Literature Review – Analysis Of ‘needs Assessment’ As A Development Tool

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 2426


A needs assessment is a ‘process for clarifying what results must be accomplished and then assessing the potential value of numerous alternative solutions to make an informed and reasonable decision’ (Watkins, Meiers & Visser, 2012). In the context of development, the requirement to perform adequate needs assessments is heightened when the inaccurate distribution of aid and flawed projects can have sobering implications for high numbers of vulnerable people. Needs assessments may be used to inform decision-making, influence others and justify response decisions and funding appeals (Darcy, Anderson & Majid, 2007).

The theory surrounding what constitutes a ‘need’ as opposed to a ‘want’ has received considerable contention in development debate. In a neoliberal framework, ‘the idea of revealed preferences obviates the requirement for debate over what is a need and what is a want as it is the market that provides the most appropriate mechanism for satisfying both’ (McGregor et al. 2009). Bradshaw (1972) identifies four separate types of needs; normative (determined by ‘professionals’ or ‘experts’); comparative (assumed from shortfalls in resources for a particular group); expressed (articulated in order for them to be satisfied); and felt (not expressed). McGregor et al. (2009) justify the sense in Bradshaw’s approach to defining need, suggesting that if a need is ratified by both the person who is experiencing it and the experts observing their circumstance, ‘then it would be reasonable that it be accepted as a need.’ A needs assessment, therefore, is the practical approach adopted by institutions to identify needs and ‘create a solid evidence base for humanitarian decision making regarding the level and type of action required to respond to those needs’ (OCHA, 2009).

This literature review will identify the concepts to which needs assessments exist, explore significant types of needs assessments, and critically analyse different practices to facilitate a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.


The Sustainable Development Goals are broadly conceptualised as an agenda to meet the needs of humanity without compromising the ability of future generations and the planet (Kates, Parris & Leiserowitz, 2005). To define the concept of humanitarian need, Darcy & Hofmann (2003) allude to three different senses; 1) to describe basic human needs; 2) to describe a lack of basic human needs; 3) to describe the need for (a particular form of) relief assistance or intervention. They propose that there is a tendency to confuse these senses in humanitarian aid and needs assessments ‘tend to be conflated within the formulation of responses.’ Development institutions should act on the principle of impartiality and transparency, where intervention is chosen on the basis of need alone. Needs assessments should then be used to inform those judgments and promote objective, needs-based decision-making.

The concept of a project is the ‘mental construction’ that forms the solution to a problem or satisfies a need, and several concepts can be envisioned as alternative solutions to the same problem (Williams and Samset, 2010). Watkins, Meiers & Visser (2012) draw attention to project gaps – the missing components that determine what the project should set out to achieve. In their World Bank publication, gaps are identified as the ‘needs’ of a needs assessment. They emphasise the importance of identifying the gaps in results to then determine what actions would work best to narrow them: gaps become the foundation that guides justifiable decisions. For Watkins, Meiers & Visser (2012), justifiable decisions are best made ‘when considering and comparing a number of alternatives and when assessing combinations of activities for their ability to accomplish desired results.’ A needs assessment, therefore, becomes a tool for better decision-making to define the concept of a development project.


Needs assessment techniques can be identified by four categories of data collection; individual, group, rapid rural appraisal (RRA), and secondary source (MsCaslin and Tibezinda, n.d.). The tools relied upon in a needs assessment is not what makes them unique, rather it is the pre-decision perspective applied to each tool that ‘defines the value of a needs assessment’ (Watkins, Meiers & Visser, 2012).

In a review of the links between needs assessment and decision-making in response to food crises at the World Food Programme (WFP); Darcy, Anderson & Majid (2007) identify the following as key methodological improvements for better utilisation of a needs assessment; 1) the need to define the right questions to drive the assessment; 2) the method of assessment needs to reflect its purpose; 3) there needs to be an equal balance of qualitative and quantitative analysis (particularly in RRA); 4) more emphasis needs to be placed on micro-level analysis (carried out by country-office teams) which currently is neglected in comparison to macro-level analysis (carried out by specialist teams); and 5) dialogue between potential partners needs to be strengthened as part of the assessment process. Darcy, Anderson & Majid (2007) provide a clear insight into how needs assessments can be utilised to enhance development projects. They conclude that should these steps be considered, there is significant opportunity to establish good assessment practice across the sector, however in this case, the needs assessment framework at WFP was relatively weak in its ability to influence decision-makers.


