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Written by Lars Peter Nissen, ACAPS Director

The world’s first Humanitarian Summit is only a few days away and we are all finalising statements and commitments. There are very divergent opinions on what can be achieved in Istanbul, and a few key actors have chosen to stay away, but most of us are going, oscillating between careful optimism and predictable pessimism.

The discussion on how to improve needs assessments has been high on the humanitarian policy agenda for the past 5-6 years, and some progress has been made. The issue has also been a key element in discussions leading up to the summit. Needs assessment was one of ten issues addressed in the so-called “Grand Bargain”, where donors, agencies and some NGO representatives together have aimed to tackle some of the most difficult issues facing the sector. The grand bargain has been quite an exclusive discussion, with only the heaviest players in the room, and the discussion on needs assessment has been characterised by stark disagreement. It has therefore been fascinating to follow the proceedings from ringside.

On the surface, it can be hard to find the root of the disagreement, among the many different opinions and confusion with respect to language, etc. ACAPS position can be found in this short document, where we outline our vision for the “assessment ecosystem”.

At the core of the discussion lies a fundamental disagreement over whether assessment and analysis are best done through a centralised or a distributed process. Compare the first commitment from the Grand Bargain, with the recommendation from a recent report from the International Development Committee (IDC) of the UK’s House of Commons.

 “Aid organisations and donors commit to: Provide a single, comprehensive, cross-sectoral, methodologically sound and impartial overall assessment of needs for each crisis to inform strategic decisions on how to respond and fund thereby reducing the number of assessments and appeals produced by individual organisations.” Grand Bargain

“The global humanitarian system displays a worrying lack of separation of powers between those assessing needs and those appealing for funds. DFID should propose the establishment of an independent body to be responsible for conducting needs assessments in crises. DFID should work with like-minded donors in the build up to and at the Summit to ensure this fundamental problem is addressed.”  UK House of Commons International Development Committee

These two visions are not compatible. The Grand Bargain emphasises that we need to pull everybody closer together to be more effective and reduce the number of assessments. The IDC makes the opposite point, and argues that forcing everybody to work off the same assessment creates problem in with lack of checks and balances.

Having worked with the subject matter for the past six years my opinion is very clear: it is naïve and arrogant to pretend that the humanitarian sector is the only sector in the world that will not benefit from stronger checks and balances. I have seen numerous examples of assessments distorted by groupthink (how well did we assess Ebola?) and more or less sinister agency bias. These have made us make the wrong decisions and have moved us away from a needs-based assessment. As a sector with scarce resources we cannot afford this.

Most important, this is not a technical problem, but a political problem. As such, it can only be addressed by constructing a system where a biased assessment is confronted with an alternative narrative, not by coming up with a new assessment methodology.

The Grand Bargain does have good and constructive elements. However, with respect to assessments, it is depressing to see that negotiations among the most important and powerful leaders in the humanitarian sector have yielded a result, which will not move us forward, and will most probably will move us backward.

Paradoxically, the Grand Bargain’s take on assessment is itself the best argument in favour of second opinions in the humanitarian sector, second opinions that will hold us to account and get the right solutions on the table.