Reliable data – about the size, health, needs, income, housing, age and sex of affected populations – is crucial to planning an effective and efficient response to a crisis. However, crises often disrupt the systems that collect and archive such data.
Experience from the last decade has shown that the effectiveness of humanitarian programming is often hindered by a lack of timely, reliable data about crisis-affected populations, their needs, their protection, and their ability to access aid.
In the absence of reliable information, humanitarian responders have made use of diverse sources of conflicting data, largely based on broad estimates, to plan their interventions. Organizations also often lack the basic training and resources needed to ensure high quality, safe and ethical data collection and management. Additionally, documenting human rights violations – such as gender-based violence – has proved challenging and potentially dangerous. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to clearly assess humanitarian needs or the impact of humanitarian responses.
In 2011, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee adopted the Transformative Agenda, which focused on accountability, stronger leadership and improved coordination. This move helped strengthen the humanitarian community’s commitment to ensuring that humanitarian action is based on reliable and mutually agreed-upon sources of data and information.
Use of data in emergency situations
UNFPA supports the development of customized Common Operational Datasets for preparedness and contingency planning in all high-risk countries. Based on these datasets, UNFPA provides support for the estimated needs of people likely to be affected by a crisis – such as women of reproductive age, children, pregnant women and girls, youth and adolescents, elderly persons. UNFPA also helps build the capacity of partners to use reliable data sources for preparedness planning.
For example, thanks to a collaboration between UNFPA and the Haiti Statistical Services, the UNFPA office in Haiti had national datasets – including population projections – from surveys and censuses. When the January 2010 earthquake struck, and the entire Statistical Services building was destroyed, the UNFPA office in Haiti was able to provide detailed demographic data on the affected population to the entire humanitarian community.
Acute phase of an emergency
During acute phase of an emergency, UNFPA collaborates with all humanitarian partners to determine the scale and severity of the crisis. UNFPA participates in the implementation of the Multisectoral Initial Rapid Assessment, and helps design and implement sector-specific assessments. The Fund also helps generate data for monitoring and reviewing humanitarian responses.
Prolonged crises require regularly updated data on both the crisis-affected population and host communities.
But there are major challenges to obtaining this data, including issues related to the instability of displaced populations, distinguishing displaced people from host populations, determining their specific needs, aspirations and concerns, and ascertaining their legal status.
Under these circumstances, UNFPA and partners often collaborate with national or regional statistical institutions to design and ensure effective data-collection strategies.
The need for data continues to be substantial in the post-crisis period. Reliable data and information are needed for initiatives to enhance recovery and reconstruction.
But most crises result in substantial loss of life and in massive population displacement. As a result, estimates from previous datasets may no longer be reliable. National institutions, including statistical offices, may also be weakened and require support.
This is when UNFPA intervenes with post-crisis/disaster needs assessment exercises and other post-crisis assessments. These analyses help governments, humanitarian agencies and affected populations prepare for transition and recovery initiatives. They also help build the capacity of national institutions and partner agencies to collect, process, manage and use data.
For example, after the war and genocide in Rwanda in 1994, UNFPA adopted a step-by-step plan to strengthen the capacity of the country’s statistical services. Initial planning used rough estimates based on unreliable data, which were complemented by a series of socio-demographic and economic surveys conducted between 1996 and 1999. In early 2000, preparations for the first post-crisis census began. The preliminary results of the census, held in 2002, laid the groundwork for voter registration for the first post-genocide legislative election.