian Donorship state that the allocation of funding should be in proportion to needs and on the basis of needs assessment. The ultimate aim of such efforts is most efficient and effective delivery of aid possible.

However, in situations of sudden onset disasters, research reveals that deployment decisions are often more heavily influenced by interpersonal interaction, media attention, mandate, and capacity rather than need. Politically, this may call into question the impartiality of assistance. On a professional level, in raises highlights dilemmas of operational decision makers who may be inclined to make high-pressure decisions on the basis of instinct or experience and available resources rather than the objective needs of those they seek to help.

In this context, our panel of experts will explore the following questions:

  • To what extent do operational decision makers use needs assessment information in their judgment to deploy relief following disasters?
  • Can needs assessments be deployed in a way that they complement experienced judgment or are there certain scenarios where need may not be the most appropriate indicator for action?
  • When does reliance on experience and instinct conflict with accountability to the beneficiary population?



  • Christina Blunt, Senior Project Coordinator, Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR)
  • Rob Grace, Project Associate, Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR)

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