According to the principle of impartiality, humanitarian organisations should provide humanitarian action “on the basis of need alone”. Needs assessments are a prerequisite for action. Yet, universal hierarchies of need are often critiqued for being externally imposed and not culturally relevant.
Is a model of universal hierarchy of needs still appropriate in times of a shift to locally-led humanitarian action? Does accountability to affected populations not also force us to rethink how prioritisation of needs should pay more attention to cultural and socio-economic realities on the ground? And how can we shield humanitarian action from politicisation of donors if there is no common denominator that determines consistently where needs are greatest?
On 24 September 2020, the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA) and the Excellence Cluster Africa Multiple of the University of Bayreuth invited to a virtual roundtable discussion to discuss these questions.
Humanitarian reflections – research meets practice
On the Basis of Need Alone? Data Gathering, Impartiality and the Localisation of Humanitarian Action
The following speakers were on the panel:
- Prof Dr Joël Glasman, Historian, University Bayreuth
- Corinna Kreidler, Humanitarian advisor: food security, cash & voucher assistance, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, former DFID) Zimbabwe
- Claudia Ah Poe, Head of Needs Assessment and Targeting Unit, World Food Programme Rome
- Diego Fernández Otegui, PhD Researcher, University of Delaware
Facilitation: Sonja Hövelmann, Centre for Humanitarian Action
The full recording of the webinar can be watched here:
If you want to jump to the panelists’ inputs in the recording directly, just click on the following hyperlinks:
Diego Fernández Otegui, PhD Researcher at the University of Delaware, highlighted that the dichotomy between universal and culturally-adapted standards is inaccurate and that there are no universal needs because every person is unique. He critically regarded the fact that aid workers make assumptions which are not necessarily in line with what people in need themselves prioritise and that the business model of aid is disfavouring diversity by applying the same rules to every context.
Prof Dr Joël Glasman from the University Bayreuth problematised the discrepancy between the great reliability of humanitarians on seemingly objective numbers and figures and their own (self-)critical regard of the often low quality of these data.
From a practitioner’s point of view, Claudia Ah Poe, Head of Needs Assessment and Targeting Unit at the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, shed light on how WFP uses data to determine and prioritise humanitarian needs. She stressed that comparability among countries is important and that there is no significant contrast between universal standards and a culturally-adapted approach to prioritising humanitarian needs.
Corinna Kreidler, humanitarian advisor for food security, cash & voucher assistance at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, former DFID) in Zimbabwe pointed out that universal standards allow for an overall comparability of humanitarian action and firewall against political decision-making by donors or host governments but also against subjective decision-making by staff of humanitarian agencies.
The panelists’ inputs were supplemented by a discussion round, which also included questions from the live chat. More than 40 participants attended the online event.
The event was part of the event series “Humanitarian reflections – research meets practice”. The series seeks to enable a fruitful dialogue between practitioners and researchers in humanitarian action.
- Quack, Martin (ed.), Based on Need Alone? Impartiality in Humanitarian Action. CHA, 2018.
- Glasman, Joël, Minimal Humanity. Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs. Routledge Humanitarian Series 2020.
- The Sphere Project, The Sphere Handbook. Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. 2018.