In brief

What humanitarians provide is still often misaligned with what people actually most need. While the proportion of aid recipients who felt that aid met their priority needs declined, aid workers continued to believe that providing relevant aid is the system’s strongest area of performance. There has been a renewed focus on inter-sectoral needs assessments and on tailoring aid, which has led to more good practice, but there is evidence that the system still relies on stereotypes about who marginalised people are and what support they require. 

There is a clear correlation between how well-consulted people are and how relevant they feel aid is. Improvements in assessments have helped to challenge the sectorised, supply-driven view of people’s needs, but humanitarians still have problems incorporating communities’ opinions and voices into programme design. While the COVID-19 response was adapted well to meet new health needs, it also distanced and diverted aid workers from hearing and responding to people’s other priorities.  

The rise of cash continued apace, surpassing expectations with an estimated 30% increase in funding of cash and voucher assistance between 2018 and 2021, driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. While cash assistance offers people considerable choice to set their own priorities, practitioners and recipients agree that it is neither always appropriate nor inherently aligned to what people need and can suffer the same consultation deficits as other forms of aid. 


The measure of humanitarian success rests not just on whether people received support, but also whether they received what they actually needed.294 The last edition of the SOHS found that aid was generally felt to be relevant in the initial stages of a crisis, but that cases of irrelevant aid were rife. Refugees in Bangladesh have since reported selling on non-food items in order to buy what they really need, while Palestinians have favoured crowdsourced support over humanitarian agencies because it fitted better with their priorities.295 Irrelevant or inappropriate aid can be worse than no aid at all, as it can heighten exclusion, erode trust and waste scarce resources.  

Whether the humanitarian response aligns with what people most need is most commonly evaluated under the DAC criterion of ‘relevance and appropriateness’ – two closely interrelated concepts that cover whether a response addresses priorities, and how well it is tailored to the needs and profiles of those receiving it. As ALNAP studies have shown,296 this has not tended to be well-measured: where need is widespread, most interventions can somehow pass as relevant, and – more worryingly – relevance tends to be judged from the perspective of the provider, rather than the recipient. When aid recipients are asked, it can be hard to disentangle views about the quantity or technical quality of what they received from the basic question of whether they got the type of support they most needed. As we saw in our focus groups and surveys, when people are asked whether aid addressed their priority needs, their answers often tell us as much about sufficiency as about relevance. 

It is clear, however, that the relevance of humanitarian aid is deeply linked to two sets of systemic issues: first, the power balance between aid providers and aid recipients; and second the supply-driven business model of humanitarian aid. Events of the past four years have influenced both. Conversations around decolonising aid have given a new framing for old challenges around ‘imposed aid’297 and paternalistic assumptions about what others need. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a mixed effect on the supply-driven model, both limiting the repertoire of response and forcing a wider understanding of the differential effects of the crisis across society. 

This chapter examines the evidence on how well the humanitarian system has performed in providing aid that fits with what affected people most need. It looks at this from the perspective of those people, as well as assessing practices and shifts in the system that have enabled or hindered success. Beginning with an overview of performance, it goes on to examine how well humanitarians understand people’s priority needs and how well they match their responses to them. The themes and findings of this chapter link closely to those of sufficiency, dignity and participation, which are explored in Chapters 3 and 8. It is also closely linked to questions of coverage, as aid that is not tailored to different groups can exclude them. 

Does humanitarian assistance address people’s priority needs?

Recipients’ rating of relevance has declined since the last edition of the SOHS. When asked if aid addressed their most important needs at the time, over 34% of affected people who responded to our survey replied ‘Yes’ and nearly 45% replied ‘Partially’.298 Although there were variations between contexts, it was striking that, overall, women were 20% more likely to answer yes than men. The reasons for this response are unclear, but it could be seen as a challenge to other findings that the system is still failing to adequately consider women’s needs. Refugees were 30% less likely than other groups to fully agree that aid addressed their most important needs. This is in keeping with findings about a constrained humanitarian offer in dynamic and protracted refugee settings explored in ‘Focus on: Forced displacement’. 

The humanitarian system continues to have a positive view of the relevance of its aid. Nearly 60% of aid practitioners believed that they were ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ at addressing people’s priority needs – a slight increase since the last SOHS299 – and still the area of performance on which they rated themselves most highly. Evaluations also tended to conclude that humanitarian programmes were relevant. This may because they interpret relevance broadly300 and because, where needs are widespread, everything is seen as relevant. It may also be because the system is judging itself on its own terms, given that it is still not routine practice in evaluations to directly and systematically ask recipients whether the aid they received was relevant and appropriate. Our review found more examples of relevance being judged in terms of alignment with pre-set priorities and strategies than with the expressed views of affected communities. In the few evaluations that asked people whether the programme met their priority needs, feedback was broadly positive but also identified mismatches. For example, in the Cyclone Idai response in Mozambique 67% of households felt that assistance was in line with what they most needed, but there were notable gaps, including clothing: ‘Some girls said that, if they had to choose between going hungry or wearing dirty clothes, they would prefer to go hungry.’301  

How well do humanitarian agencies understand people’s priorities?

