Category Archives: Research and humanitarian aid: the challenges of a collaboration

The principles and challenges of the interplay and dual commitment between research and humanitarian action

P. Hancart Petitet

Pascale Hancart Petitet Medical anthropologist, Institut de recherche pour le développement

The author’s career perfectly illustrates the hybridisation at work between the worlds of humanitarian action and research. Drawing on her experiences and various projects carried out in Laos, Pascale Hancart Petitet presents her reflections and analysis of this “dual commitment”. Continue reading

Research and humanitarian aid: bibliographic resources

In addition to the July 2021 issue of Humanitarian Alternatives, which is dedicated to the work relationship between research and humanitarian actors, we have compiled and regularly update a non-exhaustive reading list of articles and online resources in French and English on this topic. Do not hesitate to let us know of any resources that you think are relevant.

Happy reading!

Last update: 21/07/2021

Disclaimer: Humanitarian Alternatives cannot be held responsible for the arguments developed in the articles listed below, nor for the non-maintenance of internet links to access their content.

Lessons learned from conducting six multi-country mixed-methods effectiveness research studies on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) interventions in humanitarian response

Daniele Lantagne et al., BMC Public Health, 21/560, 22 March 2021
Provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) to affected populations in humanitarian emergencies is necessary for dignity and communicable disease control. Additional evidence on WASH interventions is needed in humanitarian settings. Between 2008 and 2019, we completed six multi-country, mixed-methods effectiveness studies in humanitarian response on six different WASH interventions. In each evaluation, we conducted: key informant interviews; water point observations and water quality testing; household surveys with recipients, including survey and water quality testing; focus group discussions; and/or, secondary data analysis. The research questions were: “What is the effectiveness of [intervention] in reducing the risk of diarrhea/cholera transmission; and, what programmatic factors lead to higher effectiveness?”

The Evidence Base on Anticipatory Action

Lena Weingärtner, Tobias Pforr and Emily Wilkinson, Overseas Development Institute and World Food Programme, 2020
WFP and ODI review the evidence base on Anticipatory Action (AA) and conclude that to achieve an effective scale up of the approach and ensure Anticipatory Action achieves the intended changes on both disaster response systems and people’s vulnerability and resilience to climate change, robust empirical data and a strong monitoring, evaluation and learning agenda are necessary.

Health research capacity building of health workers in fragile and conflict-affected settings: a scoping review of challenges, strengths, and recommendations

Rania Mansour et al., Health Research Policy and Systems, 19(1), December 2021
Fragile and conflict-affected settings (FCAS) have a strong need to improve the capacity of local health workers to conduct health research in order to improve health policy and health outcomes. Health research capacity building (HRCB) programmes are ideal to equip health workers with the needed skills and knowledge to design and lead health-related research initiatives. The study aimed to review the characteristics of HRCB studies in FCASs in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to recommend future directions for the field.

Examining Conditions that Influence Evaluation use within a Humanitarian Non-Governmental Organization in Burkina Faso (West Africa)

Léna D’Ostie-Racine, Christian Dagenais and Valéry Ridde, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 34(2), 21 November 2019
Program evaluation can support capacity building and inform practice and policy. Yet long-term efforts to ensure evaluation use (EU) in the humanitarian sector are seldom documented, leaving much uncertainty about EU conditions. This study examined conditions that influenced EU by stakeholders of a humanitarian non-governmental organization (NGO) in Burkina Faso striving to base its health care program on solid evidence. Analyses focussed on characteristics of five broad conditions of research use previously documented. Results demonstrate that EU was facilitated by intended users with proactive attitudes, research experience, and willingness to participate in program evaluations. Also helpful was an organizational culture that valued learning, feedback, and accountability, wherein leaders collaborated toward common goals.

Action to protect the independence and integrity of global health research

Katerini T. Storeng et al., MJ Global Health, 4(3), June 2019
Researchers are responsible for conducting research ethically and with integrity. Yet, without strong and reliable institutional support, they are often in a vulnerable position when faced with vested interests. What action is needed to avoid undermining independent and critical research findings? What kind of institutional structures and practices might support researchers in dealing with the ethical and political dilemmas associated with the dissemination of (potentially) contested research findings and evaluation results? To start a discussion on ways forward, we invited input from an international network of global health, health systems and policy researchers from diverse disciplines. We discuss suggestions, endorsed by more than 200 researchers based in 40 different countries, on how the organisations that commission, undertake and publish research and evaluations can safeguard independence and integrity.

