Event/ Webinar: Contested Evidence: The challenges and limitations of evidence-based approaches in humanitarian action

Date Published: December 6, 2017 Author: Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)

As part of Humanitarian Evidence Week, PHAP convened an online panel discussion with evaluators and practitioners speaking to evidence-based approaches in humanitarian action. The event unpacked several questions, including:

  • What does the greater focus on evidence mean in practice for humanitarian work?
  • Do institutional and political agendas promote the selective design or application of evidence-based approaches?
  • Are there situations where focusing on evidence conflicts with other priorities? and
  • How do evidence-based approaches relate to accountability?

Discussion points emphasized several relevant aspects of RBP:

  • Evaluation centered around context: While there have been several fora producing international targets and indicators (World Humanitarian Summit, Sustainable Development Goals, Grand Bargain, etc.), some of these may not be the most relevant to measuring progress towards the specifically felt needs at country/ regional/ local level. Evaluation therefore should be inclined toward assessing the intervention’s contextual fitness for purpose. Additionally, in understanding the primacy of context, we can reframe “failure” by appreciating that what may not work or yield results in one context may actually succeed in another and vice a versa.
  • Resources for continuous context-specific analysis: Panelists cited the need for enhanced resources for analysis — while the sector has prioritized information management and post-intervention evaluation, it by-in-large lacks dedicated investment in analysis from the beginning of the intervention along with a profile for humanitarian analysts (See an example from ACAPs here) to continuously feed into building an evidence base to shape design and implementation.
    • To support robust analysis, the panel highlighted strong knowledge management systems and building partnerships/ practice for sharing of knowledge between stakeholders to help guide interventions based on past experience;
    • While some forms of evidence generation are time/ resource-intensive; the panel underscored the importance of approaches to map, review, and analyze data that already exists. The literature review, for example, is a critical piece of the process to identify gaps and refine sharper questions based on existing evidence.
  • Evidence-informed decision-making, may not be a linear process: Humanitarian decision makers must frequently grapple with several different types of information (at varying degrees of “completeness”) to inform their decisions. The discussion panel cited several challenges which feed into the balancing of evidence in decision-making including: accessibility of evidence, timeliness of evidence, unclear decision processes (at various levels), and lack of flexibility in programming due to internal ways or working or donor demands. These challenges can often inhibit adaptability and creative problem-solving, which begs the question- how do we deal with risk/ uncertainty? How do we get better at taking risk?
  • Engaging donors in evidence generation: donors support evidence-based approaches but there is an increasing appetite on behalf of donors to understand what is going on, what is working that they could continue to support, and what should they be aware of. Reflection exercises, iteratively self-examining “how do we back up the claims that we are making?” are useful for all stakeholders (from implementer to donor) to build a system that is more evidentiary and appreciative of both quantitative and qualitative evidence.

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