Affected Population


Affected population is a group of people affected by a common single phenomenon or multiple phenomena. In a humanitarian context, these phenomena include natural and environmental disasters, disease or epidemics, or conflict, as well as displacement, resource scarcity and poverty.

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Concept Entry:
Affected Population


Alex Odlum, Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies


Santiago Chambó, University of Granada
Consult the full linguistic analysis report here


Affected population is a group of people affected by a common single phenomenon or multiple phenomena. In a humanitarian context, these phenomena include natural and environmental disasters, disease or epidemics, or conflict, as well as displacement, resource scarcity and poverty.

According to the linguistic analysis, humanitarian organisations refer to affected populations as needing assistance, such as survival supplies, nutrition, shelter or services more broadly. While affected populations often do need humanitarian assistance, it is important to note the institutional humanitarian cluster coordination system distinguishes between “affected population” and “population in need”. This is based on a hierarchy of needs often visualised with an “onion-peel” graphic, that shows disasters do not affect everyone equally (see Measurements section). For example, a person with access to savings or support mechanisms may be equally affected by a disaster to a person without such resources, but may not need humanitarian assistance (OCHA, 2016).

Humanitarian documents describe humanitarian organisations providing affected populations with humanitarian assistance such as water, food and non-food items, facilities, services and information. Affected populations may be accessed by humanitarian actors, or face access constraints due to restrictions, lack of infrastructure, insecurity and conflict, legal barriers, and other reasons. Humanitarian actors may also advocate, innovate or negotiate on behalf to affected populations to improve their access to assistance.

Affected populations may participate in specific areas of their own humanitarian response, for example through participating in assessments, decision-making procedures, facility management, monitoring processes, etc. Humanitarian actors also seek to be more accountable to affected populations by implementing feedback mechanisms, community engagement, and specific policies and practices focused on accountability.

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2.1. Definitions, categories and divergent meanings

The concept of “affected population” is rarely defined explicitly in humanitarian documents. References to affected population in humanitarian documents tend to fall under two categories:

  • Affected populations as recipients of humanitarian assistance.
  • Affected populations as an agent in humanitarian response.

Although affected populations are referred to as recipients of aid, their rights, participation and agency in aid and recovery processes are often still emphasised. Such examples tend to explain that affected populations are rights-holders with their own capacities and not merely beneficiaries.

Displacement settings are a specific case where divergent meanings of affected population can emerge. In some cases, affected population specifically refers to the displaced population, and not to the host community in that area. Other cases acknowledge that host communities are also affected by the arrival of displaced persons, so these definitions of affected population include both displaced and host communities.

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2.2. Synonyms and antonyms

Humanitarian documents refer to “affected populations” (in the plural) and “affected people” as synonyms for “affected population”. Other collective terms like affected “community”, “family” and “household”, or other geographical terms like affected “area”, “country” and “district”, are also used in a similar way. Other synonyms such as “affectee” or “victim” also appear occasionally in humanitarian documents.

Direct antonyms of affected population such as “unaffected” or “non-affected” are rarely mentioned in humanitarian documents. However, two exceptions to this illustrate distinctions between who is affected or not by a given situation:

  • Displacement situations, where “affected population” is used to distinguish the concept from “host population” or “host community”.
  • When “affected population” is used to distinguish the concept from “humanitarians” and “humanitarian actors” themselves.

The latter example raises a paradox: defining humanitarian actors in opposition to affected populations does not necessarily reflect the reality that many humanitarian organisations employ staff and volunteers who individually and whose families and communities are part of the affected population.

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2.3. Types of usage

Different types of affected population are referred to by nationality or affiliation (e.g. affected Palestinian population) or by their relationship to a place (e.g. affected local, urban, resident, indigenous population). Affected population types are also specified by age, such as elderly or young, or gender.

More technical types of descriptions of affected population include specifying whether they are accessible, community-led, camp-based, displaced or non-displaced, and describing their size or importance, such as key or broad affected population.

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2.4. Frequent collocations

“Affected population” is closely related to the concept of “accountability”, and the two concepts are frequently found in close proximity (or collocated). In particular, humanitarian documents often refer to the combined concept of “accountability to affected populations” or “AAP” in short. Accountability is particularly closely related to affected population among documents from inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across multiple years.

