Case 3: Improving needs-based decision-making within donor agencies

case 3

The problem

Concern with the principle of impartiality has led to a particular focus in the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) network on funding according to need on the basis of needs assessment (GHD principle 9). Yet there is no common framework for determining what constitutes ‘Humanitarian need’ in a given context, and although a number of standards and benchmarks exist to guide decision-makers, such information tends to be used in an ad hoc and inconsistent way. The problem is compounded by the scarcity of real-time data on funding allocations, making it hard to ensure that the ‘collective’ donor decision-making process is truly needs-based.

As part of its contribution to the GHD, the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) engaged the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to develop training for donor agency staff. I was hired by ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group to develop a course in collaboration with the Group’s Director.

My response

While there existed a vast array of potential tools, the humanitarian system was not (and still is not) yet in a position reach this needs-based aspiration. There was no ‘best practice’ in this area upon which to develop a training curriculum. I therefore designed a mixed-method training seminar based on: knowledge sharing, sense-making, and expert input from the ODI HPG Director, who follows closely this area. The seminar sought to clarify the reality facing middle managers within GHD agencies responsible for allocating humanitarian funds, and to enable comparison of approaches. It also allowed the ODI HPG Director to submit and test developing hypotheses on humanitarian system behaviour, evidence-based decision-making and what constitutes humanitarian need. Both theoretical and real-world issues for evidence within the humanitarian sector were explored. In the second offering of this course, the dialogue featured two additional leading researchers who presented on the science of evidence, and engaged in a series of conversations with decision-makers on the extent of contemporary practice.


The course achieved a space for a candid and constructive exchange between the donor representatives present on the issues they face in applying some of core GHD principles. A course companion workbook was provided that catalogues available tools, and presents the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the subject. The course also enables sense-making of the extent of practice in this area and knowledge sharing, and it allows donors and researchers to cross-fertilise in a safe environment. As such it contributes to defining an agenda for improving performance in the coming year.

“ … fundamentally, contemporary humanitarian action is a unique and highly complex social, political, economic and scientific endeavour. It is contested territory across the whole spectrum from basic principles and intent, to the way the international humanitarian system works and thinks, and the results it achieves. Methods from other sectors such as medicine or law can at best inform humanitarian needs-based decision making practice, but they cannot be directly applied. A new discipline is required here, or at least new ways of thinking…”

“…What constitutes ‘good’ decision-making in this context depends largely on the perspective of individual institutions and their (multiple) priorities and interests. That said, we believe it is possible to identify common elements of good decision-making practice, particularly as regards the use of information and analysis; in other words, to address the question of what constitutes a well-informed decision in the humanitarian context. Good collective decision making by donors depends in part on reference to shared, reliable information; but also on the extent of communication and harmonisation between donors. But the GHD members have not committed to harmonized decision-making within the membership, and there are limits to how far a training event of this kind can address this question, which lies more in the realm of policy debate…”

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