What works in humanitarian response? First step: map the evidence

Conflict, Disasters, Humanitarian

In order to make evidence-based decisions, in humanitarian response or any field, we need to be critically examining the latest research. One way in which Oxfam is doing this is through the Humanitarian Evidence Programme. Here Ellie Ott, Humanitarian Evidence Programme and Communications Manager, looks at where you might begin and shares her experiences.

When you are making difficult decisions, how do you make those decisions? What if you are a humanitarian practitioner or policymaker in an emergency situation? Should you support the government in moving a refugee camp to a less conflict-prone area or support refugees in settling where they want to, closer to the border and the potential to return? When supplies are urgently needed to rebuild houses after the Nepal earthquake, what kind of shelter supplies should you order, how much, and where do you order from?
There’s the potential for wasting money by ordering inappropriate supplies, delaying aid to those in need, and/or sourcing from abroad and potentially hurting local markets. These are the types of decisions humanitarians, including Oxfam staff, make every day.We need to be critically examining and re-examining the latest research

For any difficult decision you probably consult with others and use knowledge and experience. Perhaps something classified as your ‘gut instinct.’ Perhaps you are heavily influenced by politics and practical constraints. And, often, we strive for decisions to be evidence-based.

In order to make evidence-based decisions, we need to be critically examining and re-examining the latest research. There’s a movement and value in challenging our assumptions in the process.

So, where can you go to access quality research and research syntheses?

Download Mapping Evidence Syntheses in the Humanitarian SectorOne answer is to go to an evidence map or a searchable database. Mapping of the evidence base is nothing new, but the volume and types of evidence are always changing. The mapping
exercise can show us where there is research we can use, prevent duplication, and help us build on existing research and research syntheses.

For the Humanitarian Evidence Programme, a UK-aid funded partnership between Oxfam GB and Feinstein International Center (FIC) at Tufts University, we needed to map the field to find out what evidence syntheses are currently under way and already finished in the humanitarian sector, to ensure the relevance of the syntheses with this programme. Kristen Busby and Roxanne Krystalli have written a brief discussing the insights and challenges of this exercise. The spreadsheet mapping syntheses and the brief are useful resources for those interested in knowing what reviews currently exist as well as those undertaking mapping exercises.

The IRC and 3ie have a more extensive mapping of the humanitarian field underway. The evidence ‘gap maps’ for international development from 3ie include peace building as well as water, sanitation, and hygiene. I view them more as evidence ‘filler maps’ as they fill up the evidence that we do know about – ones that we have searched for that
meet a certain criteria. They show us where we know there is evidence. They don’t tell us why there are gaps, if we are asking the right questions to find the evidence, or if the evidence is of a different type (e.g. qualitative). They also don’t tell us if those are the areas where we really don’t know anything. But, they are very useful in giving us a snapshot and allowing us to drill down more, and it’s important to remember the limitations of evidence mapping.

What are other good resources? Conveniently, Ed Barney of the UK Department for International Development, recently wrote a list of where to find research in international development on Africa Evidence Network. His original list includes 3ie, Cochrane Library, Campbell Library, British Library for Development Studies, BRIDGE, ELLA, Journals Online, PEAKS, SciDev.Net, and R4D. I suggested, and he amended, the list to include this site, Oxfam Policy & Practice, which has over 3,750 publications including 650 publications about conflict and disasters. I also frequently access ALNAP which has a range of sources sorted by keywords for the humanitarian field as well as important ‘grey literature’ sources from practitioners. Much of the evidence in the humanitarian and development fields is not in peer-reviewed,
published journals
. In a future blog post I will share our findings about where humanitarian practitioners and policy makers currently go to access research.Evidence syntheses on shelter and settlement strategies have been lacking

All evidence mapping requires critical thinking, particularly about the quality and context.

After completing our mapping exercise, the Humanitarian Evidence Programme noticed that evidence syntheses on shelter and settlement strategies have been lacking, and policymakers and practitioners want to know more. The review we just commissioned on shelter and settlement strategies may help humanitarians better answer one or both of the opening questions: where should we support affected populations in settling and how can we better design our shelter responses? In the end, mapping the evidence can help us access existing research and move more
towards evidence-based decisions. Ultimately, it should help save lives and improve the livelihoods of crisis-affected populations.

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People queue in Tundikhel IDP camp, Kathmandu, Nepal, May 2015. Oxfam has provided water to 15.000 people here. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Author: Dr Ellie Ott
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.