L’analyse d’une recherche-action. Combinaison d’approches dans le domaine de la santé au Burkina Faso

Bony Roger Sylvestre Aka, Valéry Ridde et Ludovic Queuille, in Valéry Ridde et Christian Dagenais (dir.), Évaluation des interventions de santé mondiale. Méthodes avancées, Éditions science et bien commun, 2019, p. 125-153
Only available in French
Il s’agit d’analyser la démarche de mise en œuvre d’une recherche-action en combinant une analyse externe menée par une personne extérieure à la recherche-action à une analyse interne (analyse réflexive) faite par les acteurs et actrices de la recherche-action.

Household-level effects of providing forecast-based cash in anticipation of extreme weather events: Quasi-experimental evidence from humanitarian interventions in the 2017 floods in Bangladesh

Clemens Gros et al., International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, vol. 41, 2019
In 2017, Bangladesh experienced the worst floods in recent decades. Based on a forecast and pre-defined trigger level, a Red Cross Red Crescent project distributed an unconditional cash grant of BDT 5000 (USD 60 equivalent) to 1039 poor households in highly vulnerable, flood-prone communities in the Brahmaputra river basin before an early flood peak. Systems that can deliver forecast-based cash grants are a potential adaptation strategy to deal with changes in extreme events linked to climate change. This paper presents the results of a mixed-methods, quasi-experimental study, based on a post-disaster household survey. The research assesses the effectiveness of the forecast-based cash distribution in helping beneficiaries to take preparatory early actions and reduce the negative impacts of the flood on their health, well-being, assets and livelihoods.

Reducing flood impacts through forecast-based action. Entry points for social protection systems in Kenya

Lena Weingartner et al., ODI, 2019
This paper examines the potential for scaling up forecast-based early action (FbA) in Kenya through existing social protection systems, with a focus on reducing flood risk. The authors assess the components of a flood FbA system: flood forecasting capabilities; the types of action that could reduce impact and the institutions that would need to be involved in taking them; options for using social protection systems to deliver support ahead of time, and questions around targeting the most vulnerable; and potential financing instruments.

Population health intervention research training: the value of public health internships and mentorship

Anne-Marie Hamelin and Gilles Paradis, Public Health Reviews, 39(1), December 2018
Better alignment between academia and public health practice and policies are critical to improve public health actions. Training of future researchers to address complex issues and to conduct transdisciplinary and collaborative research will help improve this alignment. In this paper, we describe the role of internship placements and mentorship for trainees’ skills development in population health intervention research and the benefits of embedding research trainees within public health organizations.

How Burkina Faso used evidence in deciding to launch its policy of free healthcare for children under five and women in 2016

Valéry Ridde and Pierre Yaméogo, Palgrave Communications, 4(1), December 2018
In March 2016, the newly elected government of Burkina Faso decided on a major change in health financing policy: it abolished direct payment for healthcare for women and children under five. Unlike other countries in Africa, this decision took a long time, given that the first pilot projects for this policy instrument date from 2008. This article describes that political process and presents a reflexive analysis by two authors who were at the heart of events between 2008 and 2018. The analysis shows that, while the decision took a long time and certainly amounted to a policy paradigm shift, it was the result of a complex series of events and activities whose specific contributions are difficult to identify.

As local as possible, as international as necessary: understanding capacity and complementarity in humanitarian action

Veronique Barbelet, Overseas Development Institute, 2018
Many international humanitarian organizations have decided to localize humanitarian action. However, the localization agenda has been interpreted and understood differently by actors at the international and local levels. This is due to a lack of clarity around key terms, but also the understanding and assessment of actors’ capacities to respond to crises. This working paper outlines the key trends and issues highlighted in the literature on localization. It also reviews operational examples and provides important implications and recommendations for current and future practice.

Preparing for Ebola outbreaks: not without the social sciences!

Bertrand Taverne for the Coordination Committee of the West Africa Ebola Social and Human Sciences Network, Global Health Promotion, vol. 22(2), June 2015, p.5-6
As with any scientific discipline, the social sciences require dedicated resources and time to study these social aspects and to support the responses to health system failures or the public’s mistrust. In several countries at risk of epidemic in West Africa, social science teams have conducted research on EVD and participated in designing the national response. They have formed a network to promote information sharing and to develop a regional approach to the epidemic; however, to date, most of these teams are still struggling to find the funding required to conduct crucial studies. There is an urgent need to financially and institutionally support social science research on a regional scale, in countries at risk of any epidemic. Decision makers must take note and allocate funding to ensure appropriate actions are taken.

