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8. Needology
23rd October 2020 • Trumanitarian • Trumanitarian
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Humanitarians say that they will base their interventions on needs. But how do you define needs? And how do standards and methodologies influence the way we think about humanitarian action?

These are some of issues Joël Glasman and Lars Peter Nissen unpack in this episode. Joël is a historian and has written the book Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs: Minimal Humanity.

Transcripts

Lars Peter Nissen:

One of the fundamental principles that we base our work on as humanitarians is every give aid regardless of the race, creed and nationality of recipients, and we don't make adverse distinctions of any kind. In order to do this, you must calculate aid policies on the basis of needs. But what does that actually mean and how to do that? That's the topic of this week's episode of Trumanitarian. Joel Glasman is a historian and he's written a book about the way in which the humanitarian sector, over the decades, have calculated needs, and how the way in which we do that affects our operations. I have worked extensively with assessment of crisis and thought a lot about how to get more needs-based outcomes out of the humanitarian decision making. And I found it a refreshing and provocative perspective that Joel provides on a sector that I thought I knew really well. I hope you'll enjoy the conversation. It's a bit longer than the normal episodes, but we both got really into it and we hope you will as well. Joel Glasman, welcome to Trumanitarian.

Joel Glasman:

Good morning.

Lars Peter Nissen:

You reached out to me a couple of weeks ago about a book you have written that's called Humanitarianism and the Qualification of Human Needs, Minimal Humanitarianism. Now, two questions to begin with, why did you reach out? And why did you write this book?

Joel Glasman:

I've reached out to you because I think there is a need of a conversation between scholars and practitioners about the knowledge produced by humanitarian organisations. I'm a historian, I'm scholar working in a university, interested in the history of humanitarianism and humanitarian aid. And the reason why I wanted to look at humanitarian data, humanitarian statistics, because I use them when I when teach history. When I teach about African history, I go online on the page of UNHCR, OCHA, and other organisations looking for numbers, right, on malnutrition, the number of refugees, and so on. And at some point, I became curious about how this numbers produce? Who produced them? What is the quality of this numbers? And this is how I started to dig into this history.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And I, of course, was really excited when I saw this book. I didn't know about it before. And my day job is with ACAPS and we obviously work with shaping the humanitarian narrative, finding data, creating comparable datasets. So I realised how much of a geek I have become, because I enjoyed reading your book so much that I couldn't put it down again. I have a number of questions for you around your argument. But maybe... could you begin by just... Present your argument for us.

Joel Glasman:

Well, the main argument of the book is that humanitarian statistics is flawed. And the numbers that we have in humanitarianism are... very often they are poor, they are of bad quality. The knowledge behind the data is... more often than not, it's a knowledge of poor quality. But for some reason, we still used in these numbers and we... there is still a narrative going on about statistics and more data making being able to make a difference. There is a talk about, you know, evidence-based humanitarian decision making, about the data revolution in humanitarian aid... All this hype, all this discourse about data doesn't fit really with the real quality of the data. And that's a problem. And the argument that the books is making is, we mistake the moral values of what humanitarianism should be about, with the tools themself. We think that the tools have an intrinsic internal moral value, you know, impartiality, universality, humanity, consensus, all these things, we project that into the statistics, into the tools, into the technology, but we should rethink that.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So on one side, you're saying the information space that we operate in is really bad. There's a lot of uncertainty, bad data, a lot of unknowns, known unknowns. Yet, we tend to want to polish over that uncertainty and tell a story that is much more certain?

Joel Glasman:

And the striking thing here is, if you're in the field with... talking to experts and, you know, practitioners producing the data, you know, country directors working in need assessment of giving data for needs assessment, epidemiologists, you know, nutrition specialists, or clerks working with UNHCR for counting refugees: all these people, they are very open about, you know, their uncertainty, they are very openly criticising the data and saying, you know, 'I have doubts here, I don't know that we have to extrapolate this, this is a proxy, we do not have access to this region', and so on. But at the end of the day, the end product, the aggregated consolidated data, published by OCHA in the Global Need Overview... or Humanitarian Needs Overview, it looks precise, it looks coherent, it looks like that... as if the data was of good quality. So this is this this gap, you know, this tension between... This is a public secret that the data that we have is of poor quality. Why isn't it more interest for that?

Lars Peter Nissen:

But at the same time, you also seem to be saying that we somehow become prisoners of our own thermometer. That we, in a sense, fall in love with... or turn our standards into the good guys, and they have intrinsic moral value and so on. How does that tally with what you just said about the public secret? If people really know, then is it really right that we turn the standards into something they're not?

