What is a needs assessment?

A needs assessment is a data collection exercise usually conducted at a single point in time to gain an understanding of the priorities, availability of resources, sources of problems and their impact on the affected population.

A needs assessment is for instance conducted to

  • Identify the different protection needs and risks of diverse women, men, girls, and boys of concern, and establish priorities.
  • Estimate the severity of conditions faced by diverse women, men, girls, and boys of concern, and establish priorities.
  • Identify existing capacities and resources of persons of concern, including positive and negative coping mechanisms, as well as partners and governments.

Needs assessments and analysis are main steps within the UNHCR Operations Management Cycle and the Humanitarian Programme Cycle, the main planning cycles within humanitarian and refugee crises. The findings of needs assessments inform subsequent programme design and implementation.

Within UNHCR operations, what is the relationship between assessments and monitoring?

An analytical framework provides the logic of the assessment. It visualizes how different information categories fit together and what the analysis outputs will be. Examples of such frameworks are the MIRA Analytical Framework , the UNHCR Vulnerability Assessment Framework (VAF) in Jordan , and Statelessness: UNHCR Analytical Framework for Prevention, Reduction and Protection. The framework is accompanied by a detailed data analysis plan, that provides details on how to process, analysis and present each concept measured. The analysis framework and data analysis plan form the backbone of any data collection exercise. Having these in place makes sure that:

  • All necessary data is collected, while no time is wasted on collecting data that will not inform the assessment objectives.
  • Indicators and analytical outputs are discussed, recorded and shared with all those involved in the assessment, including information managers and end-users.

When are needs assessments considered to be a 'coordinated needs assessment'?

There are three different levels of coordination for assessments

Coordinated: Assessments are planned and carried out in partnership with other actors, including

  • Joint needs assessments: All steps of the assessment, including data collection, processing, and analysis, take place as a single process among agencies within and between clusters/thematic areas, and lead to the production of a jointly owned output.
  • Harmonised needs assessments: Assessments are conducted separately by agencies, but they follow agreed standards in order to facilitate cross-analysis. These standards include for instance common geographic data standards and standard questions.

Uncoordinated: Assessments are conducted without the knowledge or consideration of other assessment and analysis initiatives

What are UNHCR's roles and responsibilities when it comes to coordinated needs assessments?

As one of the signatories of the Grand Bargain, and the lead in refugee operations, UNHCR has a core role within the humanitarian community to professionalize needs assessments and joint analysis.

In refugee settings, UNHCR is to lead a coordinated needs assessment approach, including joint assessments. This includes leading an assessment coordination forum, such as an Assessment Working Group (AWG) and facilitating joint multi-sector needs analysis on a regular basis.

In non-refugee situations, OCHA leads the coordination of needs assessments. UNHCR supports this approach and leads coordinated assessments within the UNHCR led clusters.

Do needs assessments always involve field data collection?

No. A needs assessment is any exercise conducted to understand the various needs of the population through systematic gathering and analysis of information. This include exercises that only focus on the analysis of secondary data.

This illustrates that assessments come in many shapes and forms. Socio-economic surveys, participatory assessments and IDP profiling exercises are examples of assessments types. Assessments can be conducted by one or multiple organisations, take a few days (an initial assessment can be done in 3-5 days) or months (an in-depth assessment usually takes between 1-4 months), and cover one or multiple sectors.

Are participatory assessments and needs assessments the same thing?

No. Participatory assessment approaches is one of the many types of assessment approaches. Other types of assessments include initial, rapid and in-depth assessments. For each assessment approach there are different tools are available, depending on the specific context. An example of a participatory assessment tool is the UNHCR Participatory Assessment Tool, while the JIPS IDP Profiling Guidance is an often-used in-depth assessment tool. Regardless of the assessment focus, all needs assessments must adhere to the principles and practices of participatory and community-based approaches. These principles for instance include the need for mainstreaming of age, gender and diversity.

What is the needs assessment process?

The five basic steps of a needs assessment are:

  1. understand the context
  2. plan the needs assessment
  3. collate and collect secondary and, if required, primary data
  4. analyse the needs and
  5. share the information
needs assessment process

There are so many different assessment approaches, how do I decide which approach to use?

There are a large number of standardized tools that can be used to assess needs, including inter-agency tools (e.g. the Multi Sector/Cluster Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA)) and rapid sector specific assessments (e.g. the Rapid Protection Assessment (RPA) Tool).

