In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Anna Louise Strachan
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Indicators are used to describe and measure different aspects of humanitarian aid. Humanitarian indicators fall into three distinct categories: situation indicators, response monitoring indicators, and impact indicators. Situation indicators track the effect a crisis has on both the affected population and infrastructure and services. They can either explain what the current situation is (baseline indicators) or explain what is required in crisis-affected areas (needs indicators). Response monitoring indicators consist of input, outcome, and output indicators. Input indicators show the financial and human resources provided for the response, outcome indicators measure the delivery of goods and services to affected populations towards the achievement of a particular outcome, and output indicators measure the likely or achieved effects of an intervention. Impact indicators measure the medium- to long-term results of an intervention ( NATF 2012).

Gathering primary data for measuring progress using humanitarian indicators is often not feasible because of the inherent difficulties in collecting data during the acute phase of humanitarian emergencies and the ethical issues that surround conducting research when civilians are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. However, it may be possible to gather secondary data for situation indicators from government data sources, such as the national census. In chronic humanitarian crises, primary data collection is often more feasible. However, secondary data may be outdated owing to the absence of functioning government statistical agencies ( UNFPA 2010).

There are numerous established sources of humanitarian indicators. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs runs a humanitarian indicator registry, a repository of indicators that are used in all stages of a humanitarian crisis. The Sphere Project, launched in 1997, is another key source of indicators for measuring humanitarian response. The Sphere Handbook provides a set of core minimum standards related to water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion, food security and nutrition, shelter, settlement and non-food items, and health action. Sphere indicators are designed to measure whether these minimum standards have been attained. The 2011 edition of the handbook includes 48 minimum standards and 159 indicators. An assessment of the 2011 edition of the Sphere Handbook found that standards and indicators were not robust enough, and that measurement definitions were unclear, leaving room for interpretation (Frison, Smith, and Blanchet 2018). Moreover, Sphere indicators are not always appropriate, as there are times when humanitarian indicators need to be contextualized. For example, in some cases minimum standards are above existing living conditions in a country and thus the minimum standard has to be lowered to be attainable, with the reverse also holding true. A new edition of the Sphere Handbook was published in 2018.

While indicators are important for learning lessons and improving professional practices, too great an emphasis on indicators and technical discussions can detract from genuine focus on crisis-affected communities. Donor reporting requirements have become increasingly stringent, owing to increased emphasis on “value for money” and a desire for greater accountability. While these are important considerations, too many indicators can be onerous for implementing partners. This is because of the increased paperwork required and the fact that they draw human resources away from operational capacity without necessarily increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian response (Satterthwaite 2010; DARA 2013). The fact that different donors have different reporting requirements compounds this issue. There is therefore a need for donors to harmonize their reporting requirements and to strike the right balance between ensuring accountability and maintaining operational capacity ( DARA 2013).


  • DARA (2013) Now or Never: Making Humanitarian Aid More Effective . DARA.

  • Frison, S. , Smith, J. , Blanchet, K. (2018) Does the Humanitarian Sector Use Evidence-informed Standards? A Review of the 2011 Sphere Indicators for WASH, Food Security and Nutrition and Health Action. PLOS Current Disasters, October 30.

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  • NATF (Needs Assessment Task Force) (2012) Guidance Note: Humanitarian Indicator Registry . Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

  • Satterthwaite, M.L. (2010) Indicators in Crisis: Rights-Based Humanitarian Indicators in Post-Earthquake Haiti. Journal of International Law and Politics, 43: 865900.

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  • UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities) (2010) Guidelines on Data Issues in Humanitarian Crisis Situations.

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