Several factors contribute to the design of a successful and accurate assessment.
Every element of an assessment should be designed to collect information for a specific user. The potential users should specify their information needs during the design phase. For example, health workers need certain types of information that will only be useful in certain formats—usually tables—while a procurement officer may need other types of quantitative or qualitative data.
Too often, assessments collect information that is incomplete or of little value for planning relief programs or specific interventions. In many cases, information is anecdotal rather than substantive; in others, valuable time is wasted collecting detailed information when the identification of broader trends would be just as useful.
Determine what information is vital, what method is best to obtain this information, and how much detail is necessary for the information to be useful. The type of assistance provided by an agency should be considered when determining the types of data to be collected. For example, an agency that provides food will need to know about availability of transport and fuel, road conditions, local crop harvests, etc.
It is important to collect, organize, and present the data in a form useful to analysts and program planners. The results must be succinct and presented in a format that makes the implications or recommendations very clear so that priorities can be set quickly. By applying baselines and standards to the presentation, key relationships can be quickly noted. For example, daily death rates in a displaced person (DP) camp should be calculated and compared to the international standard of 1.0 deaths per 10,000 people per day.
Timing may affect the accuracy of an assessment because situations and needs can change dramatically from day to day. Various types of assessments need to be timed to collect the necessary information when it is available and most useful. Relief needs are always relative but, as a general rule, initial surveys should be broad in scope and should determine overall patterns and trends. More detailed information can wait until emergency operations are well established.
If the information must be obtained from sample surveys, ensure that the areas to be surveyed represent an accurate picture of needs and priorities. For example, carrying out a health survey limited to a medical center would yield a distorted view of the overall health situation because generally only sick or severely malnourished people and their relatives would be in the medical center.
Virtually all developing countries have longstanding chronic needs in most, if not all, sectors. It is important to design an assessment that distinguishes between chronic and emergency needs. Attempt to acquire baseline data, reference data, and/or recognized and accepted standards in each sector. For example, if malnutrition is prevalent in a certain area of a country, a nutrition survey of the affected population will almost certainly reflect poor nutritional status. The surveyors must differentiate between what is normal for the location and what is occurring as a result of the disaster so that emergency food aid and health care can be provided to those in most dire need. (Remember that assessments may bring to light previously unrecognized or unacknowledged problems in a society. Thus, the data collection system should be careful to structure the information so that critical data such as health status, etc., can be used for long-term planning.)
Needs are immediate requirements for survival. Vulnerabilities are potential areas for harm and include factors that increase the risks to the affected population. Vulnerabilities create unequal levels of risk between groups. Needs are assessed after an emergency has occurred, whereas vulnerabilities can be assessed before and during the emergency. Needs are expressed in terms of requirements (food, water, shelter, etc.); vulnerabilities are expressed in terms of their origins (physical/material, social/ organizational, or motivational/attitudinal). The antidote to needs and vulnerabilities are self-reliance and capacities. Capacities are means and resources that can be mobilized by the affected population to meet their own needs and reduce vulnerability. Assessing vulnerabilities and capacities, as well as needs, provides the following benefits:
The last point is particularly important because externally derived assistance can actually slow recovery and impede a return to development if not provided in a way that supports the efforts of the local populations to secure their own means of long-term survival. The direct engagement of members of the affected population is essential to ensure an accurate and thorough assessment of their needs, vulnerabilities, and capacities.
Assessments will invariably be carried out by a variety of people operating independently. To provide a basis for evaluating the information, generally accepted terminology, ratings, and classi-fications should be used in reporting. The use of standard survey forms with clear guidelines for descriptive terms is usually the best way to ensure that all information is reported on a uniform basis.