Turning evidence into action

Author: Gareth Owen, Humanitarian Director at Save the Children UK

The Austrian-American physicist Victor Frederick Weisskopf said, “Human existence is based upon two pillars: compassion and knowledge. Compassion without knowledge is ineffective; knowledge without compassion is inhuman.”

Save the Children was born almost a hundred years ago. Since then our first mandate has been to help those in need, and show solidarity with people experiencing unspeakable hardship. We decide on the basis of our own moral compass, of what we consider the right thing to do. But, with finite resources to address “a world of infinite needs”, we have to be as effective as possible. We need to base our programmes on approaches that have the best likelihood of delivering the desired results.

We mostly rely on the knowledge and evidence produced by academics and researchers over many years to design and run our programmes. However, we have also realised that we must play a stronger role in producing the evidence we need to deliver humanitarian aid. We regard it as a moral imperative to produce sound research that has the potential to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children in crises. The use of evidence to inform decisions not only empowers humanitarian agencies but also the communities we assist. In this journey of compassion and knowledge our humanitarian staff have authored over thirty journal articles in the past three years, and we learned some crucial lessons.

Understand what evidence you need, what evidence you have, and how to make the most of it. Evidence is only useful if the insight gained is turned into timely action. To this end, in 2016 we began rolling out data management software to provide access to real-time data for our staff. This has helped us make evidence-informed decisions and to be more accountable to beneficiaries.

Generating humanitarian evidence is ‘a tortoise in a world of hares’. This presents a significant challenge for humanitarians, who aspire to be evidence-based but need to act fast. The answer is collaboration. We work with academic institutions, marrying our “hare” pace with the rigour and expertise that academics have had the time to accumulate.

Not all that counts can be counted, while not all that can be counted counts. Practitioners don’t tend to write methodologies into their programmes, so they are typically excluded from most academic literature reviews. We need to gather and value the key opinions of field practitioners and those affected by crisis, as much as we value measured ‘facts’. Amidst the global propensity for alternative fact creation, we should reflect carefully upon the privileged power we wield when we choose what’s worth measuring and what exciting alternatives of high value we may be actively omitting.

Evidence is infrequently neutral. Scalable innovative approaches are exciting for humanitarian practitioners, but we need to be aware of our own biases. Our evaluation strategy must require us to challenge our own assumptions, particularly when we implement innovative programmes.

Doing research is hard. But it’s even harder for institutions whose main purpose is not the generation of research. There are funding streams for research, and funding streams for programmes: but no donor currently adequately aligns both.

Knowledge and compassion are often not enough – it takes leadership to turn this into action. In a world of metrics and managerial commodification of everything in life, gut instinct still matters. I like to joke with my technical colleagues that I’ve only ever seen evidence used in two ways: either selectively cherry picked to justify a decision already made, or cited as absent to avoid making a decision in the first place. Our Evaluation team tried to summarise the response evaluations from multiple responses over many years in a qualitative meta synthesis. This shows just how hard the struggle has been to generate high quality evidence and use it for evidence-based decision making.

Perhaps it is not the lack of good evidence itself, but rather the overriding political economy, intrusive power dynamics and messy behavioural science realities of seeking to do the right thing in the highly imperfect circumstances that still make all this so difficult. We should so some more research on that.


Gareth Owen photo - smart

Gareth has a background in civil engineering and has spent the last 20 years working in humanitarian aid. He started out in the Somalia and Angola conflicts in logistics and security management for Concern worldwide, then worked in Nepal as a water engineer with VSO. He was also Country Director in Uganda and Head of Mission in Kosovo for Action Contre la Faim and ran the Gujarat earthquake response for Oxfam. Gareth joined Save the Children UK in January 2002 as an Emergency Advisor and became Humanitarian Director in 2007. A senior humanitarian practitioner, Gareth has led operational responses in every major emergency over the past decade, most notably the Iraq conflict, the Asian tsunami, Cyclone Nargis, Haiti, Pakistan, East Africa, Niger and Philippines. Gareth has played a pivotal role in the strategic growth of Save the Children’s humanitarian activities over the past decade and today he leads a diverse department of more than 200 humanitarian staff. He was awarded an OBE in the 2013 Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to emergency crisis response abroad.

Additional Reading:

Prioritising the generation of evidence on infant and young child feeding interventions in emergencies

Evidence Brief: The Impact of Protection Interventions on Unaccompanied and Separated Children in Humanitarian Crises

Save the Children, LSHTM and Field Ready introduce ‘surprise soap’ to innovate handwashing in humanitarian crises


This blog is part of the HEW2017