Joel Glasman:

Yes, that is... I think this is typical. And this is something that sociologist are working on since the beginning of sociology, that, at the same times, we know, but we don't know in the way that the sociology can put it in a coherent manner in a coherent discourse. If you're a country director working to produce numbers for, you know, next week or next month, and give numbers even so you know that these numbers are not very good, you have to give them. You know, and your colleagues know, and you can talk about it in informal conversation that the quality of the data is not good, but still you have to do it. You provide the data and then statistics will live a life on its own. So what I mean is, of course there is a kind of knowledge, but this is fragmented, this is this is not openly talked about that... We have to talk about the lack of knowledge, of the poor quality of the data that we have.

Lars Peter Nissen:

But why does it matter? Why does it matter that... If people know and we, by and large, have a public secret, who cares as long as we get some money?

Joel Glasman:

I mean, it... for me as a as a scholar external to the field, I do have an interest in looking at, you know, the quality of knowledge and if what we are pretending is true or not. But I think why it matters is because in every organisation at some point you have debates and you have you know, in many cases, professionals wanting to push for a solution and other positions saying, 'Well, do you have evidence for that? Can you provide some data on this? Give me the statistics.' And so there is a, you know, an injunction to 'Give me the evidence, give me the numbers', but the fact that, you know, the numbers that we have are of a poor quality, we have to question that and why is it that we have a very narrow definition of evidence being numbers, indicators, standards, but evidence can mean a lot of things. Qualitative data, ethnographic work, professional experience, and so on.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And in your book, you go back and you describe how, over the years, this process, this production of the humanitarian narrative, the shaping of it, how that has happened. You go back to Henry Dunant and look at how he did it. And when I read that part, I felt like, Yeah, it's nice that you can sit and describe the suffering in very compassionate and strong terms and I think that is incredibly important. At the same time, having stopped studied public administration in political science, if you want to dish out $26 billion, you don't want anecdotal narratives, right? You do need some comparable data to be able to do this. So how do you scale Henry Dunant?

Joel Glasman:

Yes, that's that's exactly the question, right? And you want to have comparable evidence, you want to have comparable knowledge, but first, qualitative knowledge can also be comparable and second, of course, the question is, How do you put your... this evidence together? And I think we have to avoid that different kinds of evidence are being bullied by the, you know, evidence-based narrative or the statistics-based narrative? If you look at medical doctors, how do they decide, you know, you go, you have cancer or something, you go to a hospital, and then you will have a team of doctors trying to make an assessment. How will you do that? You have different specialties, right, different, you know, an oncologist and, if it's a child, you have paediatrist, and some other doctors, they will have the different methods. They will have numbers, of course. Numbers are very important. Statistics, they matter. I love statistics. But it's not the only thing in the room. You have different kinds of evidence and they will discuss and there is a bit of deliberation, and everybody knows 'We have to take a risk, we don't know everything, we have uncertainty... we'll analyse the pictures, the diagnosis'... the discussion with the patient also matters. You know, the discussion with the p-... and all this will be put together. And so the key decision here, that the key problem is how do we organise this conversation between the different types of evidence, okay? And the quality of the decision is the quality of the discussion happening between the different scientists, we'll say epistemologies.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So in your book, Why do you think it is like that and why do you think the humanitarian community behaves like this?

Joel Glasman:

Well, there are two... if you look at the literature, there are two explanations. The first explanation, the first narrative, is to say that's professionalisation. It's because humanitarian organisation are getting better and better at producing knowledge. There is specialisation, accumulation of knowledge, more credits, more investment into knowledge production. That's the, you know, the optimist narrative. That's if you read Michael Barnett's history of Humanitarian Aid, that's... and that's the own narrative of the organizations themselves. There is a second narrative, which is a critical narrative and a pessimistic narrative would say, 'Well, that's neoliberal agenda, right? That the donor was trying to govern the humanitarian field and trying to control the NGOs and that's why techniques such as, you know, accounting, benchmark, ranking, all these neoliberal technique will... are being adopted by aid organisations.' That's the second narrative. And I'm trying to make a third argument which says, basically, well, part of the responsibility is not external to human organisation, it's within humanitarian organisations themselves. It's not only driven by the donors, it's also because, for some reason, at some points... (and you've quoted Henry Dunant) you know but other, you know, leading figures of humanitarianism have put together moral values and tools and have mistaken tools for the moral values.