Forecast-based financing: an approach for catalyzing humanitarian action based on extreme weather and climate forecasts

Erin Coughlan de Perez et al., Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, vol. 15, 2015, p.1-10
Disaster risk reduction efforts traditionally focus on long-term preventative measures or post-disaster response. Outside of these, there are many short-term actions, such as evacuation, that can be implemented in the period of time between a warning and a potential disaster to reduce the risk of impacts. However, this precious window of opportunity is regularly overlooked in the case of climate and weather forecasts, which can indicate heightened risk of disaster but are rarely used to initiate preventative action. Barriers range from the protracted debate over the best strategy for intervention to the inherent uncomfortableness on the part of donors to invest in a situation that will likely arise but is not certain. In general, it is unclear what levels of forecast probability and magnitude are “worth” reacting to. Here, we propose a novel forecast-based financing system to automatically trigger action based on climate forecasts or observations. The system matches threshold forecast probabilities with appropriate actions, disburses required funding when threshold forecasts are issued, and develops standard operating procedures that contain the mandate to act when these threshold forecasts are issued. We detail the methods that can be used to establish such a system, and provide illustrations from several pilot cases. Ultimately, such a system can be scaled up in disaster-prone areas worldwide to improve effectiveness at reducing the risk of disaster.

A Dangerous Delay: The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa

Oxfam, jointly with Save the Children, 2013
More than 13 million people are still affected by the crisis in the Horn of Africa. There were clear early warning signs many months in advance, yet there was insufficient response until it was far too late. This briefing, published jointly by Oxfam and Save the Children, examines the factors that allowed a drought in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti to develop into a full-scale crisis of hunger and livelihoods, such that millions of people suffered and thousands died. Its main focus is the response of international aid system, although the ultimate importance of enhanced resilience for the communities themselves is recognised. Recommendations: A change in approach to chronic drought situations is needed: managing the risks, not the crisis. This means that the all actors national governments, donors, NGOs, and the UN need to act decisively on information from early warning systems and not wait for certainty before responding; actively seek to reduce drought risk in all activities, ensuring that long-term development interventions increase resilience and adapt to the changing context; and change organisational structures, invest in people and provide flexible funding in order to break down the divisions between humanitarian and development work.

L’Outil diagnostique de l’action en partenariat : fondements, élaboration et validation

Angèle Bilodeau et al., Canadian Journal of Public Health, 102(4), 5 avril 2011, p. 298-302
Only available in French
L’action sur les déterminants sociaux de la santé requiert que les acteurs de santé publique s’engagent dans des actions en partenariats intersectoriels. Un frein important à une argumentation convaincante sur l’action en partenariat est le manque d’outils valides pour en évaluer la qualité. Devant cette lacune, l’Outil présenté dans cet article évalue les processus de l’action collective autour des dimensions clés de son efficacité.

Promouvoir la recherche face à la consultance. Autour de l’expérience du Lasdel (Niger-Bénin)

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Cahiers d’études africaines, n° 202-203, 2011, p. 511-528
Only available in French
La recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique même souffre de divers handicaps parmi lesquels l’omniprésence de la consultance, financée par les institutions de développement, qui accapare le temps des universitaires africains. Les règles du jeu de la consultance sont assez différentes de celles de la recherche, mais les frontières sont le plus souvent brouillées au détriment de la recherche, qui s’éloigne alors des standards internationaux. Mais cette évolution n’est pas fatale. L’expérience du Lasdel, laboratoire de sciences sociales nigéro-béninois, montre qu’il est possible de développer en Afrique même des pôles de recherche de niveau international, évitant les pièges de la consultance, à condition de respecter certains principes.

Operational research in low-income countries: what, why, and how?

Rony Zachariah et al., The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 9(11), November 2009, p.711-717
Operational research is increasingly being discussed at institutional meetings, donor forums, and scientific conferences, but limited published information exists on its role from a disease-control and programme perspective. We suggest a definition of operational research, clarify its relevance to infectious-disease control programmes, and describe some of the enabling factors and challenges for its integration into programme settings. Particularly in areas where the disease burden is high and resources and time are limited, investment in operational research and promotion of a culture of inquiry are needed so that health care can become more efficient. Thus, research capacity needs to be developed, specific resources allocated, and different stakeholders (academic institutions, national programme managers, and non-governmental organisations) brought together in promoting operational research.

Higher education for sustainability by means of transdisciplinary case studies: an innovative approach for solving complex, real-world problems

Gerald Steiner and Alfred Posch, Journal of Cleaner Production, 14/9, 2006, p.877-890
Sustainable development and the interplay between its ecological, social, and economic dimensions can be regarded as a highly complex task. As a logical consequence, educating for sustainable development also has a complex character. Traditional unidirectional educational processes are only of very limited use when educating for sustainable development: Firstly, the initial state of the considered system (case) cannot be described precisely; secondly, the target state of the system is also not sufficiently known; and thirdly, the process between initial state and target state and potential barriers that might have to be passed are also not exactly known. Pure analytically based solutions are therefore, not available; a dynamic mutual learning process is required instead.

