The World Humanitarian Summit, effectiveness and evidence

Author: Jeroen Jansen

Many different opinions have already been expressed on the recent World Humanitarian Summit (WHS)[1], but its ultimate success will be determined by the evidence produced in the coming years. As International Rescue Committee’s President and CEO David Miliband asserted: “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating … I don’t think we can say it’s been a success until it changes life on the ground.[2] As with all interventions and actions, this will require a baseline measure and proper, follow-up research to provide robust evidence on what works, what doesn’t and why. It will require an evidence-based approach to the rather feeble commitments and initiatives that originated from the WHS. During the WHS, the evidence-based approach was seemingly relegated to the background and appeared to be mostly an afterthought within the wordy presentations of lofty commitments.

At the WHS, many talked about an evidence-based approach to humanitarian action and the side event ‘Making Evidence Count’ was well attended with people having to stand around the room because the turn-out exceeded the expectations. Despite this, it felt that the WHS was merely “an expensive talking shop […][3] when it came to evidence, using the words of Oxfam GB’s chief executive, Mark Goldring. Many talked about evidence, but only the scholars attending the WHS committed to action.[4] While attending the WHS, one could have got the impression that the humanitarian sector is scared of evidence and would rather talk about data, preferable ‘big’ data. For instance, at the launch of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI), several references were made to ‘big’ data and the potential of innovation for the humanitarian sector. Only scant attention was paid to the role of evidence and the need for investment in research and development, although this had been highlighted in the consultations and in the many reports submitted to the WHS.[5]

Properly collected data is only the first step towards robust evidence to substantiate the effectiveness of the new initiatives, no matter how big that collected data is. The WHS ‘Grand Bargain’[6] highlights the importance of effectiveness and acknowledges the role of robust evidence. Nevertheless, it remains unclear who will pay for the generation and dissemination of this evidence. Professor Mukesh Kapila asserted that “effectiveness is a moral issue and a duty.” If the humanitarian sector wants to live up to its duty and make the WHS a success, it needs to show commitment to an evidence-based approach and not just talk about it.

whs summit

Sadly the countdown clock did not last until the start of the summit, hopefully the commitments made at the summit will be more robust.


[1] IRIN, The World Humanitarian Summit: winners and losers, AND Sara Pantuliano, STATEMENT: World Humanitarian Summit ‘a missed opportunity’, AND Oxfam International, Some progress at World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul – but world leaders fail to deliver the goods, AND Brookings, Daniel V. Speckhard, World Humanitarian Summit: Laudable, but short on hard political commitments, AND Dr Karl Blanchet, Expert comment on the first World Humanitarian Summit, AND ALNAP, John Mitchell, Commitment gridlock at the WHS: a three lane highway for delivering change,

[2] DEVEX, Naomi Mihara, IRC chief: No summit success until it changes life on the ground,

[3] The Guardian, Patrick Kingsley, World humanitarian summit starts amid hope, hype and fear of empty words, – Oxfam GB’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said: “This summit needs to be more than an expensive talking shop […].”

[4] Evidence Aid, Over 60 scholars attending the World Humanitarian Summit sign commitment to more collaborative humanitarian research,

[5] Evidence Aid, Jeroen Jansen, Will one per cent suffice?,

[6] The Grand Bargain,


JJ Small Pic EA Website 30 Sept 2015Jeroen Jansen was appointed as the first Director of Evidence Aid in September 2015. He is the former Head of the Programmes Unit at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in London and a current board member of MSF Spain. Jeroen has championed an evidence-based approach to humanitarian aid throughout his career in the humanitarian sector. His many field assignments for MSF in countries such as Afghanistan, Liberia, Nigeria and South Sudan gave him first-hand experience of the need for evidence in the field.