Lars Peter Nissen:

I think that's a very clear way of describing the argument in the book. On one side, you have a narrative saying, 'Oh, you know, this is getting better and better, we are producing more knowledge.' Secondly, you have 'We're actually forgetting the heart blood of the humanitarian agenda and just becoming technocrats serving a neoliberal agenda.' And you'll then say, actually, there's a relative autonomy inside the humanitarian sector and the way you shape your tools end up shaping you and you need to be more honest about that.

Joel Glasman:

And you need to be... to look at this (and that's one when I think that the book can do)... is to provide those, within every institution, those who want to, you know, to push forward for other kinds of knowledge, other types of evidence, who want to open the table, open the debate on evidence, to provide them with arguments to, you know... what's... we have the feeling, many people have the feeling there is something wrong with the data that we have, and to try to provide them with arguments and information on that without, you know, falling into a, you know, negationist's vision of 'data, per se, or statistic, per se is a problem.' It's not the problem. The problem is our trust, or our overemphasis on statistics and the neglect of other kinds of evidence.

Lars Peter Nissen:

I do agree with most of what you say in the book. But for this to be an interesting discussion, I think I need to challenge you a bit so let me come up with a couple of challenges where I could tell a different story based on on what I read. But before I do that, I want to say, I do think it's an incredibly important conversation to have. For me, the way we shape the humanitarian narrative is at the heart of the humanitarian agenda, it's not some kind of marginal technocratic issue about sampling frames and questionnaire design. It is really about who we are. And for an industry that says signs a code of conduct saying we must base our interventions on needs alone, it's a massive problem that we're not being clear on how those needs are being defined or measured, by the way. For me, it's one of the key humanitarian conversations that we're not having. Not at the level we're supposed to, it's sort of stuffed away in a technical corner somewhere in Geneva. But back to the challenge. I think my first challenge is, I think it's great you put focus on the relative autonomy of the humanitarian sector. At the same time, I think you are forgetting the broader picture and incentive structure that sort of we operate in. I think, for me, that incentive structure is expressed in a report that was written 15 years ago by James Darcy and Charles-Antoine Hoffman where they wrote something along the lines of, donors and agencies have a tendency... or, mutual tendency, to construct and solve crisis without evidence ever really answering the equation. So they described sort of a closed circle between donors and agencies making up stories, and then finding a solution to that story. And I think, for me, the... I think the most important thing that you and I agree on is that a crisis is a story. It's a social construct.

Joel Glasman:

Yeah, I think I agree with... I mean, you're... the quote that you're taking and the paper that you're quoting. I mean, of course, it's a criticising of decision making and also a defence of evidence-based humanitarianism. It was also a call for more need assessment and better need assessment and so on. And of course, I agree with that. But it was also a defence of the narrow vision of need assessment, of a narrow definition of evidence. So while I agree that we need evidence, the older question for me is, What kind of evidence?

Lars Peter Nissen:

But you agree that crisis is a story we tell, it's a narrative.

Joel Glasman:

Part of part of it... it's the story. And the important thing is, it's a story which has effects, right? It is the story, but it's not a fiction.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Exactly. So I think we agree that crises are stories that we tell, but we also agree that those crimes... those stories should be based as much as possible on evidence. But I think the strength of looking at it from that perspective is that it inoculate you against seeing it as something objective that just exist as a... almost as a law of nature. right? It is something you construct, it's a story you tell and it has to be a robust story that reflects the reality of the people affected by crisis, and evidence has to be what drives it, not your own want to do something or a donor's desire to do something, but the situation of the people. We must base our interventions on needs alone. But we also have to recognise that it's a story.

Joel Glasman:

And is a story that has... that goes with tools and with tools that shapes reality, right? It's not a story on its own in the idea... It's not a story in the mind, it's a story also in the tools, in the Excel score sheets, and so on.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And that's the one about being prisoner of your own thermometer.

Joel Glasman:

I like this metaphor. I will use that.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So if we depart from that insight that we construct and solve crisis without evidence entering the equation, the way I would describe the incentive structure is, agencies are there to maximise their turnover, to get as much money as they can, and to dominate as big a part of the humanitarian policy agenda as they can. Because if you dominate the tools, the thermometer, if you want, then you also tend to get more money and it strategically positions you very well. Donors, on the other hand, want to handle risk, as I see it. I think that's what them. Donors want to handle risk and mitigate against risk and so they will fund what solves the problem, what handles the risk. We polish reality to make it look more like a solution so that we can get more money. That I think is my basic argument. And that's where the disconnect comes from. And so my challenge is, if that's the case, I think the thermometer is far less important than the underlying incentives. As they would say in America, 'the incentives, stupid'. That's what drives it.

