Evidence 16: Diverse areas of intervention

With Evidence 16 we reach the final stage of our journey into the diversity of the humanitarian sector. To conclude, let us look at the diverse sectors of activities in which humanitarian organizations develop their activities.

To identify the sectors of activities of humanitarian organizations, we mainly used their activity reports. Our goal was to identify the actual sector of activity of an organization, in order not to rely on declared sectors of activities[1]. As for the group of people targeted by an organization’s program, we proceed through inductive coding and created categories based on the organizations’ programs in 2016.  We didn’t rely on a priori lists of sectors, but based our list on the descriptions specific organizations give of their area of intervention. In the end, our list of sectors reflects how organizations qualify what they do. The categories which emerged at the end of our coding exercise are represented in the graph below.


What are the insights provided by our results?

First, they inform us on the level of specialization of humanitarian organizations. Only 24% of the humanitarian organizations included in our database develop programs in a single sector of activity. Humanitarian organizations are predominantly multi-sectorial, most of them developing programs in 2 or 3 distinct sectors. A large share of the organizations in our database prefers mentioning activities rather than sectors of activities, stating that their action is, by nature multi-sectorial. This is the case for 25% of the organizations in our database.

Second, our results show that some sectors receive more attention than others.

Two areas of intervention are largely predominant: health and protection, with respectively 20,1 % and 19,2% of organizations working in each sector. Both sectors appear to form the core of humanitarian actors’ activities and are sometimes considered as the historical sector of humanitarian action[2]. Interestingly, these sectors, although they represent a large part of humanitarian organizations’ activities only received 8,3% and 3,5% of the total funding in 2016[3]. This focus of humanitarian actors was confirmed by our analysis of the humanitarian language: health was present in all of the comparative frequency analyses we undertook. Protection was to a lesser extent a recurring term, with a particular pattern of appearance in the MENA region.

Food – including nutrition, food aid, food security programs – and education are the second most important sectors for humanitarian organizations. Yet both sectors are in very distinct financial situations. At the global level, activities linked to food security are the most funded (23,4% of humanitarian funding flows in 2016). Education receives less attention from donors. Both terms were also present in our frequency analysis, especially in the Latin America and Caribbean WHS consultations.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and security attract humanitarian actors at the same level. 10% of humanitarian organizations work in each of these sectors. The importance is reflected in the frequent use of the term “water” by humanitarian actors. In our database, “security” mainly includes programs linked to mine action.

Except for “shelter” and non-food items – which are the areas of intervention of 7% of humanitarian organizations, other areas of intervention are more limited in size. This could be due to their very specific and technical nature – as for Camp Coordination and Camp Management or Telecommunications in Emergency – or because few organizations use this label to qualify their sector of activities.

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[1] Given that we are interested in what organizations actually do, we were careful not to overrepresent organizations with the intention to start activities in a specific sector.

[2] Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity, Ithaca : Cornell University Press.

[3] https://fts.unocha.org/global-funding/overview/2016