What the Tsunami Taught Us about Needs Assessment

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Many remember the vivid images of the devastation resulting from the 2004 South Asia tsunami. The tsunami was a natural disaster of immense proportions - affecting 14 countries, internally displacing 1.7 million people, and killing an estimated 225,000 people. Shortlyafter the tsunami, a group of humanitarian agencies gathered to assess the lessons learned from the international humanitarian response and produced a series of thematic evaluations to consolidate sector learning. 

In July 2006, the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) published an evaluation of the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami; which included five thematic evaluations, one of which is a report entitled The Role of Needs Assessment in the Tsunami Response. The report focuses on how effectively the international community conducted needs assessment during the first three months. 

The report offers 17 recommendations to improve needs assessments after the next big natural disaster. The first recommendation suggests that the UN and the Red Cross should invest in a permanent rapid assessment capacity.  Another proposes that a percentage of future relief funding should always be put aside for regional disaster preparedness. Additionally, they recommend a large number of nationals should be trained in each country to ensure a significant pool is available for initial rapid assessment immediately after a disaster.

Another key recommendation advises that prior arrangements be made with national governments regarding joint national/international assessments following disasters. In order to facilitate cooperation between the international community and national authorities, national legislatures are encouraged to pass legislation permitting access as a prerequisite for transparency and accountability during needs assessment.

The report suggests that donor countries should help national governments assess the magnitude of a disaster by using modern technology such as remote sensing, which could be an important asset if logistical constraints or security concerns were to impede access to the devastated regions in the aftermath of a disaster.

Populations touched by the tsunami remarked that being assessed is different than being consulted. Whenever possible, they should be empowered to prioritize their own needs and use cash subsidies. This practice would considerably reduce the need for thematic assessments and empower affected people to decide whether they need  better shelter, food or other items that are often provided at a higher cost by international actors.

For more information or to read the full Tsunami Evaluation Coalition report, visit http://www.tsunami-evaluation.org/.

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