Listening to affected people 

There is a clear relationship between how well people feel they are consulted and how well they think aid matches what they most need. Our survey of aid recipients found that those who said that they were consulted before assistance was given were more than twice as likely to say that they felt it addressed their priority needs than those who said they weren’t consulted. Similarly, those who felt that they had had the chance to voice their opinions during the course of a programme were 80% more likely to feel positive about the relevance of what they received. This link between participation and relevance also appears to increase over time. An Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation (IAHE) of the 2015–2018 Ethiopia drought response found that the level of consultation made minimal difference to whether people felt that aid was relevant in the initial stages, but that in the long term it was crucial: ‘People who had been consulted about their needs and priorities were almost four times as likely as those who had not been consulted to find the assistance very useful in the longer-term.’302  

 People who were consulted before assistance was given were more than twice as likely to say that they felt it addressed their priority needs.

It has been a decade since the Time to Listen project303 spelled out this obvious correlation, but as we see in Chapter 8, the humanitarian system is still far from realising the ‘participation revolution’ to which it has committed. The majority of aid recipients and humanitarian practitioners interviewed in our field studies felt that humanitarian needs assessments largely failed to consult communities sufficiently or effectively. One multi-country evaluation expressed this engagement deficit in stark terms: ‘There is a lack of understanding at the field level as how to routinely engage with communities to ensure programme relevance and quality.’304 There are also external barriers to listening to what people want. Lack of physical proximity to affected communities is a recurrent problem for many international agencies, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and access constraints. In the words of one aid worker involved in the northern Ethiopia conflict response: ‘You need to talk to the people to understand what’s needed to make sure whatever aid you take is meaningfully used – but then you can’t talk to the people. So, you take what you think is needed. No-one’s to blame, but humanitarian response without continuous discussion and participation of the affected community will have limitations. Not being able to live close enough to the affected community really hampers our usefulness.’ 

Assessing and analysing needs

There have been system-wide improvements in the way needs are analysed, to better reflect people’s cross-cutting and inter-connected priorities. The Joint Intersectoral Analysis Framework (JIAF) represents important progress in this regard. The JIAF is the culmination of work by a group of donors, implementing agencies and specialist partners to develop a common framework for shared intersectoral analysis of needs.305 Designed to provide a more multi-dimensional and complex analysis, the JIAF has informed Humanitarian Needs Overviews (HNOs) in 24 of the 27 countries in which it has been piloted since 2020 and has been credited with contributing to a marked improvement in these HNOs, including more explicit differentiation of the needs and capacities of vulnerable groups. According to a 2021 review of needs assessment progress under the Grand Bargain, there is ‘growing buy-in to the JIAF and the wider concept of joint intersectoral analysis – something that wasn’t a given in 2016’.306 The framework has been subject to rigorous review to learn from its application to date, improve the methodology and make it more user-friendly. 

Aid workers’ wider verdict on needs assessments was mixed. Our survey of aid practitioners found that 48% thought that needs assessments were ‘Good’ and 39% thought they were ‘Fair’ (only 7% rated them ‘Poor’ and less than 6% ‘Excellent’). Some found needs assessments to be very good in certain regions, others found them to be systemically biased. Our field research revealed widespread and ongoing concerns about the quality, frequency and consistency of needs assessments and analysis in all of the case study countries. One aid worker in Bangladesh concluded from their experience that ‘taking the time to do proper assessments is an incredibly rare thing to do in a humanitarian setting, certainly not in any super meaningful way.’  

There are many reasons why assessments and analysis continue to fall short. A range of evaluations suggested that inconsistent quality was due to a range of factors, from poor methodologies and analytical rigour to time and political pressures.307 Many interviewees in our field research pointed to the exigencies of the funding model as a major constraint. Some cited the short time frames for developing the funding proposals that determine programme direction, followed by short-term funding that does not include time or resourcing for deeper assessments. L/NNGOs in Lebanon expressed frustration that ‘there is no needs assessment and there is no work on it. They work according to the request of the donor and work to fulfil this request.’ This was echoed in DRC, where practitioners reported duplication and irrelevance: ‘If we had taken into account the real needs of the population, we would not have ended up with four organizations in the same field, if you go up a little bit, you will see people under tarpaulins with holes in them … we did not take into account the needs, but we did take into account what we told the donor.’ 

There is little system-wide or conclusive evidence on how – and how well – agencies actually use the information they derive from needs assessments in their programming decisions and design. Drawing on evaluations and field studies, the record appears mixed. Evaluations across the study period refer to information being both considered308 and disregarded309 in planning processes. One donor multi-country evaluation found that the vast majority of its project and programme-level designs ‘clearly applied the findings of needs assessments produced’.310 Aid workers in Bangladesh and Lebanon also gave positive examples of needs-based research which informed the development of tailored interventions. However, other evaluations noted a concerning gap between the collection of information and its analysis and use.311 These concerns about the disconnect between assessments and interventions were articulated by one aid recipient in DRC, who told our researchers: ‘The others come and ask only what you have eaten in the last seven days, but then they are not going to give anything that gathers what they have asked you in their questions, I wonder why they come and ask us these questions.’ This gap is due to operational constraints – including insufficient time, resources or skills to conduct meaningful analysis of the data collected and government restrictions that limit programming options. Other sources raise the problem of scope and function – the risk of mission creep, the need for prioritisation and the impossibility of programming that is relevant to everyone’s stated needs, as well the conflict of ‘expertise’ between what humanitarian actors believe to be right for people312 and what people want for themselves, a question that is closely linked to colonialist and paternalist attitudes.  