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2.5. What affects a population?

General phenomena including “crisis”; “emergency” or “adversity” can cause a population to become affected. More specific phenomena can be categorized in five main areas: disease/health, environmental, conflict, economic/resource scarcity, and displacement.

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    2.6. What happens to an affected population?

    Being an affected population tends to result in needs or facing and remaining in a certain situation. This sometimes implies a lack of agency for affected populations. However, affected populations also work or do things which imply having agency to change their situation. This is clear in practice from the way affected communities already start helping themselves to recover often long before external assistance is provided.

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    2.7. What do humanitarian actors do to affected populations?

    Humanitarian actors tend to “assist”, “enable”, “support”, “serve”, “protect”, “help” and “address” (the needs of) affected populations.

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    2.8. What is done to affected populations?

    A number of other verbs associated with the concept indicate that affected populations can participate and have agency in their own assistance, such as “empower”, “involve” and “include”.

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    References to affected population in the document collection are frequently combined with the following specific terms to make concept combinations:

    • Accountability to affected populations
    • Access to affected populations
    • Needs of affected populations
    • Participation of affected populations

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    3.1. Practical insights

    Accountability to affected populations

    Accountability to affected populations (AAP) occurs in the document collection since 2005, but increased significantly in use in 2011. In fact, the concept had been on the agenda at least since 2003 when the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership was established to promote accountability to people affected by humanitarian crises. In 2007, HAP published the first Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management, and a revised and updated version in 2010 (HAP, 2010). They also publish annual Humanitarian Accountability Reports which frequently used the term “accountability to affected populations” or variations (to beneficiaries, to recipients, people affected by disaster) (e.g. HAP, 2010, 2011).

    The spike in usage of accountability to affected populations and its acronym AAP in 2011 reflects consolidation of the term in humanitarian policy arenas. In the lead up to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Transformative Agenda, accountability to affected populations was described as a key challenge for the sector (Sphere Handbook, 2011, ALNAP, 2011). The December 2011 agreement on the Transformative Agenda itself focused on three areas: leadership, coordination and accountability, and included an endorsement from the IASC Principals of five Commitments to Accountability to Affected Populations, namely: Leadership/Governance, Transparency, Feedback and Complaints, Participation, and Design, Monitoring and Evaluation (IASC, 2011a). They further outlined an Operational Framework to make programming at the field level more accountable to affected populations (IASC, 2011b).

    Since 2011, the term AAP has been used in humanitarian documents with consistently high frequency, as shown in the visualisation of AAP over time.

    When referring to accountability to affected populations, humanitarian organizations refer to a range of ways to increase it:

    • Advocacy Work
    • Auditing
    • Better Communication
    • Better Coordination
    • Community Engagement
    • Complaint Mechanisms
    • Consulting with Experts
    • Creating Codes, Protocols and Practices
    • Donor Pressure
    • Feedback Mechanisms
    • Institutionalisation
    • Localising Response
    • Modifying Codes, Protocols and Practices
    • Real Time Evaluation
    • Referral Mechanisms
    • Training Locals

    However, a number of questions remain challenging for humanitarian organisations seeking to improve AAP:

    • Which projects best improve AAP?
    • How do NGOs perceive AAP?
    • What is the relationship with AAP, devolving responsibility to local actors and monitoring?
    • How do organisations operationalise AAP?
    • What is the relationship between AAP and protection?
    • How can AAP be balanced with local leadership and humanitarian standards?

      Access to affected populations

      Humanitarian organisations are often concerned with constrained, partial, restricted, limited or unpredictable access to affected populations. Even where resources or funding are available, restricted access due to conflict or natural disaster can limit the effectiveness of aid. In addition, having access only to part of an affected population raises challenges around how to distribute aid impartially. Access challenges include:

      Access to affected populations can be improved by several factors:

        Needs of affected populations

        Humanitarian documents refer to the needs of affected populations in both in general terms, and in technical terms often related to a cluster or sector of humanitarian action. For example, general terms include basic and immediate survival needs, critical hunger needs, housing, or treatment needs. More specific needs include: food security, water, shelter/settlement, non-food items, education, health. Similarly, the responses organisations provide to meet these needs are both general, such as relief, aid, support, humanitarian assistance, or specific items (food, non-food, medical), services, facilities, and information.

