5 reasons why we need research in the humanitarian sector

There is an increasing awareness of the importance of research in the humanitarian sector.

Many organisations in the sector either have a research department or at least a team (member) who is in charge of research.

Many of the big organisations in the sector regularly conduct, commission and publish research that is relevant to the work of practitioners.

Research takes time and money, but the investment is worth it – for five main reasons.

HAD research workshop at the University of Birmingham

As part of its engagement with academics, the Research and Development (R&D) Department of the Humanitarian Academy for Development (HAD) recently held an interactive workshop at the University of Birmingham.

The workshop was organised in cooperation with the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (TIMES) Postgraduate Forum, which is run by a group of PhD and Master students based in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

R&D at HAD is all about bringing together academics and practitioners, so we were very glad to have the opportunity to engage with the PhD students who attended. The workshop was held by HAD’s Head of Research, Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert, and specifically focused on the work of faith-inspired organisations in the sector.

It included an overview of the work of HAD as well as sessions on the importance of research in the sector and related challenges and opportunities.

At the end of the workshop, participants were given the opportunity to try out some of their newly acquired knowledge while working on a case study.

All of the participants in the room had non-academic work experience that was relevant to the work of development/humanitarian workers, so it did not take long until everyone in the room was engaged in lively discussions about how to marry research and practice in the sector.

research in the humanitarian sector

5 ways in which research can make a valuable contribution to the work of practitioners

The discussions at the workshop highlighted five ways in which research can make a valuable contribution to the work of practitioners in the humanitarian sector – and ultimately to the beneficiaries we all collectively serve.

Identification of emerging issues and hot topics

Research can help us identify emerging issues and hot topics in the sector.

To a certain extent, practitioners will know about these based on their experience, but in the fast-paced environment that many humanitarian workers operate in, there is often a lack of time to really take in the latest discussions amongst practitioners, academics, policy-makers and civil society.

Research in the sector can help bridge this gap and ensure practitioners stay on top of current and ongoing debates on development and humanitarian aid.

Researchers can also help translate academic language and publications into a format that is accessible to practitioners and policy-makers – all of whom will not have an academic background and be familiar with academic conventions.

Risk and needs assessment

With their deep understanding of academic debates on issues the humanitarian sector is facing, researchers can also help us better take possible risks into account – and prepare accordingly.

Development and humanitarian workers often work in hard-to-reach areas and/or under challenging circumstances.

Evidenced-based academic approaches can contribute to a better understanding of culture and communities, but also of the experience of others in the same or a similar context. Practice-relevant academic research can play a crucial role during needs analyses, mapping exercises and the identification of competitors and potential partners.

Impact assessment

Whilst research can make a valuable contribution when it comes to providing evidence-based insights during the planning and implementation phases, it also has a place following the completion of a project.

It allows us to take the time to look back on a completed project and analyse in detail what has worked, what hasn’t and why.

Most organisations in the sector have a MEAL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Assessment and Learning) team, but research goes beyond that.

Whilst MEAL allows us to assess and evaluate a specific project or programme, research additionally situates the findings stemming from one project in a wider body of knowledge on the topic and allows us to see the bigger picture.

Informing policies, frameworks and approaches

Research-based evidence is invaluable for any organisation working in the sector.

The research we conduct, commission and support is always aimed at helping practitioners do their work more efficiently and effectively.

Insights gained from our research inform policies, frameworks and approaches of practitioners – but also of policy-makers and civil society actors.

The aim is to identify more efficient and effective ways of doing development.

Transparency, trustworthiness and accountability

Lastly, research can also make a valuable contribution when it comes to transparency, trustworthiness and accountability of development/humanitarian actors. Development and humanitarian organisations engage with a wide range of donors, beneficiaries and other stakeholders – including the wider public.

Evidence-based research can help build trust, manage relationships with key stakeholders and show that the organisation takes transparency and accountability serious – especially if the findings are then acted upon.

Collaboration with colleagues in advocacy and external communications is key in this context.

Islamic faith-inspired organisations in particular have an interest in producing research-based evidence that can help address the scepticism and bias many of them face in the current climate of Islamophobia and racism.

Written by: Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert
Head of Research and Development

Related Articles:

Research-Focused Capacity-Building in Gaziantep: Training the next generation of Syrian researchers

Why NGOs need a reputation risk management strategy and how to develop one