Making Operational Decisions in Humanitarian Response: A Literature Review

Date Published: May 31, 2018 Author: ALNAP, Campbell, L. and Knox Clarke, P
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During a crisis, humanitarian leaders must make a range of decisions while grappling with different types of information (at varying degrees of “completeness”), challenging timelines with life-saving implications, and often a large degree of risk and uncertainty.  Effective decision-making which fosters adaptability and creative problem-solving in operational humanitarian response has emerged as a theme in ALNAP’s previous work on humanitarian leadership and coordination, and has been discussed in past RBP Updates (see examples here and here). To expand the evidence base, ALNAP is undertaking a new piece of research to better understand how humanitarians can make effective decisions in situations of urgency and/or uncertainty.

This literature review take a deeper dive to explore the contexts where humanitarian leaders are expected to make decisions, the range of decision-making approaches which exist, and the effectiveness of these approaches in humanitarian crises. The paper draws from existing humanitarian literature and evaluations, and evidence gathered from the emergency management realm (including fires and public health emergencies). In doing so, it gathers existing knowledge, identifies gaps in understanding and proposes areas for future inquiry.

With respect to results-based protection, the literature review highlights some important points regarding conceptualizing data and information needs from the design stage and articulating how data will be collected, analyzed and used,  as well as the need to break with standard routines and tendencies to centralize decision-making within an organization in order to work together effectively for a collective outcome. (For insights into strategic collaboration and collective decision-making, see the USAID ‘Inside Out’ podcast below.)

Building on this research, ALNAP seeks partnerships with organizations who have an interest in better humanitarian decision-making. If you would like further information about this research or would like to get involved, please contact Senior Research Officer Leah Campbell at and check out their Infosheet on the research initiative.


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