The critical need for operational research in humanitarian settings


In a fast paced, high stress environment, planning and running humanitarian programmes can be challenging. Often limited time is available to assess the problems facing those affected, and what their needs are. But this preliminary work is key to an effective outcome, and should actually start way before the programme is needed. This brings us to the question of research, and why operational research is important in humanitarian work.

There are strong arguments for evidence-based decision-making by humanitarian organizations, including accountability and efficiency. Research can play a critical role in equipping decision-makers – both at the programmatic and policy level – with the high-quality evidence that is needed. Importantly, we are trying to help build the argument that research-generated evidence is key while acknowledging that – for good decisions – expert judgement and stakeholder input need to be part of the decision-making process also. Evidence-based decisions use research as a foundation, but are not blindly following it. 


Operational research is specifically focused on bridging the gap between research and practice by providing humanitarian professionals with the fundamental knowledge to engage with and oversee research projects. The research methods applied in humanitarian settings are no different from those in more stable settings. However, and this is particularly true for rapid-onset disasters and settings with a lot of volatility, researchers often need to implement methods that can account for the specific challenges they face in these settings. For example, questions of access to populations, in general and over time, may play a key role. Given these contextual factors, there are certain methods that have proven particularly useful in humanitarian settings. We have also gained extensive experience as a community of researchers and practitioners over the years on how to mitigate and adapt to many of the common challenges we may face. In summary, when we talk about research methods in humanitarian settings, we need to talk about the feasibility as well as adaptability of methods. 


Conducting research in humanitarian settings is often challenging. The key barriers are often contextual, however, we see that the following factors regularly present challenges including; the urgency and frequently changing nature of humanitarian action; an absence of baselines or comparative data; multiplicity and fragmentation of actors and agendas; a shortage of training and expertise in research knowledge and skills; a lack of access to certain populations; and ethical challenges – exacerbated by the increased vulnerability of the population affected.

It is critical for every humanitarian manager to understand whether or not their efforts are achieving the intended goals and are meeting the needs of the affected population. There are different ways of generating this evidence, but research and evaluation are amongst the most robust ways. While initially, it may not be feasible to implement these, we should continuously assess the role that research and evaluation can play. We should also keep in mind however that many humanitarian operations are already generating rich evidence on certain interventions and we should also ask ourselves whether this data may be useful in other contexts. The use of existing data is often incredibly valuable and can avoid duplication and misuse of funds. 


Research is carried out by a range of different actors and often as partnerships or collaborations between multiple organizations. According to the Humanitarian Encyclopedia we see that there are two key ways in which evidence is argued to be most useful in humanitarian settings: i) identifying humanitarian needs; ii) deciding on which interventions are most useful in addressing these needs.

Research can be useful in both situations and particularly for establishing what works and to help us understand how, where, and why it works. As such, research is being carried out at all stages of the humanitarian cycle: preparedness, response, recovery, prevention and mitigation.

In very tangible terms, research can help make decisions such as choosing one option over another, it can help decide to start doing something or to stop a certain activity/ programme. We have historically seen research contribute to shaping the current practices in humanitarian settings. For example, great advocacy – often supported by research or evaluation – has put non-communicable diseases on the agenda of humanitarian organizations over the last decade or so. Based on that, there are now existing research projects – though still limited in number – looking into how to best deliver NCD care in humanitarian settings.

That being said, translating research and evidence into action is not a mechanical process as it is sometimes suggested by existing models and frameworks. It requires great contextual understanding, such as on organizational processes, as well as building and maintaining relationships.


In conclusion, research can play a critical role in helping practitioners assess and address the needs of affected populations. Even where evidence was generated, there is no checklist or rulebook for how to make sure it is being used. However, experience has shown that there are many good-practice approaches such as ensuring continuous communication with stakeholders, target-audience adapted research outputs and an acknowledgement of existing power dimensions that can help us ensure its inclusion in programme development and implementation. 

Our Centre offers an open-access, free course in Operational Research for Humanitarians which shines a light on these critical issues and discussions, and provides participants with the tools and knowledge to integrate operational research into their work. Find out more at:

Authors: Benjamin Schmid, Sian Bowen