Joel Glasman:

I think you're right and I agree with part of what you said. And I think that's what I framed earlier in this... in the discussion as the critic of neoliberalism narrative, right? That's a critic of saying, 'Okay, that comes from the donors, that come from the, you know, underlying political interests, the, you know, the rising importance of financial institutions...' Do... you know. And I agree with that, of course, that's part of the story. But I think it's important because within... You know, this is part of the story that the humanitarian organisations do not tend to forget. You know, obviously, yeah. But we have to produce the numbers. Yeah, but we have to produce them, we have to feed the donors with numbers because the asked... they're asking for that. So we have to... so nobody in the field is going to forget that. Nobody in the field is going going to forget this incentives, because they feed it on an everyday manner. So this is why the book is putting an emphasis on the leverage that human organisations have on the agency of people working within... because not (and that's important)... not all NGOs, for instance, react in the same way to this insentive. So you have external drivers. But once you have these drivers, you have very different strategies to react to that. You know, an organisation like Doctors Without Borders, does not have the same strategy as Caritas, does not have as Oxfam, so there is agency, there is leverage, and that's important to not to forget.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Let me challenge you on that again, then. Unless you look at where the money comes from... If you look... if you compare... You tell a story in the book about how the Sphere Standards were created, and you use the example of Peter Walker, who was working with the Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent. The second person you use is Nicholas Stockton, who was with Oxfam back then. And the third one is Francois Greenbelt from your day in France, representing the French NGOs. Francois is on one side and Peter and Nicolas on the other and you then use that to say, 'Oh, you know, there's agency and you can actually take different positions.' I think all three of those excellent humanitarians are really committed and believe what they're saying; I also think that the money that funds the agencies that work with come from different sources, and bring with them different, you know, conditionalities, and I think that probably tallies quite well with the positions they take. So where's the agency?

Joel Glasman:

So the first thing I want to say is, my book and my interest is not about this Sphere project as an organisation. All right? I'm not part in the field. And I used this case study of the Sphere project, first, because they are well-known (they're very important standards now), and secondly, because the Sphere project open the archive to me, so I can hd a look at thousands of emails written by the early members of the project and look at how things happen. So it's not... what I really want to straighten out here is not... it's not a... I don't really care about single organisations and single individuals, right? That's just a case for me to make a bigger point about standards. But what was the argument? The official story of the Sphere project is to say, we will ask scientist for the facts, right? And when we ask this, these facts, then we will reach a consensus within humanitarian organisations. We will put all... was the big banana, the humanitarian community, you know... take everyone on board... Reach a humanitarian consensus. That's the idea that the consensus will be made possible by the facts put on the table by the scientists. I looked at the archives, I looked at, you know, thousands of emails written by the scientist and the experts involved in the project. And it's not like that the standards were produced. Not at all. There was a permanent negotiation between organisations, experts, scientists, everybody trying... and a perfect legitimate one, right? I'm not saying that was an illegitimate. It was good discussion. Negotiating the standard, expert would put into consideration, of course, scientific knowledge, but also the interest of the organisations, the interests of different populations, the different... the interest of the donors, political arguments, moral arguments, religious arguments: all in this together, right? And so the consensus was reached and emerged in the same time as the standards themselves. And there were dissident positions as well, such as Francois Grunewald and the French... the so-called French NGOs who disagreed on different standards. So what I want to say here is that we should free ourselves from the expectation that science or evidence or knowledge will solve our differences or our disputes over the situation.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So I agree and I don't agree, right? Because it... On one side, Sphere obviously has had a massive positive impact on the sector. And I think we agree on that, right? That's what we're saying. It's been hugely...

Joel Glasman:

I have no... I have no opinion on that.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Okay.

Joel Glasman:

I'm not saying this Sphere is a good thing or a bad thing. I just looked at how it came and that's the narrative produced by Sphere, what not the narrative... the true story about how the standards were produced. I don't have the tools, I'm not an epidemiologist, I cannot say... And probably, you know, the positive impact is we would have to say, for whom?

Lars Peter Nissen:

Fair enough. Let me say that as a practitioner, I have no doubt about that. I have... in my experience, I think that it has helped synchronise mindsets across many different organisations, enabling collaboration in a number of ways. It has helped us avoid making terrible mistakes we've made in the past.