        Participation of affected populations

        Participation of affected populations has appeared more frequently in the document collection since 2011, and particularly since 2014. The references to this combined concept suggest it is “essential”, “necessary” and “of primary importance, but a very sensitive issue”. Humanitarian organisations outline the need to assess local capacities and the ways affected populations could participate in humanitarian action through statements, guidelines, reports and aims or strategies. These mention a wide range of ways to involve affected populations in humanitarian response:

        • Assessment
        • Construction
        • Consultation
        • Coordination
        • Decision-making
        • Design
        • Development
        • Evaluation
        • Facility Guarding
        • Facility Maintenance
        • Facility Management
        • Implementation
        • Monitoring
        • Planning
        • Provision
        • Representation
        • Supply of Information
        • Testing

        Drawing on an existing participation framework, the Participation Handbook proposes the following model for the degrees of involvement of affected populations in humanitarian response (ALNAP, 2009).

        1. Passive participation: The affected population is informed of what is going to happen or what has occurred.
        2. Participation through the supply of information: The affected population provides information in response to questions, but it has no influence over the process because survey results are not shared and their accuracy is not verified.
        3. Participation by consultation: The affected population is asked for its perspective on a given subject, but it has no decision-making powers and no guarantee that its views will be considered.
        4. Participation through material incentives: The affected population supplies some of the materials and/or labour needed to operationalise an intervention, in exchange for a payment in cash or kind from the aid organisation.
        5. Participation through the supply of materials, cash or labour: The affected population supplies some of the materials, cash and/or labour needed to operationalise an intervention. This includes cost-recovery mechanisms.
        6. Interactive participation: The affected population participates in the analysis of needs and in programme conception, and has decision-making powers.
        7. Local initiatives: The affected population takes the initiative, acting independently of external organisations or institutions. Although it may call on external bodies to support its initiatives, the project is conceived and run by the community; it is the aid organisation that participates in the population’s projects.

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        3.2. Geographical variation

        Affected population and its variants occur mostly in documents published in Europe, followed by North America, Asia and Africa. Europe is also the most frequent category relative to the amount of documents in the collection from this region.

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        3.3. Organisational variation

        Non-governmental organisation (NGO) documents provide most occurrences of “affected population”, primarily from activity reports published in Europe and Africa. Occurrences from intergovernmental organisation (IGO) documents are the second most important in number, followed by documents from the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement (RC). Although they have fewer documents in the collection, project / service provider organisations like the Sphere Project refer frequently to “affected population” relative to the size of their subcorpora, which shows that this concept features strongly in global humanitarian standards.

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        3.4. Sectoral variation

        Different sectors and humanitarian actors draw a distinction between the concepts “affected population” and “affected people”. For example, ICRC frequently refers to affected “people” (ICRC, 2017), which may indicate an effort to describe the affected individuals and communities in a way that represents their humanity and diversity more than their membership in a uniform set or population. Other sectors and actors, however, may find it more important to use more technical terms like “population” which have a precise meaning.

        A number of other sector or organisation specific terms are important too. For example, UNHCR serves what it calls “persons of concern”, which recognizes that a wider range of people affected by displacement are within its mission, despite its core mandate to protect refugees.

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          3.5. Trends over time

          Affected population has become more frequently used in humanitarian documents between 2004 and 2019 overall. Spikes in frequency in 2011 and 2018 are largely explained by the usage of the term in the project category’s main document, the Sphere Handbook, where it occurs 280 and 98 times respectively. For all years between 2011 and 2018, the total number of occurrences was also above the period average.

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          3.6. Key cases and examples

          Syria: Measuring affected population in a complex displacement setting

          Syria is an example where “the inability to accurately assess the status, size, and location of affected populations [has hampered] humanitarian planning and provision of life saving assistance” (Doocy et al., 2015). A number of approaches have been tested in this setting to better breakdown and define the affected population. One example is the Needs and Population Monitoring (NPM) exercise (see past assessments here). Launched in 2015, it broke down the affected population into seven categories and collected primary data through key informant interviews and direct observation to dynamically measure the size and needs of these groups:

