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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder5. Initial Assessment, Immediate Response
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentOrganizing the Assessment
View the documentImmediate Response
View the documentProtection and Material Assistance
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes


1. Emergency assistance must be based on a sound, though rapid, assessment of the refugees' most immediate problems and needs and the resources available to meet those needs.

2. The objective of the initial problem analysis and needs assessment is to provide UNHCR with a clear and concise picture of the emergency situation, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. It should provide enough information to predict the evolution of the emergency, at least in the short term. It is the basis for decisions which affect the future of the operation.


More detailed assessments will follow as the emergency develops and needs evolve: assessment never stops.

The initial and subsequent assessments are intricately linked with, and will form the basis for, operations planning. The initial assessment will also build on the contingency planning process.

4. The initial assessment should:

Answer the questions "what is the main problem?" and "is there an emergency or not?";

Provide sufficient information to decide whether UNHCR should be involved in the emergency response and what the scope of that involvement should be;

Be an inter-agency initiative, but with one body providing the overall coordination. The team should include staff from UNHCR, the government and other potential partners (for example other UN agencies, NGOs). Ideally the inter-agency body used for contingency planning should provide the basis for the group carrying out a simple problem and needs assessment. Often the people carrying out the initial assessment will simultaneously be providing the initial response. Whenever possible, the assessment team should include those who will implement the emergency operation in the field;

Be carried out quickly;

Provide a full picture of the scope of the emergency, rather than focus on a limited area or sector (it is better to get the whole picture half right);

Describe the people affected by the emergency (a simple demographic profile);

Identify the coping ability of the refugees themselves;

Identify locally available resources;

Identify what are the most immediate priorities;

Use agreed and appropriate standards against which needs can be measured;

Involve the refugees, women and men, from the outset. Get to know them and understand their concerns. They are a key source of information;

Record the sources of information collected;

Cross-check information, not relying on only one tool (e.g. aerial surveys cross-checked by on the ground observations and interviews);

Involve appropriate technical input;

Use samples and surveys rather than collect too much detailed information which is difficult to analyze;

Produce recommendations for immediate action indicating the resources needed to implement them;

Be able to trigger an immediate and effective response;

Have the results shared promptly and widely.

5. The assessment should, as a minimum, answer the questions in the checklist in Annex 1. This includes essential minimum information required for planning an emergency operation.

6. The initial assessment should focus on the priority life threatening problems which are usually in the sectors of protection, water, food, sanitation, shelter and health. The assessment should measure the actual condition of the refugees against what is needed for their survival and immediate well-being (expressed as "standards"). The resources at their disposal should also be assessed.

The setting of standards appropriate for the situation is an important prerequisite for needs assessment.

7. Standards provide a benchmark against which the condition of the refugees can be measured (see Appendix 2 for some of the minimum survival standards). The standards established for emergency assistance must be consistent with the aim of ensuring the survival and basic well-being of the refugees, be fairly applied for all refugees and be respected by all involved.

8. The document Initial Assessment in Emergency Situations: a Practical Guide for Field Staff (see references) includes more detailed checklists for assessments, and contains practical information on principles, planning, techniques, methods, and forms. See also chapter 6 on operations planning for an example of a Gap Identification Chart, a useful tool for comparing needs and resources.