Joel Glasman:

But again, here, what you are stressing out is the consensus, right, is, it has helped the organization's to agree with one another. But the point is...

Lars Peter Nissen:

No, that's not what I was...

Joel Glasman:

What is the output for the population? That is it. Right? That should be the stick yard.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Yeah, I think what I'm trying to say is, if you play on the football field, it's useful that everybody have the same rulebook. Now that doesn't necessarily determine whether it's a great game or not, or how many goals are scored. And for me, the standards are probably what has created a shared understanding of what we're trying to achieve, and enabling a conversation across many different entities, and I probably don't buy the extent to which you think that that fundamentally has changed the way we think about humanitarianism, that the, you know, the standard strives towards a minimal humanitarianism. I probably see it... I... It's not that I don't think that happens, and it's not that I don't think the way you describe the disconnect between reality and the tools and, you know, the need to praise the way we do business and produce the numbers that we need for... I see all of that. I've done that. It's not my argument. My argument is two things. One, why are they produced? And that has far more to do with that fundamental incentive structure that I have tried to describe, rather than the internal discussions. It's external and the positions... you see those different people take, in that debate you describe in great detail, and in fascinating read... For me, that is... there is an autonomy, but the main explanation is where does the money come from and what's the business model? The second point I'd like to make is, Why doesn't it change? Why don't... Why doesn't that situation you describe of us operating with business intelligence, if you want, that's somehow disconnected from reality... Why doesn't that change over time?

Joel Glasman:

I think I would like to answer the two questions in one answer. Because that's... For me, that's that's exactly the key point. One of the reason why things are going on and you have an increasing reliance on some numbers and statistics and evidence even so we know that this evidence is flawed or this data is flawed, quite often. It's because it has become very difficult to oppose them, including the Sphere standards. If you now criticise the standards, the question is always do you question the need for consensus? If you question need assessments, the people will say, within the field, 'But you... don't you think we have to be impartial?' Or if you criticise data, people will say, 'Don't you believe in science. Or in fact?' And so it has become very difficult to distinguish the tools, the specific tools that we are using, and the moral value. And the reason is because when the Sphere projects, in the late 90s, was invented, after the genocide in Rwanda and catastrophous humanitarian response, it was to reach a consensus. And so now, if you criticise the Sphere Standard because some of them are... might be good, and others might be just not very useful or even even harmful, then the answer is always 'Yeah, but do... Don't you think that consensus saved, that consensus is more important than looking at this and this and these details?' Well, it's not the same thing. You can say, this is... One thing is a moral value and the other thing is a tool. I will take one example. We were talking about setting low bars. Everybody knows that one of the indicators also quoted very frequently by the Sphere Standards is, for an average population, based on an average temperature, the level of foods availability... the foods that you are... that you should bring to a population in a refugee camp is at least 21OO kilocalorie per person and per day. This is an absolute arbitrary number, right? Over the past 13 years, this two thousand and one hundreds kilocalorie per person and per day had went up and down. Some organisations say it is 3OOO, also said it's 25OO, others used, like the FAO, in a couple of years ago said it should be only 18OO kilocalories are represented there. My point is not I don't know, you know, which... I am not a medical doctor, I don't know what standard you should use here. But it shows that there is some arbitrariness in the figures.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Or at least imprecision. I mean we don't have the precise measurement, or there's not agreement on what it should be precisely. But if you measure it up against some of the stuff that was going on in Rwanda, it sort of is less important. The important thing is, one, that we somehow have a standard, and secondly, that that debate is ongoing. That, 'No, I think it's too low, I think it's too high.' We somehow agree that it should be... it shouldn't be 1OOO calories a day.

Joel Glasman:

That's what, in many refugee camps, people get. The standards have not changed the reality of the food relief, right?

Lars Peter Nissen:

That's a different discussion though.

Joel Glasman:

The result is might be measured in relation to standards, but in this case, setting a low bar is not even entering that... even that low bar will be reached.

Lars Peter Nissen:

I don't... I think you're very naive humanitarian if you think that just because we set minimum standards that we can live up to them. I don't think any of us believe that. I think on the contrary, we see the usefulness of the standards as an advocacy tool in saying, Hey, guys, we think that this is the minimum we should do, and we only be able to do half. That's a problem.

