Obtaining Data on the Go: Women and Girls in Humanitarian Contexts

By Jennifer Schlecht, Global Family Planning Fellow for Humanitarian Crises, FP2020

The global family planning community uses data to help guide our work. But what happens when data is inconsistent — or even unavailable? Conflict, displacement, migration, and other crises mean the world’s populations are more in flux than ever before, and data collection in a humanitarian crisis can be hard to come by. How many women and girls are affected by crises? Where are they? And are we making any progress to reach them with family planning (FP) services?

Answering these questions is difficult, but this is a critical area of focus for FP2020 and our partners. Dissecting these challenges in collecting data is a critical first step in meeting the need.

● Population-level data is only rarely available for crisis-affected groups: National population-based surveys only rarely reflect information about populations directly impacted by crises. Security and access issues frequently result in the exclusion of displaced groups from national surveys. Additionally, conducting surveys in these regions to supplement gaps in data presents unique ethical considerations. Researchers must weigh whether data collection in each crisis is ethical. In a political conflict, for example, is surveying one area implicitly showing bias for a certain side over another, or could survey results be used improperly to identify and target vulnerable groups?

● Routine monitoring systems, including Health Monitoring and Information Systems (HMIS), frequently collapse: Conflict and natural disasters typically disrupt monitoring systems that may have been in place previously. Although there are exceptions, many countries may have had weak systems in place prior to the crisis. Then when a crisis occurs, rural, paper-based systems may be entirely lost, and trained data staff may themselves be displaced. Supplemental monitoring systems are frequently established. However, they may be program- or organization-based, and indicators might not be standardized. When disaster strikes, dozens of nonprofit organizations, aid relief agencies, service providers, and more will rush to a country. These organizations might establish their own monitoring systems in order to support efficient, adaptive decision-making. As the crisis stabilizes, many times these same agencies help to strengthen longer term HMIS systems. However, challenges during the crisis remain. Organization-specific indicators and approaches vary during a crisis, which complicate the ability to aggregate data across the crisis-affected region or population. Additionally, the agency responsible for aggregating health data in a crisis may vary based on the type of crisis occurring — whether it’s a famine, natural disaster, violent conflict, or something else — further contributing to challenges of standardization.

● Even within one humanitarian agency or program’s advanced data system, there may be challenges in interpreting collected data. There may be inconsistencies across indicator definitions, as often happens in more stable contexts, and data is also influenced by population movement. In addition to the challenges of understanding information about populations “on the move” when crisis migration is under way, relatively stable crisis-affected populations are increasingly fluid, possibly moving into and out of the crisis area or between facilities. As such, concepts around new user data face additional challenges where mobility is high.

Family planning partners are working to address these challenges and using program data from several humanitarian implementing partners to increase global visibility for FP needs in a humanitarian crisis context. Track20 and FP2020 are working to increase our collaboration with implementing partners to examine how existing program data can be better used and interpreted. The FP2020 Secretariat is also excited to announce the inclusion of a representative from the humanitarian community on FP2020’s performance monitoring and evaluation working group — a step we hope will help us understand and address some of these data challenges and elevate humanitarian issues within the FP2020 measurement agenda. Additionally, at the World Health Organization, the Global Health Cluster is working to refine a core set of sexual reproductive health (SRH) indicators to track during any crisis. Efforts to advance progress toward the Data and Accountability Roadmap for SRH and FP will focus on alignment of these core indicators across other international agencies. These efforts promise to move forward our understanding and ability to communicate about populations affected by crises.