However decisions are made, affected people are rarely involved,313 as Chapter 8 explores. There were particular concerns about the involvement of marginalised groups. As one inter-agency evaluation on gender equality noted, engagement tended to stop at the needs assessment stage: ‘The voices and needs of youth and marginalized groups (for example, LGBTI people, persons with disabilities, the elderly and specific ethnic groups, among others) are still largely absent from decision-making on humanitarian response, even as there have been improvements in consulting these groups in needs assessment exercises.’314 

How well are humanitarians providing support that fits people’s priority needs?

Limiting environments 

The gap between the kind of support people need and the type of aid they receive is not only due to the shortcomings of the humanitarian system; what’s offered or provided is often limited by the operating environment. In active conflicts and highly constrained environments, such as Syria, Venezuela and northern Ethiopia, blockades, directives and other impediments are preventing delivery of certain provisions such as medicines, telecommunications and water systems. In several refugee contexts, host government policy limits the scope of programmes for refugees, while pre-set stipulations about inclusion of host communities can result in programmes that do not match demand. In Lebanon, for example, one programme for Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts encountered serious difficulties in attracting and retaining Lebanese participants as the programme was not aligned with their needs, preferences or economic incentives.315 

Evidence on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected relevance is still emerging. On the whole, evaluations have found that, while the health response was largely relevant and appropriate, there were larger questions about whether this skewed the response away from people’s pre-existing or ongoing needs. As this report details in the ‘Focus on: COVID-19’, in many contexts it was the socioeconomic and protection impacts of the pandemic that posed the foremost threats to people, rather than the virus itself – and the initial prioritisation on health interventions was at the cost of responding to these. In some countries, the pandemic was used by authorities as a pretext for limiting programmes deemed undesirable.316 In Bangladesh, local aid workers interviewed for the SOHS reported limitations on their work with women and girls: ‘They [the authorities] say, “That’s not priority emergency work right now.” So, you can’t do it based on COVID. Even if the COVID-19 numbers are falling in the camp significantly.’  

Elsewhere, the pandemic response highlighted existing problems around providing what people actually need. In Syria it showed up the supply-driven nature of the highly compromised aid effort. For example, cross-line aid from Damascus to the north-east was often sent irrespective of needs and then stolen en route; health workers ended up with incomplete healthcare kits when what they really needed was kits for non-communicable disease. There were also cases of intensive care unit (ICU) beds being sent ‘to a hospital with no plans to create an ICU, and incubators to a hospital in Tabqa without informing the NGO managing the maternity ward.’317 

Enabling choice through cash 

Where the authorities and markets permit it, cash and voucher assistance (CVA) can give people greater scope to meet their priority needs in the way they deem most appropriate. The last edition of the SOHS heralded the ‘disruptive potential’ of CVA and reported that both aid workers and recipients were positive about how cash in particular afforded people more dignity and choice. As cash programming continued to scale up, so did evidence about its positive effects.  

Cash challenges the old supply-driven, sector-siloed model of provision and offers aid in a form that can be tailored to need.318 As the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator put it: ‘The more that cash becomes central to the delivery of systems, the more a la carte we will be able to get.’319 From Central America to Somalia and Syrian refugee camps, people said they preferred cash as it was more dignified, allowed them to prioritise and plan for the future, invest in economic opportunities and adapt to climate change.320 In Yemen, people told us that the flexibility of cash-based assistance allowed families to meet self-identified needs and avoid negative coping strategies. One focus group participant explained: ‘Cash aid in particular has a big effect on the Yemeni people. It helps mitigate the pressure on the family and avoid committing mistakes for the sake of getting money.’ 

Figure 31: Funding for humanitarian cash and voucher assistance, 2018–2021

The amount of international humanitarian funding spent on cash and voucher assistance continued to grow. Preliminary data for 2021 – likely to be an underestimate – suggests it reached at least $6.7 billion, 80% of which went to recipients in the form of cash or voucher transfers.

Source: Development Initiatives based on data collected with the help of the Cash Learning Partnership (CALP Network) from implementing partners and on UN OCHA FTS data.

Notes: RCRC is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Data for 2021 is preliminary as data for some organisations has not yet been provided or is based on estimations. Double counting of CVA programmes that are sub-granted from one implementing partner to another is avoided where data on this is available. Programming costs are estimates for organisations that provided only the amount transferred to aid recipients. Data is not available for all included organisations across all years. Data is in current prices.

Figure 32: Cash and voucher assistance as a proportion of total international humanitarian assistance, 2018–2021

The proportion of cash and voucher assistance has remained at around a fifth of international humanitarian assistance since 2019.

Source: Development Initiatives (DI) based on data collected with the help of the Cash Learning Partnership (CALP Network) from implementing partners and on OECD DAC, UN CERF, UN OCHA FTS data and DI’s unique dataset of private humanitarian funding.

Notes: IHA is international humanitarian assistance. The percentage in this figure is an approximate estimate calculated by taking the total global value of humanitarian CVA overall programming costs that is part of the total international humanitarian response and divide it be total IHA provided by public and private donors. 2021 data is preliminary with data submissions from a few organisations still outstanding.

