Section 4: Key Actions within 1 Month of Disaster

4.1

Implementing disaster response

Conduct a detailed needs assessment

Who does this: member/country programme, with support from IHART

The purpose of a needs assessment is to gather detailed information about the disaster and the impact on the communities that ActionAid works with. The needs assessment is different to the rapid assessment conducted in the first 72 hours after the disaster. The needs assessment collects more detailed information on the impact of the disaster and the needs of the affected communities. This usually begins from week one of the crisis and should be completed four weeks after the crisis has begun. It will determine the scale and type of ActionAid’s response to the disaster and will directly inform the Emergency Response and Resilience Building Plan. The needs assessment is also essential for developing credible funding proposals to donors.

Whereas in the rapid assessment, where the emphasis was on providing ‘just enough’ information to inform the immediate response, in the needs assessment we can take a bit more time to gather more detailed information. It is advisable to consult other agencies about joining any potential joint needs assessments.

The specific purposes of a needs assessment are:

  • to identify the material and non-material requirements of the disaster-affected communities that need to be met as a priority

  • to gather more accurate and detailed information and data to inform the emergency response and resilience programme

  • to clarify problems and identify solutions with the community

  • to use community-led processes as a methodology to build the capacity of the people ActionAid works with to actively engage in their own recovery

  • to support the design of policy messaging and action

  • to help identify the underlying causes of vulnerability

  • to inform donors and other partners on key needs of the people ActionAid works with

  • to build relationships with communities affected by disaster

  • to provide a baseline that allows us to assess the success of the emergency response.

There is debate in the sector about what the purpose and focus of a needs assessment should be: normative needs (those defined by agreed international standards, e.g. if a community requires water the needs are determined according to technical standards on water quality and quantity), perceived needs (the subjective needs identified by the community or other stakeholders), expressed needs (those needs which the community publicly share with people conducting the needs assessments), or relative needs (the needs of certain groups who may be worse off compared to others). ActionAid is clear that our needs assessment is biased towards capturing the needs and voices of people living in poverty and exclusion and affected by disasters. At the same time it is important to triangulate or cross reference information gathered through a community-based process to get as accurate a picture as possible. This may be through consulting different groups or individuals separately to give people a chance to share things in a forum where they are comfortable to share openly, using different methods to ask the same questions to assess whether the information you are being given is consistent, sharing information on normative standards (e.g. water quality, nutrition) so that people have access to information to help them make informed decisions about what they need.


When should the needs assessment be done?

The needs assessment should start within one week of the disaster and should be completed within one month. It builds upon the findings of the rapid assessment.

Needs assessment is an on-going process – it does not end after a month, but instead should be updated regularly as the disaster progresses. Updates should be communicated both within the country programme and to IHART (see contact details Annex 4). It may also be necessary to update the needs assessment for specific donor proposals.


Who should do the needs assessment?

The Emergency Response Manager is responsible for conducting the needs assessment and sharing the findings. He or she will need to put together a team of ActionAid staff and/or partners to implement the needs assessment. It is important that all members of the needs assessment team have a clear understanding of the purpose and methodology of the assessment, and are following the same process in each geographical area. The team should be gender and culturally balanced.

As with the rapid assessment, it is important that the community is involved in designing and carrying out the needs assessment. For example, ActionAid can work with community institutions such as Reflect circles, STAR circles, women’s groups and relief committees.

ActionAid should also work together with other actors where possible to avoid duplication and to maximise the information that is generated on the impact of the crisis. It is also likely that communities will be suffering from ‘assessment fatigue’ if they have been asked to participate in several assessments conducted by numerous agencies. If the UN clusters are activated, ActionAid should share needs assessment data with other cluster members, and participate in joint assessments where possible. The response team need to be mindful of how the results of our needs assessment feed into other mechanisms that can assist in fundraising.


What information should be gathered in the needs assessment?

The needs assessment needs to provide the information necessary to design an effective emergency response, and also to inform longer term recovery and rehabilitation.

