Global groups

And so onto the global groups that I’m tracking or part of.

This is only the start of a list that I’ll add to when I remember all the job-related groups that I’m involved in.

Development crises – who’s doing what?

A lot of organisations, communities and individuals are working on human development. The UNDP Sudan CRMAT team are working on mapping work in specific areas, and having been on a 3W team and browsed the Worldwide NGO directory, I’d say they have a lot of work to do. But although looking at who is working on development is interesting, we need to narrow down our search to people who search for, analyse and response to development crises.

There is a lot of information online about natural disasters and other drivers (UN Global Pulse found 39 early warning systems in the UN alone), but less about the route from effect detection to decisions to act. Warning isn’t action, and we need to feed, track and encourage this cycle rather than creating yet another information-only system.

So who’s looking? And who is able to act? The shortest answer to that is “everybody” – when we start to be individually affected by a crisis, we’re usually aware of it, and begin to act to mitigate our own exposure and risk to it (for example, the Coping Strategies Index is a way of quantifying how people behave, in general, in response to a food security problem).

Organisations charged with preventing, mitigating and responding to development crises worldwide include the UN, USAID and World Bank, amongst dozens of others. There are global monitoring systems in place, although their ability to access and use data is still limited (which is why organisations like Global Pulse were formed): most UN agencies have people working on the ground (usually in a UN agency office loosely connected to a resident coordinators office) who are at least partially aware of local crisis effects, and at least one team, HEWS, works and shares development crisis data across organisational boundaries. The HEWS website currently focuses on natural drivers of humanitarian crises, but does also contain a contingency planning toolkit that could be adapted to track longer-term issues (e.g. post-disaster effects on local agriculture).

The development world is shifting to help communities become more resilient, i.e. less likely to be severely damaged by a development crisis. The UN is working with governments on sustainable development, which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Organisations like Alnap and ICT4Dev are starting to discuss structural drivers and mitigations – there are several good points and potential mitigation strategies for drought, for example, in Alnap’s “Humanitarian action in drought-related emergencies”, and of particular interest is their comment on the parallel coping systems (zakat, migration, remittances, local NGOs, community help) that Western donors have tended not to track during responses.

Community knowledge (both receiving and improving it) is also becoming important to resilience work. The World Bank and organisations like Civic Commons are working with Open Data teams in the developing world to improve community knowledge and resilience. This is a welcome step beyond large, western, funding models but we need to think about how to connect these and grassroots, community-based detections (e.g. Ushahidi data) of crisis effects to existing top-down monitoring systems?

Return on Humanity and other metrics

I’ve been drafting project documents. It’s one of those jobs that has to be done, to give us a better work specification than “we want to build something to help analysts fill in the humanitarian information gap”. I’ve also been thinking for a while about how to best compare hackathon projects to determine which to support further (if the team’s willing to be supported of course) after each hackathon.

Part of project management is asking whether something should be done, how it fits into existing ecosystems and how much gain it brings over alternative methods. In business, this is covered by return on investment – the percentage cash gain from the project relative to the money invested in it every year. It’s more complicated of course – project accounting needs to think about cash flows over time via things like net present value and IFO (income from operations) curves – but the bottom line is usually ‘how big is the financial return’, before asking questions like ‘how does this fit our company values’.

How does this apply to humanitarian systems? There are two parts to this question: 1) how do we compare the social gains of one decision over another, and 2) how can we monetize these social gains to explain why finance-sensitive agencies (governments, big business etc) should invest in humanitarian work.

I’m starting with three sources for this (I have Patrick McNamara to thank for pointing me at the first two):

  • Benetech’s Return on Humanity (ROH) metrics.
  • REDF’s Social Return on Investment (SROI), OASIS and RISE metrics.
  • DfID’s metrics in the 2011 Multilateral Aid Review.

DfID compared aid agencies on two main value-for-money scales: 1) how much each agency contributed to UK development objectives (it also listed results in terms of the numbers of people helped, items (food, mosquito nets etc) delivered and deaths prevented) and 2) organizational behavior & values (including transparency, value consciousness, drive and partnering). DfID looked intelligently (with help from Alison Evans and Lawrence Haddad) at the value chain from costs and inputs to outputs and (qualitative & quantitative) outcomes – in their own words, “The further we go up the chain, from costs, to inputs, to outputs and then to outcomes, the more difficult it becomes to measure the things that we are interested in. But it is still important to try to do this, because this is what matters: not the number of teachers trained, but the difference this makes to poor children’s life chances. Our approach has therefore been to measure what we can, and look at proxy measures for the rest.”

Most of DfID’s metrics are more applicable to an organization rather than the results that it outputs, but the thinking used to generate these metrics, and the methods used to obtain and weigh evidence could be useful at the results level. One thought is about alignment with goals – for the UN, the high-level question here is “how well do these results align with the Millennium Development Goals”, but there are interesting lower-level questions about goals to be had here too. There’s also a metaquestion – DfID used two main metrics because they were difficult to combine, and our organisation outputs are likely to be comparably complex. Perhaps in development, the answer isn’t a bottom-line single score (e.g. ROI) but a spider graph of three or more (perhaps including ROI to businesses, who are also part of the development ecosystem).

REDF “…blends social and financial returns, includes performance measurement, and creates an “efforts-to-outputs” ratio that can be looked at across enterprises.” Again, this looks like an institutional metric.

ROH is described as “analyzing four factors: social return on investment (financial and social benefits to society), benchmarking (how a program or product compares with other options to solve the same problem), financial sustainability (sufficient customer support to result in financial break even), and sales (dollar volume and number of customers served).” Now this could be promising.


  • Multilateral Aid Review, DfID, 2011
  • Paris declaration on aid effectiveness, 2005
  • Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network,