Box D: Growth in cash and voucher assistance

Five years on from the Grand Bargain commitment to increase the routine use of cash, the system seems to have surpassed expectations. Many large organisations have shifted to a ‘cash first’ policy for food and other programmes and all Grand Bargain signatories – large and small – reported using cash in some form.321 Including all associated programming costs, the global volume of funding spent on humanitarian CVA reached an estimated $6.7 billion in 2021, an increase of 44% from 2018.  

An estimated $5.3 billion of this was transferred to recipients in 2021 – increasing by half (50%) since 2018. Consistent with previous years, the vast majority of these transfers were in the form of cash (71%) rather than vouchers (29%). The proportion of programme funding transferred to recipients has been incrementally rising over the period – from 77% in 2018 to 80% in 2021, suggesting some degree of efficiencies and economies of scale as CVA programming grows.  

However, as the 2021 figures are based on preliminary data from implementing agencies, some of whom have yet to report, it is likely that the actual volumes of CVA spending will be higher. Based on previous years’ data, it is likely that the final total for 2021 may exceed $7.1 billion for programme costs and $5.7 billion in transfer value to recipients.  

The COVID-19 pandemic was a driver for the increases between 2019 and 2020, reflecting a wider increase in cash-based social protection (see also Chapter 12). It is likely that the response to the war in Ukraine will drive a further rise in 2022 – the requirements for multi-purpose cash under the Ukraine 2022 Flash Appeal alone stood at $600 million, meaning that total reported requirements for CVA globally had (at time of writing) nearly tripled since 2021. 

Despite Grand Bargain agreements to improve reporting, it is still hard to get timely, comprehensive and granular data on the scale of CVA and the transfer values involved; the estimates provided in the SOHS still rely on self-reporting by key humanitarian agencies. This data gap means that it is not possible to comprehensively trace through the system how much of the total reported international humanitarian assistance is implemented as cash. Estimates suggest that it represents approximately a fifth of international humanitarian assistance – a proportion which appears to have peaked in 2020. 

It is well understood that cash is not a programming option everywhere and is subject to internationally and domestically imposed constraints on its use. Cash assistance is impeded by international sanctions and counter-terror regulations, as well as by domestic restrictions and banking closures. In Ethiopia, there are examples of recipients selling aid to obtain cash, but the closure of banks has prevented agencies from using cash as part of the response. In Bangladesh, community consultations with Rohingya refugees have shown a strong preference for partial cash assistance instead of in-kind distributions, but government policies forbid cash transfers to them,322 with efforts limited to a voucher-based system in collaboration with the local private sector.  

Even where cash was permitted, it was not always felt to be the most relevant and appropriate modality for all. A global evidence synthesis found that, in Sierra Leone, north-eastern Nigeria and Zimbabwe, people cited concerns about safety, misuse and logistics – elsewhere, there are clear limits to what can be bought on the market.323 In the Syria refugee response, a blend of restricted vouchers, unrestricted cash and in-kind aid helped to address people’s preferences.324 In Lebanon, in a context of major economic decline, people had mixed feelings about cash – some noted that moving away from cash left gaps in their ability to meet basic needs, while others were grateful for in-kind assistance as it insulated them from the effects of rapid inflation. 

Where CVA is the best option, evidence suggests that there is still room for improvement. Cash-based programming may not be inherently aligned to what people need, and cash experts and advocates acknowledge that it suffers from the same consultation and communication deficits as other forms of aid. Ground Truth Solution’s ‘cash barometer’325 research across three countries found that most recipients did not know why they were receiving cash, or for how long, and were confused by poorly coordinated interventions that saw them receive multiple transfers for the same or different purposes. Evaluations of cash responses also concluded there was a need for regular engagement with recipients, combined with a holistic understanding of context and needs.326  

Tailoring aid for different groups  

Humanitarian actors recognise that they must do better at ensuring that aid is relevant to the needs of the most marginalised people and provided in ways that are appropriate for them. The last edition of the SOHS found limited progress in tailoring aid for women and girls, but persistent gaps with regard to older people and people with disabilities, and made little mention of tailoring to the needs of LGBTQI individuals.  

Since then, there has been a notable investment in turning general commitments to inclusion into clear and practical guidelines and frameworks. In the past three years, as discussed in Chapter 4, the UN has created a Disability Strategy, the IASC has published guidance on inclusion of persons with disabilities327 and updated the Gender with Age Marker,328 and UN Women has published a Gender Accountability Framework.329 Individual donors, UN agencies and INGOs have developed their own gender, age and disability frameworks,330 and a number of guidance notes were produced to support the COVID-19 response.331 With inclusion prominently on organisations’ radar, there are now many examples of positively tailored programmes for marginalised groups: in the Philippines, inclusive early warning kits were tailored to people with intellectual and communication disabilities.332 In the Venezuela refugee response, shelters and food aid were tailored to the priorities and preferences of displaced Warao communities.333  

