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The Importance of Research in Humanitarian Work

When considering humanitarian assistance, two types of interventions must be considered. The first is a rapid response to a sudden increase in need caused by events like natural disasters, conflicts, or financial crises. This response, known as relief, aims to support and preserve life, prevent diseases, restore necessary conditions for survival, and reduce risks in the short term. The second type of intervention is development assistance, which focuses on longer-term solutions to address chronic issues such as poverty, education, health care, and infrastructure development. Development assistance aims to build resilience, improve living conditions, and promote sustainable development to prevent future crises.

Research has contributed to defending the oppressed, improving saving lives, and establishing humanitarian ethics. This framework governs decisions of NGOs and addresses various levels influenced by religious principles, state law, and cultural norms.

Research is crucial in designing humanitarian actions and understanding behavior in disasters. It has driven NGO work in hurricane coasts, war-torn cities, and famine-affected towns. Without research, models of behavior would not exist and the meaning of aiding the suffering would be ambiguous. (Ormel et al.2020)

Humanitarian crises risk harming human life and property. Humanitarian work requires prevention and mitigation measures. Adherence to do-no-harm principles and verification of impact are necessary. Research is essential for better humanitarian outcomes.

As emergencies occur suddenly, planners and employees are often the same individuals making decisions. Understanding the challenges of using humanitarian scientific research is important for researchers in the field. This includes moral and ethical dilemmas, as well as unintended negative outcomes. Research indicates that the context and environment of humanitarian settings impact planning, implementation, and sustainability. These findings can guide research strategies in the advanced stages of institutional humanitarian work. (Mistry et al., 2021)(Bruno & Haar, 2020)

The nature of emergency and disaster research poses challenges to ethical research practice. Ethical considerations in research for humanitarian work are discussed in this section, along with proposed solutions to build good practice in the sector.

Repurposing public health data for epidemiological surveillance of communicable diseases is crucial. This data provides population-level information on diseases like cholera, informing treatment center priorities. While routine data may lack detailed case report forms, it can still be used to study health system responses, such as average time from symptom onset to seeking help.

While the form of research that is possible in humanitarian settings can be complex – putting international aid workers in their place – it is crucial for improving evidence. We are lucky to know about many examples of good quality research conducted in the midst of conflict or disaster that has shaped programming and saved lives. Such high quality data published in the heat of the moment, while still ensuring the ethical protection of research participants, is possible but requires experience, courage, and lots of advice from others. Grouping the cases by research activity is also complex but remarkably possible.


  • Ormel, I., Salsberg, J., Hunt, M., Doucet, A., Hinton, L., Macaulay, A. C., & Law, S. (2020). Key issues for participatory research in the design and implementation of humanitarian assistance: a scoping review. Global Health Action, 13(1), 1826730.
  • Mistry, A. S., Kohrt, B. A., Beecroft, B., Anand, N., & Nuwayhid, I. (2021). Introduction to collection: confronting the challenges of health research in humanitarian crises. Conflict and Health.
  • Bruno, W. & Haar, R. J. (2020). A systematic literature review of the ethics of conducting research in the humanitarian setting. Conflict and health.

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