Joel Glasman:

What I've seen is... and again, it's not about my position here. What I tried to do in the book is to open the controversy and, as a historian, recall that there were positions within the project like MSF, you know, Médecins Sans Frontières, Médecins Drumond... several NGOs criticise the standard and didn't want the standards at all to happen and wrote, you know, the so-called French letter and many documents to protest the standard. And they had their specific reasons to do that. And this narrative has been just left out because, you know, if you criticise the standard, and you criticise the consensus, you're against concensus, but it's what's not about about the moral value, it was about the specific tools. And that's the difference.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So I agree we have a strong tendency to seek consensus. And the way I think about that is that we always have scarce resources, we almost by definition, don't have enough. And so coordination is the way we try to maximise the outcome of what we do. And I think where we get in trouble is that, when it comes to making sense out of crisis, when it comes to assessing what we're doing, shaping the humanitarian narrative, then a different logic applies. In other words, we redundant analytical capacity in situations of high uncertainty is not wasteful, it's a pretty smart strategy to handle risk. And the... one of the things that concerns me about the way we approach needs assessment today, is that there is a lot of emphasis on jointness, the jointness of the issue, and consensus building. And I think two things come out of that. I think there's a tendency to squash dissent, which is also what you're saying. So we... if somebody doesn't agree, we silence them, because there has to be one narrative that we can all buy into. And secondly, I think we do tend to underestimate uncertainty. Because we don't like to admit that our data is not as good as it is. So I see those things very clearly also. And so the story that we are trying to push from ACAPS's side, or the thinking around how to make sense out of crisis, would not be one joint narrative coming out of the humanitarian concert team, it would be that you need contrasting complementary and connected perspectives to ensure a robust humanitarian narrative. I think it is interesting to see how the Sphere project... and again, we're not shooting specifically at this, we're trying to identify a central tendency in the humanitarian community that seems to be holding us back sometimes. And Sphere is a good illustrative case of that. I think we agree on that. So it's interesting how it's produced. It's also interesting that those products or those byproducts of squashing dissent and underestimating uncertainty, that that doesn't change over time. And I think that relates to us imposing a operational logic onto a sense making process. If you want to jump back into the medical sector, you would probably say you only want one treatment or one line of treatment. But you may want Second Opinion. And I think what we lack in order to avoid that static nature of our sense making apparatus or approach is that second opinion. So somebody who questions from a operationally independent point of view whether this is a good idea or not, whether this is good enough.

Joel Glasman:

I think there is a notion that has been explored by social scientists working with MSF in the last few years, you can see it on the blog of the Centre for Reflection in Humanitarian Affairs, CRASH, with MSF, on management, and one of the notion that that they have been working out is 'prudential profession'. It's the idea, it's the metaphor, of the medical doctors making a decision together, and how to ensure that the quality of the decision is up... it's not only the quality of the evidence, as if evidence is one block and coherent and speaking to the same direction and pointing to the same decision. It's not like that. But you have to ensure the quality of the deliberation, of the discussion. And I think there is... there is one quote by the director of... one of the director of the World Health Organisation on COVID. And the World Health Organisation has been instrumental in producing statistics on COVID-19. And he said, a couple of months ago... and... something like, you know, there is no number that says, if the number is that high, then you do this and if the number is that low, then you do that. So the idea of evidence-based decision making in humanitarian aid, it's kind of flawed.

Lars Peter Nissen:

I would agree with that. I think there are several problems with once... So one thing is, if you use the word evidence-based, and as a medical professional in the room, the conversation just goes weird. Right, because it's such a different world that they live in. And you're just using the same word, but meaning very different things. And secondly, it does somehow take away I think the fundamental responsibility we have humanitarians of simply saying we actually do not know here. We are operating with such levels of uncertainty and such bad information that we can't be sure, but we have to do something. And there clearly is a crunch between the need of a large bureaucracy, which is by and large risk averse, and set up to be risk adverse, giving you money, and you're then handling that risk in a situation of high levels of uncertainty.

Joel Glasman:

And the end the illusion, right? I could not agree more. And the illusion that more numbers will give you more certainty, which is... if the numbers are not good, it will not give you... it just gives you the illusion.

Lars Peter Nissen:

But it makes you feel good.

