The Problem with “Simple Questions” in Humanitarian Crises and International Development

How many women suffer from abuse around the world? How many children die from a lack of food? Where can I best put my donation money to help the most people?

In the last 10–15 years there has been a push to incorporate data into decision making in the humanitarian context. This has been a push as governments and organizations need to make tough decisions on what to fund with their annual budgets. Organizations and advocates need to be able to relate their growth and impact with hard facts, rarely do emotional pleas work unless there is a unique case for a specific humanitarian issue. Several organizations have taken it upon themselves to try and figure out better ways to use data for applied decision making. The Pardee Center for International Development is one such organization (I should disclose that I was employed by the Pardee Center while I was a graduate student at the University of Denver). The Pardee Center does a great job with what it has when it works with organizations like USAID, the Colombian government, and many other domestic and international bodies. However there is an issue when it comes to humanitarian issues and governance related development predictions: there are too many things to measure and too many ways to measure them. I found this issue most glaring when I conducted research on child malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa for a class project.

The question was: how best can we reduce child malnutrition. This question was the beginning of me using the phrase “I am too ignorant to ask the right questions, please help.” I went in to the resident epidemiology instructor in my program and asked her where I could find rates of child-malnutrition, she looked at me as if I had asked her how to describe quantum mechanics. She quickly told me that there are many ways to look at this issue but we focused on four main aspects of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, underweight, and deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. These are part of the WHOs description of ‘undernutrition’. After we had established that, I said “okay, so where do I find numbers on that?” I received another look. All four of those measurements of ‘undernutrition’ had many different ways to measure depending on the organization and where they are in the world. That means a report from the UN on child malnutrition in Kenya may vary considerably from a similar report from the UN in Vietnam.

The WHO, UN, and other organizations are aware of these issues and try to make the issues as transparent as possible. If you look at UNICEF’s data on child malnutrition, you will find an extremely overwhelming amount of data that breaks down malnutrition rates by the different indicators, income of the family, and regions in which they live. Organizations like this include the way that data was collected extremely efficiently for what they can do.

This is the cover page for the UNICEF data on child malnutrition
This is the cover page for the UNICEF data on child malnutrition
Cover Page for UNICEF’s report on Malnutrition
Notes Section in the UNICEF Malnutrition Data

As you can see, this quickly becomes a lot more information one may be prepared for when asking “how many starving children are there?”

To show what this looks like when you try to comprehend this data, you get something similar to this:

This is the number of times each footnote appears in the National number for Malnourished children.

As you can see, there are quite a few reports that have no footnotes and were collected without any issue or need for clarification. However, this is for a national number. This is not broken down by sex, age, income level, or region. Those are all broken into their own reports that have a similar number of footnotes in their reports. If you look, converted estimates is the most common form of data changes. This is due to issues of scale in how the data was collected and extrapolated to answer the larger question so that it wouldn’t cause a huge outlier in the data.

If you are overwhelmed, trust me so was I and this was supposed to be something that I could understand as a researcher and graduate student.

As we continue digging we find issues with reporting years, regions and countries that have shifted territorial ownership (Sudan/South Sudan for example), and reports of income by family. All of these things create an extremely complex question. The question is no longer “How many starving children are there?” it has changed into something more similar to “How many children under the age of five in the Tigray region of Ethiopia were at risk of stunting in 2016?” The second question can get a clear answer (69.5% of them), the first one not as much. Keep in mind, this question does not ask “How do we reduce this wasting?” or “How did they become victims of wasting?” or “How will this impact the economy in 25 years?” Those questions include many other reports that are just as complex if not more.

Where does this knowledge leave us? First of all, probably a moment of self-contemplation where we sit back and realize the world is much larger and more complex than we generally like to think. The overall message of this is that we should be sure to ask specific questions, so that when we get answers we know what is being told to us. Many people like to over simplify questions like this and many other things, but when we ask simple questions we will get simple answers that may come from a very complicated system with many nuances.

If you are interested in programs that are in effect to alleviate child malnutrition, I personally suggest looking at the 1,000 days program or at Save the Children!

M.A. International Relations/M.S. Data Analytics. Certified in Data Analytics, GIS, and Humanitarian Assistance. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

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