This paper investigates the current landscape of evidence in the humanitarian sector, with particular emphasis on evidence from impact evaluation. This is in an attempt to identify areas in which actionable evidence is available and those where more evidence is needed, so as to direct research to where it will be most valuable. It finds a paucity of evidence in most areas, except health and nutrition.
The study incorporates a wide array of methods to assess available evidence. These include an online survey of 395 participants knowledgeable about the humanitarian sector; interviews with 53 experts; literature reviews of repositories of humanitarian studies and strategy documents of major humanitarian organisations; and a gap map of completed, ongoing and planned impact evaluations.
There is agreement among policymakers that impact evaluations can and should have a greater role in building the evidence base. The study’s recommendations include:
- Indexing and classifying existing evidence, and creating a single repository or portal to improve access to existing evidence.
- Agreeing a single set of templates and reporting guidelines to help index and classify evaluation studies, and agreeing standards for data collection.
- Agreeing how to prioritise research needs. Potential criteria for prioritising further impact evaluations include: assessing the feasibility of undertaking impact evaluation; seeing whether these address current or anticipated knowledge gaps; synthesising currently available results in different contexts to learn better; focusing on innovation; and choosing the populations to study with care.
The authors suggest the following broad areas for inclusion when planning and prioritising research. These were selected on the basis of the high frequency with which they were suggested as priority topics and the lack of reliable and robust evidence in existing impact evaluations:
- interventions to improve the livelihood of the affected population, in particular to explore the relative effects of providing goods (such as food), cash or vouchers;
- interventions to improve health (although several randomised trials and systematic reviews already address some areas of mental health);
- interventions to protect vulnerable populations, in particular to prevent gender-based violence;
- interventions to improve food security and nutrition;
- interventions relating to water, sanitation and hygiene;
- specific elements within a whole programme of humanitarian assistance, which might allow a composite estimate of the overall effect of the programme to be inferred; and
- coordination of humanitarian assistance, in particular across the different agencies and actors, and with members of local communities.