Key questions include:

  • How many people have been affected? In what ways are they affected (killed, injured, houses damaged, houses destroyed, crops destroyed, children dropping out of school etc)? Remember, it is critical that the needs assessment provides reliable data – in order to develop a good Emergency Response and Resilience Building Plan and credible fundraising proposals, we need to know numbers – how many people are affected, how much prices have risen, how many people have migrated etc.

  • What has the impact on livelihoods been?

  • What has been the specific impact on women?

  • What does the community identify as the underlying causes of the disaster?

  • What does the community identify as the priorities for response and recovery?

  • What is the community already doing and what support do they require?

  • What are the gaps in response provided by other actors? (government, other NGOs, UN etc).

  • When do people need assistance and how long are they likely to need assistance for? (for example, consider seasons where food insecurity is common, and the livelihood calendar of different communities.)

  • What are the information gaps and what are the best ways to ensure effective two-way communication with communities?

The headings in the needs assessment checklist currently are:

  • overview of the situation

  • numbers of people affected and extent of damage

  • sector specific information: women’s rights, psychosocial, food security, livelihoods, education, housing/shelter, non-food items (NFIs), water sanitation and hygiene

  • information

  • resilience building

  • existing policies and schemes

  • capacity-building.

Remember that the assessment is not just about material needs – do not forget policy aspects, social, environmental and staff security issues etc.


Methodologies for the assessment

  • remember that much of the ground work in terms of baseline data for both a rapid assessment and detailed needs assessment should have been covered in the affected country programme’s preparedness plans

  • conclusions should be drawn from a range of primary and secondary data sources.

The checklist here sets out detailed questions to be asked, including specific questions for different types of disasters.

Assessment tools and training materials can be found here.

See Section 3 for information on rapid needs assessments.


How should the information be gathered?

Secondary data

The needs assessment can draw on secondary data, from ActionAid and from external sources. As for the rapid assessment, ActionAid’s country level preparedness plan can provide useful social, geographic and economic data on the areas affected. Needs assessments produced by the government or other NGOs, UN OCHA situation reports and information updates from UN clusters can also be used. These can provide important information about the national or regional situation, which can supplement and contextualise data from ActionAid’s working areas. Some donors, such as ECHO, require technical data that ActionAid may struggle to provide. For example, in food crises, ECHO base their funding decisions in part on global acute malnutrition (GAM) and severe malnutrition (SAM) rates, which require technical measurements. ActionAid often relies on assessments done by government or other humanitarian agencies.

Remember that secondary data can be useful for backing up assumptions prior to carrying out an assessment and supplementing findings once the assessment has been undertaken, but there are limitations. Data from secondary sources should be cross-referenced and triangulated to give as clear a picture as possible.

For orange and red alert disasters, IHART’s Information Officer (see contact details Annex 4) will also support the member/country programme to identify and analyse secondary data at the global level.


Primary data

The needs assessment should include information gathered directly from the community. As time will be limited, you should consider selecting a representative sample of communities from the affected area. When selecting villages, consider the following factors to ensure you have a representative sample: different ethnic communities, distance from the road/towns, language etc. For reasons of practicality you may have to select based on accessibility (for example it may be impossible to reach certain areas due to flooding or conflict). The needs assessment should make clear how the sample was selected. Assessments should be designed to gather and present information about the diversity of needs of the most vulnerable people e.g. women, children, people with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, IDPs, politically or socially excluded groups etc. Consider how power relations in the communities may affect the findings, and identify ways that this can be addressed in the assessment design (e.g. will certain groups be reluctant to participate, or to share some information?).

ActionAid staff and partners should use participatory methods to ensure that the affected community is involved right from the start in identifying priorities and deciding on the response needed. Examples of tools include: household surveys, focus group discussions, social maps. Annex 8 sets out suggested methods that can be used to gather different types of information. All assessment questions must be sensitive to local custom and culture, and take into account the fact that people affected by disasters may be suffering from emotional distress. Assessment questions should be reviewed by women leaders in the affected communities.