Joel Glasman:

It... Yeah, exactly. And this is this is the problem that we have to tackle. Is why do we have this trust in numbers that actually we know are not very good? Why is it that we... you know, we keep on that trust and that illusion, that's magical thinking, and we should... I think we should address that.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So I think that is... in my experience, when I've been in situations where there was... there were very high levels of uncertainty and things were very dynamic, I can see that happening--that you somehow need... you have a very fundamental need to understand where you are and what's happening. And in order to also be able to believe that you are doing the right thing. So it is something very fundamental in us. And so for me, the discussion is how to recreate an architecture or a game that actually enables us to deal with that and avoid the groupthink and the static snapshot that operates for 9, 10 months without ever changing. How do we build in a system that makes it more agile? That's a really interesting discussion. And I think there's a lot of thinking, for example, in the intelligence community about how to do that. How do you how do you ensure that you have diverse opinions around the table? How do you create the right culture around challenging consensus avoiding groupthink? I mean, we do know things about this, but it never really enters the equation when we start talking about the Grand Bargain or the humanitarian architecture or... it's just not part of the story we tell about the humanitarian sector. And for me, that's something that needs to change.

Joel Glasman:

I think... and again, here, as a historian, I have no solutions to offer, only problems. But I think that what one direction that this research is pointing to, is that we have to think about three things. The first is the notion of evidence and reopen the notion of evidence and to remember that evidence is not only statistics, it's also, you know, ethnographic knowledge, contextual knowledge, political knowledge, professional experience. So reopen the word and the concept of evidence. The second thing is deliberation. It's not only having different positions on the table, but making sure that there is not, you know, one kind of evidence bullying the others. And I'm not saying here that all data should be equal, right? No, it should be... But every time it's not because you put out a statistic that you are right, especially if the statistic that you're putting out it's wrong. And every time we have to question that. And the third thing is, institutions. We really have to understand that the quality of the data that we are producing is really up to the quality of the institution that we are, that we are having, the quality of... and there is a dream, and a utopia and a hubris now about, you know, big data and remote sensing and investing money in the tools, that technology that will enable us to have direct numbers and data, but you need... if you want to have numbers and serious knowledge about local health, you have to have local health institutions. And it means paying the salaries of nurses, of doctors, it has infrastructure, you cannot have it all. You cannot have better data, but then cut spending on local health institution.

Lars Peter Nissen:

I think you're spot on. I do have one or two nuances I'd like to introduce. I think first let me just take the technological heavy clapping that's going on right now. I couldn't agree more. It is an incredibly immature way of thinking about making sense out of crisis to think that we can build a machine that will tell us what's happening. I mean, if you want that sort of solution and read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that's exactly what he describes in there, right? They think for three-and-a-half million year and the answer is 42. And that's what we're gonna end up with if we don't snap out of that tech happy clapping. I feel quite strongly about that, right? Then, I agree with your first two points, let me pick up on the institutions. For me, the key there is that what we're suffering under is also... it's a lack of institutional diversity. So it's a very flat architecture we have where essentially, all of the mainstream actors are the same type of institution. And they're incentivized to maximise the turnover and help as many people as they can. And what we lack is organisations that, for example, are specialised in calling out bad data, providing a non-operational human sound narrative that can be a counterpoint to what it will inevitably be a operationally tainted perspective coming out of operational actors. Because I think the logical consequence of your thermometer that takes us prisoner... it's another way of saying the same thing is, to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And so if you only have a toolbox full of hammers, you have a problem. And you do need a more diverse organisational architecture than we have today in order to get the right sort of checks and balances, if you want. And I'm not talking about sort of a hardcore ombudsman accountability set up here, I'm just talking about functionally, specialised organisations that collaborate and in their collaboration, hold each other accountable, and create an evolution that means that even if you end up... even if you start out with overly simplistic and partly wrong standards, then over time, they will evolve and come closer to what you actually need. That, for me, is probably the the main nuance I would add to your three points of open up the discussion of what is evidence, having transparent decision making and discussion or analysis of this data, and then finally, having the right institutions in place.

Joel Glasman:

Yes, and I think that it also goes in the direction of rethinking... It's not only aid institutions, but it's also, you know, state institutions, health institutions, health systems... And we cannot on one way, cut spending and, you know, trying to get rid of local civil servants and local health staff and so on. And on the other hand, hope for better data. It's not gonna work. In some regions of Cameroon... You have now an institution like the IOM trying to know how many IDPs you have in the region in the northern part of Cameroon, and the UNHCR is trying to figure out how many refugees we have in the region, but if you don't have functioning local institutions, it's... you're not going to produce really good data. You need to know the size of the population. If you want to need to know the size of the population, you know... you have to know how many new newborns you have, to have the number of newborns, you have to have a hospital where pregnant women come to give life to a baby, and so on. So, you know, we have to look at the whole chain of institutions playing a role in the production of data here.