          • Current resident population affected by the crisis (living in damaged shelter and /or moved into another building/shelter in the same location)
          • Current resident population not affected by the crisis (not living in a damaged shelter and remaining in same pre-crisis residence)
          • Resident population that fled and did not return (left their location to another location within Syria currently absent from the location)
          • Resident population that fled and not returned (left the location) to another location out of Syria (currently absent from the location)
          • Returnees of the resident population that fled and returned to the location (currently present in the location):
          • Internally Displaced Syrians that arrived in the location since 2011 (currently present in the location)
          • Internally Displaced Non-Syrians that arrived in the location since 2011 (currently present in the location)

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            3.7. Measurements

            Humanitarian population figures or estimates are the main way of identifying the size of an affected population. However, complex, highly politicised crises with dynamic displacement situations and scarce information make it difficult to accurately estimate population figures. At the same time, without clear estimates of the size and characteristics of affected population and people in need, it is difficult to plan operations and understand the success or failure of humanitarian programmes. Moreover, where humanitarian populations are under or over estimated, it can have consequences for the credibility of appeals that advocate for a higher percentage of crisis funding (ALNAP, 2015). As outlined by Doocy et al., (2015). “The inability to accurately assess the status, size, and location of affected populations in Syria hampers humanitarian planning and provision of life saving assistance.” (See also Mooney, 2015).

            The affected population can be calculated as proportion of the total population (often defined in Common Operational Datasets where available) of a country or specific geographic area directly affected by a crisis. Calculating the affected population is important because it in turn underpins estimates of more specific humanitarian populations, such as the population in need of humanitarian assistance (and the severity of their needs) and the population targeted for, reached, and covered by humanitarian assistance (which may depend on available resources and access constraints). For further information, refer to the IASC Information Management Working Group Humanitarian Profile Support Guidance document (IASC, 2016).

            There are a multiple techniques and tools available for estimating affected populations (See Sapir and Hoyois, 2015):

            • Categorisation of population based on geographic and demographic data
            • Surveys based on both representative and purposive sampling
            • Geospatial techniques for estimating affected areas and populations
            • Telecommunications and crowdsourcing
            • Models and forecasting

            However, despite an increase in technology, information and data in most humanitarian settings, the specific data needed for calculating affected populations and populations in need often remains scarce or untimely. To fit the templates and severity models needed to inform programming and funding decisions, humanitarian actors make use of secondary data, qualitative analysis, and other methods to generate comparable indices and sizes. While these are important contributions, such indices are founded on estimates and should as such be considered in line with other sources of information that may challenge or verify these estimates.

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            4. DEBATES

            4.1. Related concepts

            The top 10 concepts and terms that occur most frequently in conjunction with affected population in the document collection are as follows:

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            4.2. Debates, controversies and critical views

            A wide range of policy and academic debates concern affected populations in humanitarian contexts, most notably the practical debates listed in section 3.1: access to, needs of, and participation of affected populations.

            In addition, specifying the exact parameters of the affected population itself in a humanitarian crisis is an important but somewhat overlooked debate. Definitions put forward in humanitarian documents are inconsistent on the extent of “affectedness” required for an affected population to be described as such. On the one hand, documents describing how to measure the size of the affected population emphasise the need to be “directly” affected. This approach seeks to narrow down from the total population a subset of people who are affected and in need of assistance, who can be targeted and reached by humanitarian programmes. On the other hand, glossary definitions of “affected population” suggest they can be both “indirectly” and “directly” affected by a crisis (see Humanitarian Innovation Guide).

            The distinction could be that a directly affected person has shelter damage to their home; an indirectly affected person lives within same the area but has experienced no direct impacts. While narrowing the affected population can help facilitate response targeting, considering a broader view that includes indirectly affected people can be useful to response design. For example, innovation design benefits from broad identification of potential users and use cases to solve complex and context-specific humanitarian challenges, by recognizing that “local citizens, municipal government workers, community-based and faith-based organisation staff, volunteers, and social entrepreneurs… often co-develop, support, carry out, and deliver humanitarian assistance themselves.” (see Humanitarian Innovation Guide).

