The missing link

By Jahal de Meritens and Matilde Habouzit


During the last decade, the lack of alignment and synergies between information and knowledge management systems has been an impediment to linking early recovery approaches as part of the humanitarian response, and the concurrent recovery and stabilisation processes led by host Governments with the support of development actors.

In May 2016, humanitarian and development organisations signed a commitment to action at the World Humanitarian Summit for better humanitarian and development cooperation to attain together collective outcomes for sustained results on the ground. This new way of working is to be achieved through joint analysis, joint planning and programming, based on stronger leadership and suitable coordination and financing modalities.

The missing link

Interweaving humanitarian information management and development knowledge management is the foundation for joint analysis, planning and programming in the interface between humanitarian assistance and development. Unfortunately, it has not received the attention it deserves yet.

Currently, knowledge exchange between the humanitarian and the development sectors, or knowledge transition (the transfer of information management and data to governments or development actors) is not comprehensive, systematic, well planned or well implemented. Data may be shared with line ministries by humanitarian clusters as they leave; the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) may transfer datasets to a hub of non-governmental organisations (NGO), government ministries, or development agencies; individual agencies may hand over to key partners. However, humanitarian and development actors design different concepts, develop different systems, speak different lingos when defining information or knowledge management.

Managing information during a crisis is a crucial part of any humanitarian operation. The humanitarian community recognizes the importance of gathering reliable data on the locations of people in need, what they urgently need, who is best placed to assist them, and the value of this information for effective and timely humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian responses are generating ever-increasing volumes of data, knowledge and evidence. These range from response monitoring data to needs assessments, surveys or response analyses. Humanitarian data and knowledge, in general, are becoming increasingly comprehensive, accurate and useable. They can and should be regarded as valuable resources that could be of critical use in recovery and post-crisis development planning and implementation.

Development actors identify information management as knowledge management, which is a significant factor in speeding up completion times, achieving project success, innovation, operational efficiency and the generation of new knowledge. For the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), knowledge is both a key output that it delivers to its clients, as well as a key resource that the organization needs to deliver its results. Knowledge management means using the resource ‘knowledge’ more effectively to improve the way the organisation does business and to achieve greater impact in its development outcomes as formulated in the organisation’s strategic plan.

There are no universally accepted principles of knowledge interface to follow and no agreed mechanisms to enable key steps to be taken for the knowledge transition. Transition refers to a situation that is changing from a humanitarian to a recovery or development context. It is not a period between humanitarian action and development, formerly defined as ‘the development gap’, rather the overlap between humanitarian action and development: the nexus.

Principles of knowledge interface

Early Recovery plays a central role in the humanitarian and development nexus. Aligned with early recovery principles, the principles of knowledge interface could be formalised as follows:  

  • • Data preparedness should be a key component of contingency planning and preparedness actions that are supported by all development actors, particularly UN country offices in high-risk countries.
  • • High level agreements must be established between humanitarian, development and government stakeholders. These are critical to ensure that in-country data sharing is open and legal when crisis strikes and into transition, while ensuring adequate protection of sensitive information.
  • • Responsibility for and roles within knowledge interface and transition should be formally agreed at the latest in the first weeks of a crisis, and one or more lead agencies should ensure regular collaboration between knowledge stakeholders throughout a humanitarian response.
  • • Only key data and knowledge that have been passed by a rigorous quality assurance process, should be shared and transitioned.
  • • The recipients of transitioned knowledge should have the sustainable capacity and resources to maintain, develop and share the knowledge entrusted to them and to be prepared for the next crisis. 

Closing the gap

The humanitarian and development systems would need to take several steps to ensure adequate knowledge interface and subsequent transition.

1. Collate all humanitarian data with the involvement of affected populations;

2. Undertake quality assurance processes and prioritisation so that the most critical, useable and accurate knowledge is selected;

3. Compile metadata – that is, describe the data in terms of what it is, how accurate it is, what it could be used for and what needs to be done to keep it up to date and relevant over time; 

4. Transform the data, information and knowledge into formats, languages and products that allow easy sharing with recovery and development actors;

5. Share the data, ensuring that open data use agreements are in place for the widest dissemination. Government agencies and departments, large development organisations or NGO knowledge hubs could all act as lead knowledge repositories and knowledge brokers and managers;

6. Undertake initiatives to ensure that the knowledge is known, trusted, taken up and maintained.

Most of all, adequate knowledge interface and transition requires significant preparedness. Just as a contingency plan may call for the prepositioning of food stocks, shelter items and medical supplies, similar plans must be made for data standards and sharing, survey instruments and baseline data on the part of humanitarian and development actors, including state and local governments. For example, data must be prepositioned; infrastructure for information management must be put in place; and plans for the collection, delivery and use of information must be defined. Open data or data sharing legal agreements, letters of agreement or memorandums of understanding must be in place, roles and responsibilities must be defined and assigned, and legal and policy enablers must be enacted, all before knowledge transition can be considered.

There is a growing recognition that humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts are complementary and need to reinforce each other. Joint analysis and planning and improved coordination in this triple nexus requires a stronger knowledge interface. As sharing information with actors who could misuse it in an armed conflict defies humanitarian principles, how humanitarian organisations can solve this conundrum?