Photo by Julien Harneis


Timely and accurate assessment of needs should be the basis for any humanitarian intervention. Whether in the critical life-saving window of time immediately after a sudden onset disaster, or in the follow-on stages of an ongoing crisis wherein stability and sustainable support are being established, putting the wrong commodities into the wrong place at the wrong time is worse than useless, it is a costly disruption. Failure to get the right supplies, personnel or equipment to the places needed can cost lives in the near term and prolong the emergency phase over time.

By their very nature, disaster situations tend to be chaotic. Normal information sources may be unavailable, and established lines of communication in disarray. Initial reports may be unreliable and unverifiable. Nevertheless, decisions mill need to be made immediately about what needs doing, where, and with what resources. Military historians speak of the “fog of war” in which great strategic decisions must sometimes be made, and we see a similar fog of relief in the early phases of many humanitarian efforts.

How assessments are done, by who, and with what objectives are some of the themes of this module. While initial assessments in a large scale disaster may be done at a high level of generalization, quite literally in “fly-over” mode, and utilizing technological tools such as aerial photography and satellite image analysis, getting down to ground level quickly is vital to developing an informed perspective. In guiding an appropriate response it can be just as important to what, and who, is still functioning as to know what has been damaged or lost.

The rapid recent development of capacity within the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the area of Disaster Assessment and Coordination has led to significantly improved procedures, reduced response times, and a fuller sharing of information across organizational boundaries. Faster deployment of communications technologies into a disaster zone has improved the flow of information both out from the scene as well as back into the zone of action, benefiting decision-making at both levels.

Nevertheless, the assessment process is still far from optimum, and is an area of humanitarian activity in need of further advancement. Duplicative surveys done in the same area, but in non integratible formats are still common, inappropriate supplies still clog delivery routes, geographical coverage is too often random and uncoordinated. Many relief organizations insist on performing their own assessments, as do many large donor countries. Information-sharing is expressed as a goal, but sometimes falls short of full realization.

With the very large numbers of organizations that mobilize to an emergency response this may not be surprising, and there are specialized information needs that may not be easily delegated to a community approach. However, as standards of professionalism in humanitarian work rise, and a deeper recognition of the ethical duty to provide assistance based on the best information and evidence available becomes the norm, the assessment process looks like productive place to focus attention.

Although different types of emergencies will have specific assessment needs (for example whether and to what extent Search and Rescue operations will be required) and sector or cluster group focal issues will be diverse, for the purposes of this module we will look towards two approaches to assessment. We will introduce the UN OCHA Disaster Assessment and Coordination process, and look into the specific assessment needs of the health sector.

Along with the other materials presented here, we have reproduced an early training manual from the United Nations Disaster Management Training Programme on Disaster Assessment. This second edition was written in 1994, and many structural and technological advances have been made in the intervening years. Nevertheless, there is much useful and relevant information in this well-crafted training document, and it provides a very well-grounded perspective on the need to approach assessments with an open mind, a rigorous methodology, and a robust commitment to getting the information out to decision-makers while it is still pertinent and consequential.

The Johns Hopkins Public Health Guide to Emergencies
Chapter 6 – Epidemiology and Surveillance

Chapter 6 of the Johns Hopkins Public Health Guide to Emergencies covers basic principles of epidemiology, Rapid Health Assessment, Surveillance, Population Surveys and Outbreak Investigations.

Video: Assessments in Humanitarian Responses

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Interpreting and using mortality data in humanitarian emergencies: A primer for non-epidemiologists.

Francesco Checchi and Les Roberts

This paper aims to enable readers, regardless of their technical background, to critically interpret mortality study reports, and to understand how these are used to formulate policy. Some topics that are covered are: key indicators used to express mortality data, different options for how to measure mortality rates and suggestions for how to assess, interpret and use mortality reports.

Situation Report Format

This is the format that a Situation Report (Sitrep) should follow. The structure the Sitrep corresponds to the Field Sitrep prepared by the UNDAC team, and to that of OCHA sitreps which are sent out from Geneva to in the disaster management community world wide.

UNDAC Assessment Guidebook

The UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Guidebook for planning and executing a successful assessment includes several flowcharts that guide you through the assessment process, and checklists for various types of assessments.

UNDAC Role in Assessment

This article explains UNDAC’s role in assessment, including the triggers for mobilization of the UNDAC team, and examples of what the UNDAC system can and cannot do.

UNDMTP DisasterAssess

The UNDMTP DisasterAssess training module contains an overview of disaster assessment, practical insights on conducting assessments, and explains the role of the UN in relation to assessments.

University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822