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close this bookCounting and Identification of Beneficiary Populations in Emergency Operations (ODI, 1997, 110 p.)
close this folder2. Basic principles
View the document(introduction...)
View the document2.1 Continuous information gathering
View the document2.2 Clear and consistent definitions
View the document2.3 Accuracy
View the document2.4 Respect for human safety, well-being, and dignity
View the document2.5 Communication and transparency
View the document2.6 Vested interests

2.3 Accuracy

Despite the need to obtain accurate information, rarely in the heat of an emergency will a high degree of accuracy be feasible. Instability, confusion, and the primacy of life-saving activities may severely restrict access to and capacity to identify a beneficiary population. The objective, therefore, should be to establish a comprehensive information and verification capacity that will gradually reduce the margin of error. This can most effectively be achieved through the use of ‘triangulation’ - a combination of estimation methods rather than reliance on a single system.

Humanitarian assistance activities require varying levels of accuracy. For example, appropriate food distribution generally requires as accurate a knowledge of numbers of beneficiaries as possible. At some stage, each individual beneficiary has to be identified and counted, be it by the beneficiary community itself, host government, or by the international community. The adequate supply of water, however, rarely requires the precise identification of every potential user. Often no more is required than a generous estimate of the number of households, coupled with an equally generous estimate of the average household size. This will enable the planner to gauge the number of potential users of the water system, which will in turn, permit an estimate of the total daily consumption, and storage requirements.

Equally, for the delivery of most health services, a reasonable approximation rather than an accurate number suffices to determine early levels of provision, such as initial drug and staff requirements. Up to a certain point this is also true for vaccination programmes in which coverage is essential. Although the objective is to provide full individual protection from vaccine-preventable diseases as early as possible, for epidemiological control in large populations a coverage rate of about 80% is the pragmatic objective. An accurate register may give a figure of the number of children but is unlikely to break it down by age or age bracket. Typically a preliminary vaccination coverage survey will be done prior to setting up Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) services, which will also give indications about the target population of infants and young children with additional information provided by a sample survey.

Box 1

Rapid epidemiological assessment of Kurdish refugee populations in Iran

In May 1991, two months after the large scale displacement of Kurds from northern Iraq, MSF Belgium conducted a rapid epidemiological survey in the camps of Hafez and Kaliche. Overall population estimates of the two camps were obtained from the Iranian authorities and the refugees. A 30 cluster sampling survey was prepared, carried out and processed within a week. The information of the survey questionnaires was complemented by an assessment of the nutritional status of the children under five in the selected households. The exercise yielded basic demographic information, notably the male: female ratio and the proportion of under fives, provided insights into mortality and morbidity, and established a nutritional status baseline. The results enabled the organisation to plan and prioritise its health intervention, but also revealed that the condition of the refugees in Iran was less severe than in Turkey, so that resources needed to be concentrated there (Porter et al, 1993).

International organisations have different objectives, mandates and institutional approaches. UNHCR and the ICRC both have a clear protection function, while emergency NGOs concentrate mostly, though not uniquely, on assistance activities. The required degree of numerical accuracy required in population figures may also be a function of the institutional approach or mandated responsibilities of the organisations concerned. For instance, protection functions frequently require a high degree of accuracy, including actual registration of all individuals requiring that protection, so that their individual legal as well as physical status and well-being can be monitored.

Accepting the need to obtain at least reasonably accurate figures to enable an effective assistance programme to beneficiary populations, but recognising that accurate statistics are not always readily available under emergency conditions (often conflict-related), a priority objective in emergencies must be to establish mechanisms for continual improvement in the precision of data. It is the frequency and cross-checking of population estimates - the critical follow-up monitoring of new arrivals, departures, births and deaths - which will determine the quality of information underpinning an emergency assistance programme.