Photos can be useful resources – photos of affected crops, damage to houses, children suffering malnutrition. Remember that you should always ask permission before taking photos of people and explain clearly how their photo will be used. It can be particularly effective to have ‘before and after’ pictures – think about including photos of the ‘normal’ situation as part of the preparedness plan process. Photos of the same places after emergencies can then be taken as part of the needs assessment process.

In orange and red alert disasters, IHART will be available to support the member/country programme to conduct the needs assessment. The International Programme Manager deployed to the crisis will support in at least the design stage of the needs assessment, and IHART staff will be available to review and advise on the needs assessment remotely.


How should the information be shared?

The data and conclusions of the needs assessment should first be shared with the affected community. Before leaving each community, the team should feedback to community members (particularly women) how they have understood the situation and what they understand as the needs and priorities of the community. They should also explain what will happen next – how the information will be used, when ActionAid will return and what the community can expect. It is important to be careful about managing expectations and not promising things that ActionAid cannot deliver. The team should emphasise that ActionAid will work with the community to respond to the disaster, and will support the community to be the primary responders.

Data from the field visits should be analysed to draw detailed conclusions and present the data effectively. The results of the needs assessment must also be sent as quickly as possible to IHART, who will share this information across the federation. The Hive contains a template for writing up the needs assessment. This is designed so that the information is easy to use for the different end-users (country programme staff responsible for designing the response, fundraisers, communications staff, IHART etc).

The following flow chart summarises the key steps in developing the needs assessment.

Planning and organising

  • Consider what information is already available (from the rapid assessment, preparedness plan, secondary data etc) and identify what else is required.

  • Check if other agencies are undertaking similar assessments and explore possibilities for collaboration.

  • Review budget and resources (people, equipment, transport etc) available for the needs asseessment.

  • Consider safety and security issues involved in the field work, and link with ActionAid’s Global Security Co-ordinator if necessary.

  • Develop a plan for the needs assessment (objectives, methodology, sample) and share with IHART for feedback. This should be done within one week of the start of the disaster.

Forming the needs assessment team

  • Emergency Response Manager takes responsibility for putting together the needs assessment team.

  • Ensure the team includes women, and people knowledgeable about women’s rights.

  • Ensure the team has appropriate language skills, including local languages.

  • Provide briefings/training to ensure all team members are clear about the purpose and methodology (don’t forget to include safety and security issues).

  • Identify appropriate community institutions that can be involved in the needs assessment process and ensure they are adequately briefed.

  • Collect secondary data.

Conducting the needs assessment

  • Ensure that questions and approaches are reviewed by community members, including women.

  • Ensure that participatory approaches are used.

  • Feed back the main findings and conclusions to the community before leaving, and explain the next steps in the process.

  • Leave originals of resources developed through participatory approaches (e.g. social maps) and take photos or copies for ActionAid’s records.

Analysing and sharing the information

  • Analyse the data from the field visits, using the data input spreadsheets provided.

  • Write up the needs assessment using the template provided and send to IHART within one month of the start of the disaster.

  • Remember to include sources for secondary data used, and include the original data from the field work (e.g. photos of social maps, lists of people involved in focus group discussions etc).

Develop an Emergency Response and Resilience Building Plan (ERRP)

Who does this: member/country programme, with support from IHART and Oversight Group

The Emergency Response and Resilience Building Plan is a document that guides the overall disaster response. The Emergency Response Manager is responsible for developing the ERRP, in collaboration with the Emergency Response Team and other members of the country programme. For ORANGE and RED alert level disasters, it must be completed within one month and sent to IHART. The plan must then be approved and signed off by the Oversight Group. In YELLOW alert disasters, the member/country programme in the affected country can decide whether a formal ERRP is required.

A template for the ERRP is included in Annex 9.