Although organisations now have a clear ‘business case’ and frameworks for adapting their offer to socially excluded groups, this has yet to be systematically translated into programme design. A clear gap remains between strong corporate gender and disability policies and operational realities. Across the system, good practice is fragmented and inconsistent. There were assumptions that standard programming or nominal tailoring would automatically result in access for all, without a proper exploration of what was required for different groups in a given context. Even where more sophisticated assessments are conducted, this does not always translate into programming – as an evaluation of a programme in Afghanistan found: ‘PWDs [people with disabilities] revealed that once they are selected, they do not always get assistance tailored to their disability … it had been down to them and their family members to adapt their shelter solutions to their needs.’334 Basic efforts, such as providing sanitary towels for women in hygiene kits or making buildings wheelchair accessible, are still cited as progress and remain far more common than comprehensive and consultative analysis and action. In some cases, even the basics were missing – such as accessible and separate latrines335 or mobile money distributions that considered the technological access and literacy limitations of the vulnerable groups they purported to prioritise.336 In some contexts, the pressures of the COVID-19 response have reversed improvements in relevance: in Lebanon, menstrual hygiene management was deprioritised in favour of other basic needs including food and shelter.337 Meanwhile the requirements of some groups, such as LGBTQI people, have rarely been taken into account in programming. As one International Rescue Committee report noted: ‘LGBTQI persons report experiencing negative attitudes, harassment, threats, and blame within traditional service structures, such as health facilities and social services. In order to effectively prevent these experiences, humanitarian agencies must make an investment in their personnel and practices.338

There were also concerns that guidelines on inclusion fed into a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach – rudimentary identity-based assumptions about people’s vulnerabilities and needs. For example, evaluations found a tendency to see women as a social group without other characteristics, separate from and in resource competition with men. This lack of rigour in gender analysis could lead not only to poor targeting and inappropriate activities, but also to a harmful and socially divisive approach.339 For example, an evaluation of the World Food Programme’s response in north-eastern Nigeria found a ‘corporate drive to implement a disability and age inclusive approach’, but a lack of sophisticated social analysis and effort ‘to determine and address the specific food and nutrition needs of the elderly and persons with disabilities’.340 The increased prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the decolonising aid discourse have prompted some agencies – including Islamic Relief and CAFOD – to challenge identity-based stereotyping and develop organisational approaches to intersectionality. However, there is little evidence so far to show whether this recent progress in thinking341 has taken root in programming. Analysis suggests that organisations have struggled to translate this into practice because ‘intersectionality in some ways invites complexity, whereas operationalisation necessarily requires simplification’.342 

Simplistic ideas of social groups also meant seeing only their vulnerabilities, rather than their abilities and active agency. According to the IAHE evaluation on gender equality, women were consulted on what humanitarians deemed ‘women’s issues’, rather than on ‘their own strengths, resilience and capacities’.343 An extensive survey by HelpAge International revealed similar false assumptions about older people’s behaviours, situations and contributions to their societies.344 In the Syrian refugee response, a UNDP evaluation found programmes that were undermined by assumptions and omissions about women’s vulnerabilities and capacities: livelihoods programmes failed to factor in women seeking work outside the home and ‘weak or lack of gender-disaggregated data on livelihoods and gender-sensitive analysis in livelihoods programming contributed to suboptimal responses’.345 In Bangladesh, aid workers were surprised by what girls found relevant – they had distributed menstrual hygiene kits with the aim of boosting school attendance, when what actually made the difference was plastic sandals so the girls could wade through floodwaters to get to school.  

A familiar mix of reasons are given for these shortcomings.346 Within organisations, time pressures are a common refrain, especially in the initial stages of an emergency.347 Other evidence points to a lack of knowledge among operational staff, a shortage of specialised gender and disability experts to support them,348 and an overload of guidance generated at HQ level and poorly adapted to country context. Funding constraints are also a factor. Interviewees in all the field study locations noted that shortages placed limitations on their scope to tailor the offer to people’s priorities. A meta-evaluation on food security and COVID-19 also found that, in north-eastern Nigeria, cost-cutting imperatives meant that rice was substituted with cheaper sorghum and millet, which recipients then sold to buy more usable alternatives.349 There is also a wider issue of the extent to which the system invests in monitoring outcomes for affected people rather than programme outputs – with few incentives to be accountable for relevance, the sector continues to lack an understanding of how their aid matches different people’s priorities, and to learn from this.  

Does humanitarian action adapt to people's changing priority needs?

Although protracted crises are the norm rather than the exception, the humanitarian system still struggles to stay relevant as crises persist and evolve, and as people’s expectations and priorities shift. When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, agencies and donors were quick to adapt existing programmes to the new realities of remote working and public health requirements350 – but this was not the same as adapting to people’s priorities. As Chapter 8 details, where agencies did adapt their programmes on the basis of new feedback or evidence from communities, it was more a matter of course-correction than any wholesale rethinking of programme focus and approach. Aid workers in Bangladesh described a series of iterative ‘fixes’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, complementing a food voucher with a ‘porter’ system to bring food to homebound refugees, a system which was designed and refined based on extensive community feedback. But as one humanitarian leader put it: ‘I’ve never seen a case where the team comes at some point during operation to say we had agreed to do A and B, but now that we’ve heard that what the people want in fact is D … we’re going to shift and divert to deliver that’. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, agencies and donors were quick to adapt existing programmes to the new realities of remote working and public health requirements – but this was not the same as adapting to people’s priorities.