Lars Peter Nissen:

One of the things I was thinking when I read the book was that it's all good and nice that you are able to have a very deep contextual understanding of a small crisis in one country, it's a very different ballgame once you go to the global level, especially if you have to distribute 26 or 28 billion dollars. And so I'd like to ask you how you see your argument changing between the different levels of decision that we make. And to make it simple, I think we can focus on three things. One, we have to decide how to cut the cake at the global level (so how much money you're going to give to Ukraine and Venezuela and Burundi and the Philippines?) How do you make that decision and what sort of evidence do you need to do that? And can you really have anecdotal sort of way qualitative evidence drive that discussion? Then secondly, at the crisis level, it's essentially a choice between which population groups. Is it refugees? Is it IDPs? Is it people in their homes? Is it old people? Is it young people? What is it? Which population group? Secondly, which geographical area do you focus on? And thirdly, what kind of needs do they have? So which sector are the most dominant? So that's those three dimensions that we sort of have to distribute scarce resources between at the crisis level. And then at the operational level, once resources have been distributed out or are made available to an operational agency, then you have to shape a quality intervention to help people in crisis. And I'd like, in particular, to focus on the first two. So at the crisis level, how does your argument... well, how does your argument change between the crisis level and the global level? In other words, isn't it great, no matter how bad the data, we somehow needed to be a number in order to be able to make the calculation at the global level in a good way?

Joel Glasman:

But here, I think we are targeting at the needs of the humanitarian organisations, not of the... to the needs of the population.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Well, if you can't get the money out to them, if you can get a bill through Parliament, releasing 400 million euros... and if you can show taxpayers why you are getting giving away 400 million euros, you're gonna get that money. So there is a link.

Joel Glasman:

Yes, I think the question is... is here is a question of triage. There is a beautiful book by Guillaume Lachenal and a couple of other anthropologist about the history of triage. That's... triage is the process that you are referring to of you have scarce resources and then how do you make the decision to distribute this. And the guy who... and this is part of my of my book, focusing on Jean Pictet, a lawyer by the ICRC after the Second World War, who was the one who put this very rational of triage and use that for rethinking humanitarian aid as a role. Triage is a logic that comes from the battlefield, that comes from military medicine, right? Is that you have very few time and soldiers that are wounded how do you save the maximum number of solders with minimum resources? How do you make that decision? And Pictet used that metaphor to reframe and he invented the sentence 'on the basis of need alone', this definition of impartiality that we have now in the code of conduct. But that is the assumption that you are not renegotiating the resources that are located and that are absolutely low. And we do not question the very scarce resources in the first time. And I think that's part of the problem.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So what you're saying is, don't flatten the concept of need because it will get you less money.

Joel Glasman:

Exactly.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Yeah. So that's okay. That's all well and good. And I think that is a long term strategy that I see us pursuing and I do see us as a community trying to advocate on behalf of populations that don't... that are in very difficult positions. But if you're, on the first of March, have to produce evidence to get 400 million euros out to people who really need them across the world, how do you do that? And you can't, if you are, if you are a humanitarian, you have to make yourself out of the mess. You can't just say, well, actually, you know, five years from now, I think we could probably reshape the financial regulations of the European Commission or whatever to get more, but right now, this is what we have. What do you do?

Joel Glasman:

I push back discussion to you. I mean, of course, again, as a researcher looking at the past, I can point on to to some problems. Of course, I have no solution for that. And specifically, because if you look at a situation like this, which is already bordered by, you know, very short contract, terms of work, very tight framework, and so on, then you cannot see the word problem. That's why I like history. Is because if you look at not only in the last past five years, 10 years, or 20 years, then you can have a broader picture. And you can start to rethink your strategy not in the term of before the first of March, but in terms of what are we doing on the long term. And I think that pushing for, you know, convincing the donors and other players to take other kinds of knowledge, other types of knowledge, you know, local voices, local institutions, anthropologists, sociologists, and you know, that's part of the bargain now.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Joel, thank you so much. It's been a fantastic conversation. I really enjoyed this a lot. Your book is a very valuable contribution to an essential discussion for us, namely, what do we actually build our humanitarian action on? How do we actually conceptualise need? And are we sacrificing the deep commitment to the populations in crisis that I know we as a community have in order to satisfy the financial regulations of the donors paying the bill? And is that the right thing to do? I think that's the basic challenge your book poses to us. And thank you for doing that.

Joel Glasman:

Thank you very much, Lars Peter, for your invitation and for the occasion to speak about us.