Humanitarian Information – more than just numbers

It has been a long time since I have sat at my desk and cried over a story from one of the many humanitarian responses I am involved with. Today, it wasn’t words that constricted my throat and made my eyes burn. It was numbers.

I have both a communications and information management function in my role. In my quest to consolidate more and more useful information sets so we can make better decisions, be more assertive in addressing emerging needs and ultimately respond faster I started a review of countless industry reports, websites and data sets so I could paint a global picture of current humanitarian responses. As I saw the numbers add up from my clumsy excel formulas I found those numbers turn into the faces of children that I have seen. The numbers went from thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and finally, heartbreakingly into the millions.

I love numbers. I love data. I love how they inform decisions, make sense of chaos, provide a guide for the future. And if I am honest enough, they are a safe way of understanding a situation without emotional attachment. But these numbers, they just bought up past memories I’ve spent a year burying.

A conservative number I came up with was that 60 million people are, right now, facing a humanitarian crisis. An even more conservative number is that within these crises 36 million children are estimated to be affected. And when I say conservative I mean conservative, I know that there are more emergencies out there that I couldn’t find data for and I didn’t even look at fragile states or those children so vulnerable that at any moment their situation could turn into a crisis.

But with numbers, even ones as overwhelming at this, there is always hope that something more can be done. For each data set of those affected I also looked at data sets for how many have been assisted, how much money the international communities, either through their governments, private business or directly from their wallets have given to help these numbers on a page.

Right now if we look at the eight million affected by the devastating earthquake in Nepal we also see numbers humanitarian agencies on the ground, each aiming to assist hundreds of thousands of people, cargo planes desperately trying to land with tonnes of essential relief items and we see an outpouring of support from the international community.

As a humanitarian, especially one who believes information is critical, I am always going to look at the numerical gap between those in need and those assisted. I’m also going to want to shove that number under every nose I can find to try to get them to take notice. But today, I’m going to give myself a break. I’m going to indulge in the personal memory of one child’s face and allow myself to a small moment of celebration as I add his number into the assisted column and take solace in the knowledge that more than 1,000 of my colleagues are working around the clock to ensure that number in my spreadsheet grows each day.


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