Expert discussion on the quality and use of evidence in humanitarian action

What do we mean by evidence in the aid sector? And what are the main challenges to the quality and use of evidence in humanitarian action? This was addressed on 7 November in the PHAP Briefing on Contested Evidence: The challenges and limits of evidence-based approaches to humanitarian action.

This online discussion was part of the 2017 Humanitarian Evidence Week, an initiative led by Evidence Aid, in collaboration with the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine to promote a better and more evidence-based approach to humanitarian action.

The event gathered over 200 participants, who were first provided with an overview of the topic of evidence in aid by Paul Knox-Clarke, Head of Research at ALNAP. He introduced a series of elements that need to be considered when evaluating and working with evidence: its accuracy, representativeness, relevance, attribution, generalizability, and clarity around the concepts and methods used. He also highlighted the distinction between organizations having an evidence-informed rather than evidence-based approach to aid when making decisions and evaluating operations.

Paul’s presentation was followed by a discussion moderated by Marc DuBois, in which he  was also joined by Nancy Cartwright, Professor of Philosophy at University of Durham and UCSD, Lars Peter Nissen, Director of ACAPS, and Momodou Touray, independent advisor on development.

Nancy Cartwright provided a general perspective on the use of evidence across different sectors, pointing out that while humanitarian actors often have severe time and resource constraints, making the investment they can put into creating evidence insufficient in most cases. She also highlighted that attribution and generalizability become a problem in the humanitarian sector given the diversity of settings in which humanitarian assistance is deployed in.

Lars Peter Nissen focused on the role of evidence in needs assessment, and thus in decision making. He described three main obstacles in the humanitarian information space: the unevenness of the sector, the highly dynamic contexts where humanitarian actors work in, and the lack of understanding of the nature of crises. He encouraged a realistic and logical use of evidence, knowing that there is no perfect methodology to gather evidence given the contexts in which we work, and focusing on reflecting needs and on avoiding politicization.

Momodou Touray also highlighted the problem of working under time constraints, and of avoiding bias and politicized evidence, especially in contexts where there is also development aid, and some data is especially targeted for political interests. He pointed out the importance of having good donor-agency relationships to enable the use of evidence, and to keep accountability as a focus for collecting and using high-quality evidence.

You can now access the introductory presentation, as well as the following discussion and Q&A through the audio and video recordings of the event at


PHAP Briefings

PHAP Briefings is a series of online events targeted to all humanitarian practitioners, and aimed at sharing an overall critical perspective to the latest discussions on different topics and issues affecting the humanitarian sector. The sessions focus on updates, overviews, and introductions to new research, trends, concepts, and approaches to humanitarian action.