Improving the quality of initial assessments
Véronique de Geoffroy and François Grünewald
Results of a study on principle 6 of the GHDI, which encourages donors to "allocate humanitarian funding in proportion to needs and on the basis of needs assessments"
Executive summary of the studies carried out by Groupe URD and commissioned by the DAH / Centre de Crise / The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in connection with inter-donor discussions.
The Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative (GHDI) was launched in June 2003 in Stockholm by all the donor members of the OECD. It is an attempt to reach agreement on a common approach to humanitarian assistance, to improve coherence between donors around fundamental principles and thus make humanitarian action more effective and organised. Building on the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, Good Humanitarian Donorship is defined in terms of 23 principles. Even though they are not explicitly referred to as quality criteria, these include criteria such as allocating funds in proportion to needs, the importance of participation by local people and the need for flexibility in funding.
Beyond its ethical dimension, principle 6 of GHDI raises methodological and political issues. Methodologically, there are numerous difficulties, such as how needs are defined in a given situation, access to and timeliness of information, the scarcity of basic data on mortality, morbidity or socio-economic conditions and differences between data collection mechanisms. As a result, it is difficult for donors to have an objective evidence-based understanding of situations which allows them to establish priorities and allocate funds accordingly. In recent years a large number of studies have looked at needs assessment methods (SMART, NAF …). Many of these have come to similar conclusions, namely that ‘Needs assessment often plays only a marginal role in the decision-making of agencies and donors ’  . Why is this so?
In attempting to answer this question, there is a risk of concentrating too much on the technical aspects of initial needs assessments and overlooking other key issues, such as the appraisal of existing capacities and coping mechanisms and the evolving nature of needs. A more systemic approach needs to be adopted, which looks at the whole funding process, from the needs assessment to the final report on how funds have been used and what impact has been made. Only then will it be possible to reach a more global understanding of the difficulties of applying principle 6 of GHD and the risks of deviating from it. This study therefore proposes to analyse the different steps involved in the funding of humanitarian aid and the different ‘critical points’ which can affect its allocation in relation to needs.
One variable is of particular importance in analysing the humanitarian aid resource allocation process, namely the differences which exist within the donor community and the specific ways each donor functions. Although the final objective of principle 6 is that the cumulated funds from donors cover global needs, this collective responsibility depends on the individual responsibility of each donor to apply the principle. Therefore, this document suggests that rather than looking at the donor community as a homogenous body, it is more relevant to refer to a donor typology in order to define specific areas of responsibility for different types of donor.
In addition, needs assessments and the subsequent allocation of funds depend greatly on the type of disaster with which international actors and different types of donor are confronted: issues of knowledge and speed of fund allocation vary a great deal depending on whether one is faced with a sudden and violent crisis, a slow-onset and predictable crisis or a long-term crisis. It makes no sense, therefore, to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is necessary to prioritise between different crises and between sectors and actors within each crisis. This will involve using a wide variety of tools and criteria. Here, in particular, priorities should be established and available resources should be distributed based on the comparative advantage of each donor rather than on a uniform mechanism.
 Darcy J, Hofman CA. According to need? Needs assessment and decision-making in the humanitarian sector. Humanitarian Policy Group Report 15, September 2003. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2003.
 This study only focus on ‘classic’ donors who have signed up to the GHD initiative. It do not look at ‘new donors’ such as China or the Opep countries. However, in view of the increasingly important role they play, time should be taken to look into their practices, and particularly in relation to principle 6.