Evaluation, knowledge management, best practices, and high-quality lessons learned

Michael Quinn Patton, American Journal of Evaluation, 22(3), 2001, p.329-336
In the endlessly hyped knowledge age of the new millennium, evaluators are being asked to generate lessons learned and best practices. Pressure to do so seems only likely to increase. At the end of this article, I’ll suggest a way of bringing some increased rigor to evaluators’ use of these terms, but first I’ll examine and opine on popular usage and the current context.

The SAGE handbook of action research. Participative inquiry and practice

Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury (eds.), Thousand Oaks, 2001
Building on the strength of the seminal first edition, The Sage Handbook of Action Research has been completely updated to bring chapters in line with the latest qualitative and quantitative approaches in this field of social inquiry. Editors Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury have introduced new part commentaries that draw links between different contributions and show their interrelations. Throughout, the contributing authors really engage with the pragmatics of doing action research and demonstrate how this can be a rich and rewarding reflective practice. They tackle questions of how to integrate knowledge with action, how to collaborate with co-researchers in the field, and how to present the necessarily ‘messy’ components in a coherent fashion. The organization of the volume reflects the many different issues and levels of analysis represented.

The transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development

Basarab Nicolescu, document presented at the International congress of the international association of universities, Université Chulalongkorn, Bangkok, 12-14 November 1997
If the universities intend to be valid actors in sustainable development they have first to recognize the emergence of a new type of knowledge – the transdisciplinarity knowledge – complementary to the traditional, disciplinary knowledge. This process implies a necessary multi-dimensional opening of the University: towards the civil society; towards the other places of production of the new knowledge; towards the cyber-space-time; towards the aim of universality; towards a redefinition of values governing its own existence.

Mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian interventions: critical analysis of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines

C. Coral

Camilo Coral Expert in clinical and community psychology

As the main mechanism for facilitating inter-agency decision-making in complex emergencies and natural disasters, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee has focused on the topic of mental health. The author here focuses his specialist’s gaze on these directives which largely condition the practices of the actors. Continue reading

The contributions of clinical sociology research to the socio-humanitarian sector

M. Pedreros

Maritza Pedreros Sociologist, independent researcher

In this article, the author invites us into her engaged and reflective personal journey as a researcher. When she began to measure the limits that she believes thwart the methods of traditional sociology, she determined to apply the methods of clinical sociology to her work with migrant Colombian women falling prey to domestic violence in France. Her scientific and empirical approach opens up new horizons for the case management of victims in humanitarian contexts. Continue reading

Improving collaboration between humanitarian and research actors to strengthen the evidence base for water, sanitation and hygiene interventions

M. Ricau


D. Lantagne


B. Lecuyot

Marine Ricau and Daniele Lantagne Tufts University (USA)

Baptiste Lecuyot Solidarités International

It is the subject of “water, sanitation and hygiene” that is the focal point for the three authors in this paper as they single out the obstacles to combined actions between researchers and humanitarian workers. They illustrate the possible solutions through an innovative mechanism that their respective organisations – Tufts University and the French non-governmental organisation Solidarités International – have put in place. Continue reading

Incorporating the sciences into humanitarian interventions: the case of anticipatory action

C. Balcou

Camille Balcou Graduate of Sciences-Po Bordeaux and the Institut d’études du développement

The anticipation of natural risks, especially due to climate change, has received increasing attention over the past few years. The author explains which forms this “anticipatory action” can take as well as the support and the reservations it attracts. Most importantly, she calls for an alliance of some sort between the “hard” and the social sciences in terms of their concepts, establishment and implementation. Continue reading

How to co-produce transdisciplinary and plural knowledge to solve complex humanitarian problems? An illustration in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

J. Allouche


C. Maubert

Jeremy Allouche Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, United Kingdom)

Camille Maubert Research Officer at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, United Kingdom)

Delving deeper, Camille Maubert and Jeremy Allouche shine a light on what the tensions and dilemmas might be. In addition to those inherent to the conflict of cultures between aid actors and researchers, there are the unequal considerations and conditions that researchers from the Global South and North face. The complex crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo provides a unique anchor to the authors’ analysis. Continue reading

Research and humanitarian aid: navigating the unpredictable, limiting the avoidable

D. McLean


C. Jamet

Duncan McLean Researcher at the Médecins Sans Frontières Research Unit on Humanitarian Stakes and Practices (UREPH) in Geneva (Switzerland)

Christine Jamet Director of Operations for Médecins Sans Frontières – Switzerland

This Focus opens with an article on the place of research within Médecins Sans Frontières, taking us headfirst into the tensions and dilemmas that are engendered by collaboration between researchers and aid actors. Written by two representatives from each side of the question, underpinned by a reflective approach conducted with some of their colleagues, their contribution provides a balanced starting point for discussion. Continue reading