The plan should cover the following:

  • Decision on the type of support and assistance to be provided based on rapid and needs assessments. This should include the longer term activities as well as the immediate relief activities that will already be underway in the first month of the response.

  • Overall programme plan that includes: objectives, sectoral focus areas, population and geographical coverage, overall funding needs, and staff and logistic requirements.

  • Scale of the programme. Although ActionAid will seek to increase its funding base to achieve maximum impact, the size and pace of its operation will also be determined by the capacity of the country programme and its partners (including deployed capacity).

  • An integrated communications plan – which will have the following strands:

    • communicating with disaster-affected communities;

    • internal communications; donor visibility requirements;

    • donor visibility requirements;

    • and external communication to donors, media and public.

  • Policy positions/statements and an integrated policy plan. Investigating and analysing policy issues arising from an emergency is an important part of the needs assessment. Disasters provide an opportunity to engage the communities we work with in shaping and changing policies in favour of people living in poverty and exclusion, and as such advocacy and campaign work must be included as a core component from the start of ActionAid’s response. Adequate budget and staffing for policy work should be allocated in the programme plan.

    For more information on policy work in emergencies, see Section 7 – policy.

  • An agreed emergency response management structure, ensuring inclusion of core competencies and appropriate skills sets as per the humanitarian competencies framework. Capacity-building plans should also be incorporated to ensure development of new and existing staff.

  • A co-ordination plan to ensure appropriate links with local and national co-ordination mechanisms including the UN cluster system and government co-ordination mechanisms at local, regional and national levels. ActionAid is a member of the Global Early Recovery, Protection and Livelihoods clusters, although countries should plan to engage with other UN clusters as relevant, based on their strategic relevance to ActionAid’s programme.

  • The overall funding requirement and an integrated fundraising plan based on regularly updated donor scoping (see here).

  • An accountability plan. The plan will outline the steps ActionAid will take to ensure our accountability to: rights holders affected by the emergency; our own internal stakeholders; the government of the disaster-affected country; local and international laws, standards and practices; and donors and supporters of our emergency response.

    More information on accountability in emergencies is provided in Section 6.

Continue implementing disaster response

Who does this: member/country programme, with support of IHART

The response activities should be guided by the results of the rapid assessment and should be carried out in parallel to the detailed needs assessment and the development of the Emergency Response and Resilience Building Plan (ERRP). The focus in the first month should be on continuing to support immediate needs but also on preparing the ground for a longer term response.

Again, the response will be context specific, but examples of activities that could be done in this phase include:

  • Distribution of materials for reconstruction of houses (based on consultation with community and procured by community representatives). Refer to Sphere standards for technical specifications (e.g. shelter requirements per family size).

  • Distribution of food items. If distributing food, refer to nutrition standards (see Sphere) and consider locally produced high nutrition products. Food procurement (especially from overseas) should be avoided. Where possible look for food from local markets and in the longer term look at promoting food production – see Livelihoods in Section 7.

  • Distribution of non-food items (NFIs) such as hygiene kits, cooking utensils, clothes, lamps, blankets, treated mosquito nets, cooking stoves (consider safety and the local availability of fuel). Refer to Sphere standards for guidance on items, quantities and technical specifications that should be included.

  • Distribution of books, school stationery and uniforms to help children get back into schools.

  • Repair of water pumps, bore wells etc. to re-establish water supplies.

  • Early livelihood recovery, such as distribution of seeds, farming tools etc.

  • Psychosocial support such as organising recreational activities, training community volunteers.

  • Establishing women’s committees to identify protection concerns and disseminate information on protection services.

  • Putting in place accountability mechanisms such as transparency boards, community procurement and distribution committees, complaint boxes etc.

  • Sharing information with communities on services available (ActionAid programmes and also information on government support available and services provided by other agencies).

  • Establish two-way communication channels with communities to share essential information, and ensure communities have a voice in the response process. This will depend on context but could include SMS projects, radio, community outreach volunteers, community drama, community review meetings etc. Lots of information on communicating with disaster-affected communities can be found on the Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) website or the Infoasaid archive.