Focus groups in Yemen, DRC and Bangladesh all echoed the findings of the last SOHS – namely that relevance diminishes as a crisis progresses beyond the initial emergency phase. People expressed gratitude for short-term support but concern and frustration about more sustainable options. In the words of one participant in Yemen: ‘In 2015 and 2016 we were really in need [of this aid]. But now what we are really in need is economic empowerment. That is to say, ‘’Don’t give me a fish. But teach me how to fish.”’ Given the purpose of and limits to humanitarian aid, the onus is arguably on other forms of support to adapt to support economic empowerment and long-term options – indeed, this underpins the case for the renewed focus on strengthening the humanitarian–development–peace nexus, as we explore in Chapter 12. 

The scope of humanitarian action to adapt in protracted crises is limited not only by its central mission, but also by competing priorities, constrained resources and political impediments. However, some field interviewees suggested that, even within these recognised constraints, humanitarian agencies could do more to push beyond immediate needs. As one aid worker in Bangladesh noted, ‘We need to have to be able to have a longer-term perspective and we need to be able to help people to incorporate things into their life that isn’t just food and shelter and water. And, you know, there really isn’t a lot of thinking going on about how to do that. That’s a really sad aspect of us being appropriate and relevant for the Rohingya.’ 

We need to have to be able to have a longer-term perspective and we need to be able to help people to incorporate things into their life that isn’t just food and shelter and water.


Chianca (2008) and Sagmeister (2016) argue that if a project is not relevant to people, it cannot be judged successful. See: Thomaz Chianca, ‘The OECD/DAC criteria for international development evaluations: An assessment and ideas for improvement’, Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation 5, no. 9 (2008); Elias Sagmeister, ‘Assessing the relevance of development assistance: Current practice and suggestions for a better way forward’, GPPi, 25 February 2016 . See also: Sophia Swithern, Background Paper – ALNAP 32nd Annual Meeting: More Relevant? 10 Ways to Approach What People Really Need (London: ANLAP/ODI, 2019) .


Ground Truth Solutions, Bulletin: Rohingya Needs and Services (Ground Truth Solutions, 2019); and Dalia Hatuqa, ‘Why some Palestinians are shunning foreign aid’, The New Humanitarian, 14 May 2019, cited in Swithern, More Relevant?.


 In October 2019, ALNAP dedicated its annual meeting to exploring the question of relevance, building on issues identified in the 2018 edition of the SOHS. See: Swithern, More Relevant?.


 It is now more than 25 years since Barbara Harrell-Bond coined this phrase in her critique on the top-down provision of humanitarian aid in Uganda. See: Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (Oxford University Press, 1986)


 39% of respondents to the survey of aid recipients for the 2018 SOHS answered ‘Yes’ and 48% answered ‘Partially’.


 In the survey for the 2018 SOHS, 58% of aid practitioners rated performance as ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ in this area.


Evaluations measure relevance according to a very broad mix of indicators – whether the programme addressed assessed needs, whether it aligned with the stated priorities of the host government, the donor or the agency, or whether it was appreciated by recipients.


 Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (Cambridge MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012).


Victoria Metcalfe-Hough et al., The Grand Bargain at Five Years: An Independent Review (London: HPG/ODI, 2021).


Baker et al., Response to Cyclone Idai; Steets et al., Drought Response in Ethiopia; Stephen Lister, Ethiopia: An Evaluation of WFP’s Portfolio (2012–2017) (Rome: WFP, 2019); David Sanderson, Dipankar Patnaik and Kira Osborne, Nepal Earthquakes Appeal Meta-Synthesis (Disasters Emergency Committee, 2019); Murray, Response to the Refugee Crisis in Turkey Maunder et al., Corporate Emergency Response; ADE, Evaluation of the European Union’s Humanitarian Response to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh, 2017–2019 (Volume I) (Brussels: European Commission, 2021); Steets et al., Evaluation of WFP Policies


ADE, Response to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis; Julia Betts, Petra Mikkolainen and Judith Freidman, Adapting for Change: Country Strategy Approach in Fragile Contexts (Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, 2020); Gökçe Baykal, Final Evaluation of the Project: Strengthening the Resilience of Syrian Women and Girls and Host Communities in Turkey (Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2020) Brian Majewski et al., Decentralised Evaluation: WFP’s General Food Assistance to Syrian Refugees in Jordan 2015 to Mid-2018 (Rome: WFP, 2018); Shaheen, Wichterich and Sardiwal, Norwegian Church Aid; Chloé Maillard, Kukuh Setyawan and Hélène Juillard, Real-Time Evaluation of Sulawesi Indonesia Earthquake and Tsunami (Islamic Relief Worldwide, 2019); UNFPA, Evaluation of the UNFPA Response to the Syria Crisis (2011–2018) Volume 1, ; Koichiro Watanabe, Reinforcing Institutional Capacity for Treatment of Acute Malnutrition, Prevention of Malnutrition and National Sensitization for Nutrition Security in Western Area District, Sierra Leone (Action Against Hunger, 2018) Paula Sansom, Helen Leidecker and Wolfgang Gressmann, Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Evaluation of Phases 1 and 2 of the East Africa Crisis Appeal, Somalia 2017 (Islamic Relief Worldwide, 2018); Key Aid Consulting, British Red Cross Final Evaluation: Nepal Earthquake Recovery Programme (British Red Cross, 2018).