When deciding on the most appropriate approach, consider the objectives of the assessment and the feasibility of different approaches within the context:

  • Decisions to be influenced: What type of decision should be informed by the assessment? Initial response decisions, initial planning of the response or detailed planning for humanitarian relief, early recovery and durable solutions?
  • Crisis characteristics: What are the characteristics of the crisis? What level of detail is required and appropriate looking at the fluidity of the situation, an initial, rapid, or in-depth assessment?
  • Security and access: Are there security and/or access concerns which should be considered?
  • Capacity: How much time and resources are available to undertake the assessment? Is an initial, rapid or in-depth type of assessment appropriate? Is there capacity and experience within the operation using a certain approach, for instance as the result of preparedness activities?
  • Topics: Will the assessment serve multiple sectors or thematic areas or only one?
  • Coordination: Will the assessment be a joint or harmonized assessment?

A list of global tools can be found here. All global standardized tools will have to be adapted to the specific crisis context.

What are the key ingredients of a good assessment?

Needs assessments can differ greatly in scope, length and objective. However, good assessment processes have a few things in common:

  • Coordinated: Coordinate assessment processes as much as possible to avoid duplication of assessments efforts and assessment fatigue.
  • Based on adequate planning: Successful implementation of a needs assessment, as well as the appropriate use of its results, requires careful planning and agreement between key stakeholders on main objectives. Key components of the planning phase include setting objectives, determining coordination arrangements, detailing information needs, analytical framework and data analysis plan and setting data-management procedures.
  • Create ownership: Engage main stakeholders, including the population of concern and decision makers, from the start to ensure buy-in for the process and assessment results.
  • Include a thorough review of secondary data: To save resources and avoid assessment fatigue, make maximum use of secondary data. Only collect primary data if there remain significant information gaps.
  • Do no harm: The safety of those who ask for and provide information should be kept in mind, and any recorded information safeguarded against illicit use and sharing. The assessment process should not have a negative impact on societal tensions or exploit any segment of the population visited or interviewed. Information sources should be protected by complying with best practices regarding privacy and confidentiality, and seeking informed consent.
  • Relevant: Collect and analyse only the data that is required to inform specified decision.
  • Timely: Distribute the findings and analysis as quickly as possible to support decision-making and further assessments.
  • Valid: Use standardized and rigorous assessment procedures to ensure credible results.
  • Transparent: Share the assessment methodology, tools and limitations of the assessment. This includes any assumptions made during the analysis or any potential limitations on either the accuracy of the data or the sources used.
  • Impartial: Minimise bias within the data collection instruments, while collecting data and during the analysis phase by including a diverse range of perspectives, cross-checking findings and following pre-defined analysis plans.
  • Implement relevant disaggregation: Disaggregate data by sex, age and/or other relevant factors so that the assessment accurately captures the diversity of conditions faced by different population groups.
  • Shared: Share findings with other response actors, national authorities and the affected population. Follow pre-defined data-sharing principles and agreements.
  • Ensure Continuity: Analysis of the situation is not an on-off event. Develop and implement a strategy, as part of the overall information management strategy, which outlines how and when to collect the updated information required to inform decision making.

How do I analyse all the information generated by the monitoring systems and assessments?

All data collection exercises are based on an analytical framework and a data analysis plan which guides the analysis of the information collected. It provides details on how to process, analyse and present each concept measured. Guidance on the analytical framework can be found here. An example of a data analysis plan can be found here.

The framework and plan guides the analysis phase. Analysis is a sense-making process which consists of four main levels:

  1. Describe: Summarise the main assessment findings and provide comparisons over time, between geographic areas, population groups etc.
  2. Explain: Explain why the findings are as they are. Identify relationships between different issues.
  3. Interpret: Evaluate all the evidence and draw conclusions. Identify the severity of the current and possible future situation. Prioritise geographical areas, groups and concerns. Identify to what extent the findings are applicable to a geographic area or population group not included within the assessment.
  4. Anticipate: Examine how the situation could develop over the next weeks or months.

More brains understand more than one. As far as possible, include subject matter experts within the analysis process to verify, deepen and complement the findings. A joint analysis workshop is an example of a process whereby experts with different backgrounds come together to collectively analyse the findings.