Response analysis and response choice in food security crises: A roadmap

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There was a time not so long ago when response to a food security crisis was based on a limited handful of options, and information and analysis played little role in response planning. Donor resources now support a much broader range of response options than they did a decade ago, requiring more choices on the part of implementing agencies. Significant effort has gone into improving needs assessments and situation analyses to provide evidence about the extent of need, the populations affected and for how long they might need assistance. In theory, assessments are intended to inform programme response choices, but while needs assessments have improved, there is still often a disconnect between the kind of information typically provided by assessments and the kind of information that response choice requires. The process is best described as ‘response choice’, but is often called ‘response analysis’.

The term ‘response analysis’ implies that response choices are made solely on the basis of evidence and analysis. However, many factors contribute to how agencies select a response, and ‘response choice’ does not always involve an evidence-based, analytical process. Recent research by The Feinstein International Center at Tufts University suggests that response choices are also driven by the capacity and organisational ethos of the implementing agency, the personal experience of programme staff and a range of external factors, including donor resources and policy, government policy in the recipient country, media and political influences, the costs of reporting and compliance associated with different resources, the capacity of partner organisations and considerations (or assumptions) about the risks associated with different responses. Sometimes the complexity of the context can severely constrain response options.

These factors often combine to create a tendency for a preferred, dominant – if not singular – response option, which in turn may inform a powerful organisational ethos that provides a rationale for that preference and the organisational capacity to support that response. While this may be positive in that it builds capacity and specialisation in a certain response option, it may also preclude more appropriate response options in a given context. Programme staff face numerous challenges in responding to crises – very short time-frames for planning responses, high staff turnover, restricted access, reporting requirements and a shortage of skilled staff. As a result, they often have to rely on assumptions – rather than analysis – when choosing emergency food security interventions. This makes the need for more evidence-based decision-making processes more urgent than ever. Many agencies are now attempting to diversify their response strategies, and a number of tools have been developed to facilitate the process of response analysis. However, they are under-utilised, there is little in the way of common currency among them and certainly no overall ‘roadmap’ to help field staff understand the overall process of response analysis, and determine which tools to use, much less how to use them effectively.

Purpose and outline of this paper

Most of the individuals interviewed in the course of this research emphasised that the creation of another prescriptive tool would not be very helpful. But there was a recognised need for guidance that would help decisionmakers to navigate the complex set of choices and existing tools, manage the constraints and risks and make the best use of the evidence and analysis that exists in order to inform the most rational and needs-based approach to response. This Network Paper addresses this need. It provides guidance to decision-makers by presenting response analysis and the overall process of response choice from several different perspectives. This is not a prescriptive tool. Rather, it is an in-depth discussion of the process of making an appropriate response choice, and an analysis of the most important factors involved in that choice.

The paper is in four parts. The following section reviews definitions and suggests a roadmap of the decision-making process about response choices, based on the interview results. No single agency or individual interviewed suggested precisely this kind of approach – this emerged from the analysis of numerous key informant interviews. The second section explores the factors that decision-makers take into consideration when making response choices. The third part examines the constraints to evidence-based decisionmaking and outlines good practice in managing them. The fourth section examines existing response analysis tools, explores the reasons why they are often not utilised and maps existing tools to the specific types of decisions for which they are designed. The final sections of the paper outline the challenges of incorporating response analysis information into assessments, and raise some questions for future practice.

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