Key Aid Consulting, British Red Cross Final Evaluation; Shaheen, Wichterich and Sardiwal, Norwegian Church Aid; Erik Bryld et al., Blind Sides and Soft Spots: An Evaluation of Norway’s Aid Engagement in South Sudan (Norad, 2020); Maunder et al., Corporate Emergency Response; Bernard Broughton and Amra Lee, Evaluation of Protection in Australia’s Disaster Responses in the Pacific (Canberra: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2019); François Grünewald and Paula Farias, Cholera in Time of War: Evaluation of the MSF-OCBA Cholera Response in Yemen (MSF, 2018); UNFPA, ‘Evaluation of UNFPA Support to the Prevention of, Response to and Elimination of Gender-Based Violence and Harmful Practices (2012-2017) Volume 1.’ (UNFPA, 2018); A. Pittman et al., ‘Getting to Zero: Good Practices from Synthesis of UNFPA Country Programme Evaluations’ (New York: UNFPA, 2019); J. Baker et al., ‘Evaluation of the European Union’s Humanitarian Interventions in India and Nepal, 2013-2017’ (Brussels: European Commission ECHO, 2018); Taylor, Kreidler and Harvey, Global Cash Evaluation


One aid worker in DRC was clear on this: ‘Be careful not to confuse them, there are many beneficiaries who do not know their real needs.’


Sophia Swithern, More Relevant: 5 Calls to Action (London: ANLAP, 2020).


H. Audi et al., ‘Lebanon, Livelihoods and Resilience Activities (2016-2019): Evaluation’ (Rome: WFP, 2019).


Taylor et al., Rights of Refugees. Taylor, Glyn, G. Gilbert, S. Hidalgo, M. Korthals Altes, B. Lewis, C. Robinson, E. Sandri, V. Stoianova and J. Ward (2022), COVID-19 Global Evaluation Coalition, “Joint Evaluation of the Protection of the Rights of Refugees during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, UNHCR, Geneva,


Hall, Rescuing Aid in Syria, 12.


J. Jodar et al., ‘The State of the World’s Cash 2020 – Executive summary’, 2020.


M. Griffiths, ‘Rethinking Humanitarianism: An Interview with the UN’s Humanitarian Chief Podacast’, The New Humanitarian, 2022.


 WFP, ‘WFP Evidence Summary Cash-Based Transfers Lessons from Evaluations’ (Rome: WFP, 2021).


 WFP, ‘WFP Evidence Summary Cash-Based Transfers Lessons from Evaluations’, 5.


Ground Truth Solutions, ‘Projects - Cash Barometer’, 2020.


 WFP, ‘WFP Evidence Summary Cash-Based Transfers Lessons from Evaluations’.


IASC, ‘Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action’ (Geneva: IASC, 2019).


UN Women, ‘Gender Accountability Framework Report 2020’ (IASC GRG, 2020).


See Shafina and Thivillier, Inclusive Client Responsiveness; A. Lange, G. Mitra, and G. Wood, ‘Guidance on Strengthening Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Response Plans’ (UK Aid, 2021); UNHCR, ‘Working with Older Persons in Forced Displacement’ (Geneva: UNHCR, 2021); Jones et al., Inclusive and Equitable Approach


IASC, ‘Interim Guidance. Gender Alert for COVID-19 Outbreak’ (Geneva: IASC, 2020); Syria Protection Cluster, ‘A Disability-Inclusive COVID-19 Response’, Brief guidance note (Turkey: Syria Protection Cluster, 2020).


M. Turnbull, L. Moriniere, and A.T. De la Poterie, ‘Start Fund: Evaluation of Crisis Anticipation’ (Start Network, 2020).


A. Koclejda, G. Roux-Fouillet, and N. Carlevaro, ‘Afghanistan Shelter Evaluation Report’ (Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 2019).


D. Stone and K. Chowdhury, ‘Christian Aid’s Rohingya Crisis Response in Bangladesh’ (Christian Aid, 2019).


P. Breard, ‘Evidence Summary on COVID-19 and Food Security’ (United Nations Evaluation Group (UNEG), 2021).


 IASC, ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls’ (Slides, online, 2020).


FAO, ‘Evaluation of FAO’s Work on Gender’ (Rome: FAO, 2019).


See inter alia H. Slim, ‘Impartiality and Intersectionality’, Humanitarian Low & Policy (blog), 2018; Véronique Barbelet and Caitlin Wake, Inclusion and Exclusion in Humanitarian Action: The State of Play (London: HPG/ODI, 2020); M. Turcanu and Y. Ngunzi Kahashi, ‘Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action. SADI – CAFOD’s Safe, Accessible, Dignified and Inclusive Approach’, Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action, October 2020; Shafina and Thivillier, Inclusive Client Responsiveness.


V. McGivern and K. Bluestone, ‘If Not Now, When? Keeping Promises to Older People Affected by Humanitarian Crises’ (HelpAge International, 2020).


UNDP, ‘Evaluation of UNDP Support to the Syrian Refugee Crisis Response and Promoting an Integrated Resilience Approach’ (New York: UNDP, 2021).


