A new tool to take the guesswork out of giving


Decision-makers have to compare apples and oranges when deciding where to direct precious funding. A new tool removes some of the guesswork.

Most people would probably agree that limited emergency aid cash should go to the places that need it most. But aid decision-makers have a tough time deciding where that is. How, for example, do you choose between giving for floods in Bangladesh, economic collapse in Lebanon, or helping civilians caught up in conflict in Mali?

A new tool, maintained in Geneva by humanitarian non-profit ACAPS, aims to take some of the guesswork out of how emergency aid is spent. The open-source INFORM severity index , officially launched last week, uses a mix of 31 indicators from multiple sources and the insight of human analysts to rank over 120 crisis situations.

The results, in theory, could fuel less political and biased decisions about where resources are directed. Whether the decisions are right or wrong may depend on your viewpoint. But regardless of the outcome, “It should make it easier to understand why we make the decisions we do,” according to ACAPS director Lars Peter Nissen. One of its uses can be to help “ advocate for action, especially in the case of forgotten or unrecognized crises ”.

The data-crunching behind INFORM is backed by a range of aid agencies, UN bodies, the EU, and the UK government. They all share an appetite for comparable ways to measure and assess crises between countries and, in some cases, within them.

The severity index measures severity across three dimensions: the impact of a situation, how the population affected is faring, and how complex the situation is. The crises ranked most severe come as little surprise: Syria and Yemen. But the severity index also tracks and compares less visible and widely differing crises like those in Burundi, Venezuela, or Myanmar.

The new index comes out now as a companion to a parallel ranking of underlying risk, which is updated twice a year. Using a similar combination of statistical data and expert judgment, the INFORM risk index, first published in 2011, weighs three dimensions of a country's risk: its exposure to hazards, its vulnerability, and its coping capacity.

Japan, for example, scores highly on the possibility of natural hazards, but its strong economy, peaceful and stable society, and sophisticated systems for dealing with disaster give it an overall score of 2.3 out of 10. Bangladesh, with a similar chance of natural hazard, gets a final score of 5.8. The countries whose risk has worsened from 2018 to 2020 are Niger, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But that leaves key questions unanswered: how many people are affected, and how badly? What are the fast-changing factors that should be tracked? That's where the new severity index comes in. The latest edition is tracking Lebanon, for example, which had a middling underlying risk level of five out of a maximum of ten, but now, thanks to economic and political collapse, is one of the fast-deteriorating situations of 2020, according to the real-time monitoring of severity.

The results are available as a spreadsheet and on a map and will be made available for automated download via an Application Programming Interface (API).

Nissen, the ACAPS director, is careful not to over-sell the concept. “The Index does not tell the whole story,” he said. “It is a conversation-starter that helps decision-makers ask the right questions.”