Public Health Needs Assessments in International Disasters and Emergencies
Richard Garfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0182


A Needs Assessment (NA) is a “time-bound, multi-sectorial, multi-stakeholder process of collecting, analyzing and interpreting data to assess needs and inform decisions on humanitarian and early recovery responses” (Garfield, et al. 2011, cited under General Overviews). The Inter-Agency Standing Committee of the United Nations (IASC) defines a coordinated assessment as “the collection, up-dating and analysis of data pertaining to the population of concern (needs, capacities, resources, etc.), as well as the state of infrastructure and general socioeconomic conditions in a given location/area” (cited under General Overviews). The results of the assessment are shared with the broader humanitarian community. Coordinated assessments can be joint, meaning they are carried out together by different agencies or groups, or they can be harmonized, meaning they are done by organizations on their own and then combined. In recent years a coordinated approach to needs assessments (NAs) in the early days and weeks following a disaster has become common. It is now widely agreed that a multi-sector and multi-stakeholder assessment should be undertaken during the initial weeks of a major crisis to provide information on its humanitarian impact and to assist stakeholders in coming to a shared understanding of the key priorities for response. Achieving a high-quality, timely assessment of humanitarian needs, however, remains a challenge for the humanitarian community. One outcome of the interest in coordinated assessments has been the execution of large-scale primary data collection exercises after natural disasters, as was the case in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and Pakistan after the 2010 floods. These efforts were costly in terms of logistics and human resources, were challenged in terms of timeliness, and ultimately collected a lot of information that was hardly used. This bibliography reviews the use of coordinated assessments in the weeks after a disaster. It provides a general introduction to what works best and how to avoid pitfalls in carrying out an assessment. It is aimed toward humanitarian personnel responding to or preparing for emergencies both at field and headquarters level.

General Overviews

As Currion 2014 shows, the coordinated approach to assessments is a process of progressively collecting and analyzing information. As information needs are refined over time, information should become more in-depth, sector-specific, and recovery-oriented. Assessment findings for each phase of an unfolding crisis should inform the design and focus of assessments that follow. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a handbook that shows that rather than thinking unrealistically in terms of one large-scale assessment to fulfill all information needs, it is best to think in terms of what needs to be known when; that is, what needs to be known now, and what needs to be known next. But there often remains confusion among the sometimes contradictory goals of comprehensiveness and timeliness in assessments, and also between listening to the intended beneficiaries and using expert skill. The Grand Bargain report repeats these multiple, overlapping, and potentially contradictory goals by reflecting great promise but raising expectations for doing all things at once. The question Darcy and Hofmann 2013 raises is perhaps still the most timely, asking what information is needed for actual decision making. For that, timeliness trumps all other possible goals.

  • Currion, Paul. 2014. Humanitarian needs assessment: The good enough guide. Rugby, UK: Practical Action.

    This handbook proves a through but accessible guide to the issues and options for needs assessments, showing repeatedly where “good enough” is better than the best possible approach, where the latter fails in accuracy or timeliness.

  • Darcy, J., and C. A. Hofmann. 2013. According to need? Needs assessment and decision-making in the humanitarian sector. Humanitarian Policy Group Report 15. London: Overseas Development Institute.

    Provides a broad investigation into the link between needs assessment and decision making during international humanitarian emergencies. Outlines current challenges in the field, such as most programmatic decisions being based on informal data sources, while formal needs assessments are not used to inform response, but only to justify spending. The report also outlines an agenda of possible improvements that could be made, such as trying to establish universal standards and thresholds of evaluation. A fundamental introduction into the idea of “good enough” actionable data.

  • Darcy, J., H. Stobaugh, P. Walker, and D. Maxwell. 2013. The use of evidence in humanitarian decision making. ACAPS Operational Learning Paper. Somerville, MA: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University.

    Building on previous Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) reports exploring needs assessment strengthening, this report uses literature, interviews, and case studies to investigate how decision makers in the humanitarian sector currently use information, what other factors influence their decision making, and what could help them in yielding a better-informed response.

  • Garfield, R., C. Blake, P. Chatainger, S. Walton-Ellery. Common needs assessments and humanitarian action. Humanitarian Practice Network Paper 69. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2011.

    Provides a summary of the basic characteristics of a common needs assessment, and complements this by highlighting challenges seen in recent uses of needs assessments in the field. In exploring the potential NAs have, the authors outline not only their usefulness, but also critical steps to designing and conducting a common needs assessment.

  • The Grand Bargain: A shared commitment to better serve people in need. Istanbul, Turkey, 23 May 2016.

    Summary report of the extraordinary Humanitarian Summit held that year, focusing on a long view of trends among humanitarian organizations, and especially the funder governments and multinational groups that provide major resources and potentially are major users of needs assessment information. It mainly provides a policy orientation for future years, but lacks detail on methodologic approaches to reach those goals.

  • Inter-Agency Standing Committee. 2012. Operational guidance for coordinated assessments in humanitarian crises. Provisional Version, March 2012. New York: Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

    An early summary of inter-agency consensus on methods for carrying out needs assessments, this document was not practical enough to receive full implementation and was followed by an improved document in 2015.

  • Inter-Agency Standing Committee. 2015. Multi-Sector Initial Rapid Assessment guidance: Revision July 2015. New York: Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

    An update from the 2012 version, the Multi-Sector Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA) is a joint needs assessment tool that can be used in sudden onset emergencies. This guidance report serves as tool to help navigate MIRA, and it highlights the importance of coordinating with other sectors in the field when conducting a joint needs assessment. Inter-agency guidance among mainly UN organizations. This report is more comprehensive and thought through than earlier, more aspirational, documents, as it was based in part on field experience during the intervening years.

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2017. Needs Assessment Handbook. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

    A more through guide, updating much of what is found in The Good Enough Guide at a more technical, but still accessible level, oriented especially to the areas of potential concern for UNHCR programming in the shelter, health, and protection of vulnerable populations.

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