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            4.3. Grey areas

            A limitation to the concept of affected population is its interchangeable usage with population in need, in practice and discourse, despite the distinct meanings of these two terms in institutionalised population estimation frameworks. Examples of this interchangeability can be found in many publications, but starkly standout in infographics and similarly summarizsed information where it is harder to interpret the meaning from surrounding content. The example here from a UNICEF Situation Report shows the Situation in Numbers with 12,184,000 as the “number of people affected” on page one, which is the same number as the “total number of people in need” on the table on page two (UNICEF, 2015). While often this type of conflation of terms is often just minor editorial oversight, it reflects the tendency of interchangeable usage of these terms by humanitarian workers, despite their technically different meanings.

            Another grey area relates to the exact perimeters of “affected population”. Measuring the affected population as a percentage of the total population in a given area implies including the individuals captured by the last population census, extrapolated to more recent years through population estimate models. While these methods would include individuals from all or most sectors in a society “living in an affected area”, it remains unclear whether certain groups fall within this category, from tourists to short-term visitors, to local public authorities and private sector businesses who are nonetheless often considered to be separate from the affected population. The same issue can also mean displaced populations living in an area then affected by a disaster are overlooked, particularly in urban displacement settings.

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            4.4. Parameters and research direction

            A number of approaches are available to better define the parameters of the concept of affected population. The relationship of affected population with other actors in their environment, namely humanitarian actors but potentially others, remains a rich field for exploration, particularly empirical exploration, because these relations are likely to different by circumstance and context. In addition, the nature of affected populations, including their needs, vulnerabilities, capacities and resilience are important to explore.

            Further progress is also needed to define the exact parameters of the affected population itself. This is required on two levels: what is meant by “affected”? And how can population denominators be more accurately and effectively obtained (LSHTM, 2018).

            A range of approaches provide avenues foundations to build on. Technology is emerging from big data, social media and satellite imagery that can help estimate population size and characteristics. For example, In addition, the role of expert judgment in humanitarian situations has been explored as a way to handle issues of data scarcity and uncertainty (ACAPS 2017).

            Another research avenue is to identify who exactly organisations serve and do not serve based on experience. ICRC for example recently evaluated the diversity, inclusion and accountability to affected people of its operations (GPPI, 2018). More internal and external reflection on who humanitarians actually serve/miss and why/why not can help crystallise the concept.

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            Humanitarian documents from 2004-2019 tend often to describe affected population as passive recipients of aid, but at the same time there are many indications that humanitarian actors consider indications that a broader view of affected populations as agents in their own response and recovery is gaining traction.

            Recognition that affected populations are in many cases agents in response raises a number of questions for further discussion and reflection:

            • How vulnerable are affected populations given the breadth and diversity of groups that included in these populations?
            • In what ways can an affected population be disaggregated, beyond age, sex, gender and other classical disaggregation, in order to get a better sense of their inherent coping capacity and potential contributions to disaster response?
            • How can data collection and analysis processes be improved to better estimate the size and nature of affected population in humanitarian crises? What emerging technologies are promising to improve participation of and accountability to affected populations, given the often limited connectivity in conflict and disaster settings?
            • What role can affected populations play in bridging the humanitarian-development nexus?
            • How can humanitarian actors ensure their meaningful participation of affected populations in planning, implementation, and learning?
            • How can a whole of society approach to inform our understanding of affected population?

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              6. FURTHER RESOURCES

              IASC (2016) Humanitarian Population Figures.

              Click to access humanitarianprofilesupportguidance_final_may2016.pdf

              ACAPS (2012) Rapid estimation of affected population figures: Desk Review

              Click to access rapid_estimation_of_affected_population_figures_may_2012.pdf

              Core Humanitarian Standard (2014) and Guidance Note (2018).

              Click to access CHS_GN%26I_2018.pdf

              ALNAP (2015) WHS Effectiveness Theme Focal Issue: Accountability

              Click to access whs-focal-paper-accountability-and-participation.pdf

              ALNAP. Our Topics: Engagement with Affected People.

              IASC. Accountability and Inclusion.

              P2P Support for Humanitarian Leaders in the Field: Collective Accountability to Affected People.

              ICRC (2020) Accountability to Affected People Framework.

              WHO (2017) Operational Guidance on Accountability to Affected Population.

              IASC (2011) Accountability to Affected Populations: IASC Commitments.

              Click to access AAP%20IASC%20Commitments.pdf

              IASC (2011) Accountability to Affected Populations: The Operational Framework.

              Click to access AAP%20Operational%20Framework%20Final%20Revision.pdf


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