UNDP, ‘Evaluation of UNDP Support to Conflict-Affected Countries’ (New York: UNDP, 2021); FAO, ‘Synthesis of Findings and Lessons Learnt from the Strategic Objective Evaluations’ (Rome: FAO, 2019); FAO, ‘Evaluation of the Emergency Prevention System (EMPRES) Programme in Food Chain Crises’ (Rome: FAO, 2018); Murray, Response to the Refugee Crisis in Turkey; FAO, ‘Evaluation of FAO’s Work on Gender’; Nick Maunder et al., Somalia: An Evaluation of WFP’s Portfolio (2012–2017) (Rome: WFP, 2018); Betts et al., WFP Regional Response; Bizzarri et al., Evaluation on Gender Equality; UNICEF, Humanitarian and Development Programming


Broughton and Lee, ‘Evaluation of Protection in Australia’s Disaster Responses in the Pacific’; FAO, ‘Evaluation of the Emergency Prevention System (EMPRES) Programme in Food Chain Crises’; Bizzarri et al., Evaluation on Gender Equality.


Murray, Response to the Refugee Crisis in Turkey; Steets et al., Drought Response in Ethiopia; FAO, ‘Evaluation of FAO’s Work on Gender’; T Hanley and et al., ‘Evaluation of WFP’s Capacity to Respond to Emergencies. Evaluation Report Vol I.’ (Rome: WFP, 2019); Broughton and Lee, ‘Evaluation of Protection in Australia’s Disaster Responses in the Pacific’


Breard, ‘Evidence Summary on COVID-19 and Food Security’.


ALNAP, COVID-19 lessons paper, forthcoming


 With some notable exceptions, including WFP’s three-pronged approach (3PA), which includes integrated context analysis, seasonal livelihood programming and community based participatory programming.


While a request for support for livelihoods, education and other support for longer-term recovery was a finding in the 2018 SOHS KIIs and focus group discussions with affected people in some settings, it was mentioned with more frequency and emphasised more by community participants in the 2022 FGDs in DRC, Lebanon and Yemen.


 Key informant interviews in Lebanon.


Murray, F. Pedersen, and S. Ziesche, ‘Evaluation of the Global Cluster for Early Recovery’ (New York: UNDP, 2018)
FAO 2018 FAO, ‘Evaluation of the Emergency Prevention System (EMPRES) Programme in Food Chain Crises’ (Rome: FAO, 2018) ; Key Aid Consulting, ‘Impact Analysis of Aid in Haiti - 10 Years On’ (Swiss Solidarity, 2020); Baker et al., Response to Cyclone Idai


Ground Truth Solutions, ‘Data’, Gound Truth Solutions, n.d.


Corbett, Carstensen and Di Vicenz, Survivor and Community Led Crisis Response.


A. Avdeenko and M. Frolich, ‘Impacts of Increasing Community Resilience through Humanitarian Aid in Pakistan’ (New Delhi: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie), 2019), 5.


N. Freij, ‘Creating Job Opportunities for Young Adults in Kurdistan’ (Action Against Hunger, 2018).


 UNDP, ‘Evaluation of UNDP Support to the Syrian Refugee Crisis Response and Promoting an Integrated Resilience Approach’ (New York: UNDP, 2021); H. Roxin et al., ‘Effectiveness of German Development Cooperation in Dealing with Conflict-Induced Forced Migration Crises’ (Bonn: German Institute for Development Evaluation (DEval), 2021); Tango International, ‘Evaluation of UNHCR’s Livelihoods Strategies and Approaches’ (Geneva: UNHCR, 2018); Daniels, Anderson and Yusuf Ali, 2017 Somalia Response


UNDP, ‘Evaluation of UNDP Support to the Syrian Refugee Crisis Response and Promoting an Integrated Resilience Approach’; Danida and UNHCR, ‘Joint Evaluation of the Integrated Solutions Model in and Around Kalobeyei, Turkana, Kenya’ (Copenhagen/Geneva: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Denmark (Danida) and UNHCR, 2019); Betts et al., WFP Regional Response; Baykal, Strengthening the Resilience


Danida and UNHCR, Integrated Solutions Model; UNDP, ‘Evaluation of UNDP Support to the Syrian Refugee Crisis Response and Promoting an Integrated Resilience Approach’. (UNDP, 2021).


 Yaron et al., ‘Measuring Changes in Household Resilience as a Result of BRACED Activities in Myanmar 2018’ BRACED, 2018.


 J. Nyirenda et al., ‘Mid-Term Evaluation of Integrated Risk Management and Climate Services Programme in Malawi from 2017-2019’ (Rome: WFP, 2019), 31.


Murray, Pedersen, and Ziesche, ‘Evaluation of the Global Cluster for Early Recovery’.


Danida and UNHCR, Integrated Solutions Model; SANDE CONSULTORES LDA, ‘External Evaluation of Cyclone Idai and Kenneth Response in Mozambique’ (Oxford/London: Oxfam and DEC, 2021); UNHCR, ‘Decentralized Evaluation of UNHCR’s Livelihoods Programme in South Sudan (2016-2018)’ (Geneva: UNHCR, 2019); UNHCR, Country Operation, Afghanistan