Keynote III: Wag the Dog – Information management and decision making in the humanitarian sector

Lars Peter Nissen

Strengthening the humanitarian sector’s ability to assess the impact of crisis has been high on the humanitarian policy agenda for several years now. At first glance, it seems like progress has been made: the IASC has developed and endorsed new and stronger methodologies, such as the Multi-Cluster Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA); a number of new programmes specialise in the gathering and analysis of data; and in several recent operations, innovative ways of assessing crisis have been tested. In parallel with the efforts of the traditional humanitarian agencies, a creative and vibrant community of new actors has emerged, including Crisismappers and the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN).

However, all these efforts share an almost exclusive focus on the “supply” side of the equation: how to collect, analyse, and visualise data quicker and better. Only very limited attention has been given to the “demand” side: what do decision-makers need to make better decisions?

Very little is known about how decisions are made. It is not clear what role evidence plays, meaning it is an open question whether efforts to collect more data and produce more information are having the desired impact, and making a real difference to operations. This in itself is problematic, but it is even more disturbing that there does not seem to be much of an appetite for tackling this unknown. The humanitarian information management community seems to be satisfied with only an embryonic understanding of decision-making.

The lack of enthusiasm for exploring decision-making may be found in its political nature. Improving analysis is primarily a technical problem. Examining decision-making forces us to recognise that decisions are political. It makes us ask what may be influencing decisions, other than the needs on the ground. This is a hard question, but it is vital that we ask it, if we are to improve our capacity.

The keynote will explore the consequences of our lack of understanding of decision-making from a practitioner’s point of view. Working from concrete operational examples, it will offer suggestions on how we can deepen our understanding of humanitarian decision-making, and from there, move forward and make it more accountable.