PHASE 1:  Selecting the entries of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia

The first question addressed by the project was: What are the central concepts of humanitarian practice?

129 concepts have been selected forming the Humanitarian Encyclopedia entries.

An analysis of a wide range of dictionaries, Encyclopedias and handbooks showed that most of these documents fail to justify and explain the selection of entries. In other words, they mainly give a subjective point of view – in terms of preference of use and interest – often representing the preferences of a specific humanitarian organization or scholar.

To ensure that selected concepts are relevant for a range of humanitarian practitioners, the entries of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia have be identified and selected through a multi-method and participatory approach, seeking to identify concepts drawing on specific terminology used by humanitarian practitioners and giving them a central role.


The entries of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia will be based on a selection of the most salient concepts to humanitarian practice.

Concepts may be salient because of:

  • Their centrality in humanitarian action
  • The challenges they raise for practice
  • Their consensual character when they reflect a common set of principles and ideas that are specific to humanitarian practice
  • Their contested nature linked to either their meaning or origin (i.e. when a concept is imported to the humanitarian field by a governmental donor)
  • Their recent emergence reflecting a recent evolution of humanitarian practice
  • Their fuzziness as their meaning is ill defined and their properties are unclear
  • Their failure if concepts which were central are either no longer used, relevant to humanitarian practice or concretely operationalized in daily practice

Concept selection

A multi-method research and participatory approach

The concept selection is structured in four steps combining quantitative and qualitative research methods. This process seeks to reflect the diversity of languages and practices existing in the sector by involving a broad range of humanitarian actors .

  • Mapping the diversity of the humanitarian sector by creating an exhaustive database of about 2’600 organizations, composed by all self-declared humanitarian entities, whatever their type, geographical origin and mission
  • Examining  the terminology used by humanitarian organizations through a content-analysis of strategic documents
  • Asking humanitarian practitioners about their understanding of concepts and what they perceive as priority concepts through a consultative online survey
  • Organizing panel discussions in various world regions to further explore: What are the most central concepts in day to day practices and why? Which concepts are lacking? Which concept groupings emerge? Which concepts have complementary or contradictory relationships and why?

Practitioners play a leading role in this concept selection process : they will shape the Humanitarian Encyclopedia’s architecture, by contributing to these research activities. The final selection of the entries will be the responsibility of the Advisory Board.