    See also Section 7 for more guidance on communicating with disaster-affected communities.


For distribution of NFIs, consider the following points:

  • Give special consideration to health and hygiene items for women in particular, which are often missed in needs assessments (such as sanitary towels, underwear and condoms).

  • If necessary provide guidance on how items are used (e.g. if distributing unfamiliar items such as solar lamps).

  • Consider community safety and environmental sustainability (e.g. instead of oil or gas lamps which could be a fire hazard, could rechargeable solar lamps be used).

  • Mobilising women’s committees to plan and implement the distribution can be an effective way to integrate women’s leadership from the start of the response.

  • Involve the community in procurement (selecting samples and suppliers, comparing costs and quality of items, community representatives going to markets where possible).

  • Ensure that finance and procurement guidelines are followed (e.g. obtaining three quotes – see Financial Management Framework (FMF) for more information).

  • Ensure co-ordination with other agencies to avoid duplication and explore opportunities for joint distribution.


Cash programming can often be an effective alternative to direct distribution of food or NFI. It can be more empowering and dignified for communities, as it gives people more choice to buy the things they really need. It can also be quick to implement and cost efficient for the agency as you can avoid large-scale procurement and distribution of NFIs or food. Cash programming can be done in different ways: through unconditional cash transfers (money given directly to vulnerable families in the community, often through mobile phone transfer, which can be spent on anything the recipients prioritise), conditional cash transfers (money which is restricted to a certain purpose such as rent support or food, often provided in the form of vouchers), cash-for-work (cash given in return for work, which can be physical work such as reconstruction of local infrastructure, social work in the community such as caring for children or supporting elderly people) or cash for training. A combination of these options may be the most appropriate (e.g. cash-for-work for those able to work, and cash transfers for vulnerable families unable to work).


Cash programming is not appropriate in all contexts and should be carefully planned, taking into account the local situation. For example, key questions include:

  • Will distribution of cash cause any security concerns or put recipients at risk?

  • Is there a risk of distorting the local labour market, taking jobs away from people in the community (in which case are the other activities that can be considered in return for paid work) or undermining existing livelihoods?

  • Is it legal for people to work and receive a wage? (This may be a particular issue in some refugee emergencies if the host government does not allow refugees or displaced people to work).

  • Are local markets functioning – if people receive cash are the items they need available to buy in the markets? Are they available at prices people can afford with the cash provided?

  • Does the cash programme risk pushing up prices in local markets?

  • Who will make the decision in the family on how the money is spent, and is it likely to meet the priority needs of the family? (If this is a concern, vouchers can be considered instead).

  • If considering cash programming, it is useful to include a market analysis in the needs assessment stage (looking at availability of food and goods in the market, prices and recent price rises, inflation rates etc). Guidance on market analysis tools can be found in the food security and nutrition section of the Sphere handbook and in the Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis Toolkit. There is also some useful guidance on ECHO requirements around market analysis for cash programmes.


Ensure that any programmes are in line with financial regulations, and that accountability is prioritised so that communities are clear about the programme, who will benefit and how participants have been selected. Transparency boards are a good way to do this (see Section 7 – Accountability), and records should be kept of receipts/signature sheets for people receiving cash. It is important to have community involvement (led by women) in defining the selection criteria, mapping the community to identify vulnerable families, monitoring distribution of cash and fulfilment of work requirements in cash-for-work programmes. The community should also define the type of work to be done, the number of hours of work required etc.

There are lots of resources and guidance available on cash programming: the Cash Learning Partnership is a good place to start, and contains links to other useful resources. Refer also to Livelihoods Programming in Section 7.

Don’t forget that immediate needs are not just food, shelter and NFIs. Policy work, psychosocial support, protection, sharing information and mobilising communities are all part of emergency response.

See Section 7 for more guidance on how to approach these areas of programming.