In development, the most common needs assessments are rapid needs assessments and in-depth needs assessments. Rapid needs assessments are generated over four days to six weeks and require special attention to the methodology if the findings are to remain accurate when being produced in fast-paced circumstances (Bamberger and Mabry, 2012). USAID (2014) provides a useful rapid needs assessment guide to articulate how they can be used for education in countries affected by crisis and conflict. The guide categorises rapid needs assessments into three scenarios: acute emergency onset, recent escalation of an ongoing crisis or conflict, and before implementation of a new program design. As such, they summarise that a rapid needs assessment should take place in a short amount of time to develop a preliminary understanding of a situation quickly, whilst focusing on priority areas to get a snapshot of the impact of the conflict or crisis.

Save The Children carried out a rapid needs assessment in South Yemen to ‘assess the vulnerability and needs of the populations in Lahj and Taiz Governorates to determine appropriate interventions for the most vulnerable households’ (Save The Children, 2016). Yemen experiences a multitude of factors that contribute to its lack of development, including widespread conflicts, political instability and insecurity, deterioration in economic growth, extreme poverty, high population growth, and high unemployment rates.

The methodology for the needs assessment was carried out by two contributors; an independent consultant who remotely developed the questionnaire, analysed the data and reported; and Save The Children Yemen team who were responsible for enumerator training, data collection (household interviews) and data entry. The findings of the needs assessment identified three main factors. The first was that several aid agencies had already helped households within the last three months, yet 92% still required additional support. The second confirmed that food, or money to purchase food was the clear priority of households, also acknowledging that money for items relating to health needs would be helpful. And the third confirmed the importance of coordinating efforts with other agencies working in the same location if Save The Children was going to assist these households.

The report detailed findings and statistics on humanitarian priorities, health, food security, livelihoods, child nutrition, vulnerabilities and markets and was able to make seven recommendations for intervention as a result. Save The Children concluded the report by reinforcing the critical need for aid agencies to provide ongoing humanitarian aid to affected households ‘so that coping strategies do not deteriorate and reach severe stages.’ By carrying out a thorough needs assessment, Save The Children were able to identify gaps and make justifiable decisions, as postulated earlier by Watkins, Meiers & Visser, and establish a number of solutions to alleviate the problems being faced in a sustainable manner. This case study proves valuable when gaging an understanding of when a rapid needs assessment should be used and how beneficial it proves to be when making recommendations in the project-planning phase.

In-depth needs assessments aim to identify recovery-orientated needs, capacities and gaps in the aftermath of conflict or crisis (USAID, 2014). Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) identified a standardised corporate approach and set of tools for conducting needs assessments in the aftermath of crises. They acknowledged that prior to this, the organisation was lacking a definitive approach, which they felt resulted in the needs assessments being undertaken were of variable quality and may not fully or reliably capture the true impact of crises’ or the needs and respective priorities of the populations being affected. The five-phased approach begins pre-crisis, transitioning through three phases each lasting between 72 hours and eight weeks, before the final phase that can last between three to twelve months. As per the guidelines provided by FAO, an in-depth needs assessment becomes a fundamental component of the programme cycle, helping to determine an effective response and with a lasting impact on the effectiveness of interventions, quality of interagency coordination, and levels of donor funding. A needs assessment also becomes a core contribution to improved accountability to national governments, partners and crisis-affected populations (FAO, 2016).


It is difficult to contest the benefits of implementing a needs assessment within a project cycle. As the previous studies demonstrate, they carry major importance when obtaining valuable information not only in rapid circumstances, but also as part of long-term preparation for crises. In comparison, the following study by Gerden, et al. (2014) demonstrates an alternative approach to needs assessments in a crisis situation, which is undermining and arguably limiting. The objective of the study was to determine the extent that the information from needs assessments was employed by operational decision-makers in their judgements to deploy health relief post disaster. The sample consisted of representatives from major-health related humanitarian agencies with extensive personal experience of the sector.

The study found that to make rapid response decisions, pre- and post-disaster information needed to be accessible, however said information was only useful if it was well classified, accurate and reliable. The importance of having this information varied between agencies, and no respondent was able to articulate the extent to which available information influenced decisions. The study indicated that no standard checklists were used to systematically collect and analyse information as part of a needs assessment and it was critical to have individuals trained to conduct needs assessments to ensure that the information obtained is accurate, detailed and fast.

The study revealed the limitations of needs assessments, as despite the respondents acknowledging the value of quality information and the need for this to be collected with accuracy, formal needs assessments played a very limited role. Instead, initial decisions tended to be based upon assumptions of needs, making them subjective to the decision-makers. Gerden, et al. (2014) conclude that more emphasis needs to be placed on including the affected population in needs assessments, a necessity that is long overdue and should be accorded priority.

A report by Darcy and Hofmann (2003) identifies additional limitations that further hinder the utilisation of needs assessments in the humanitarian sector. The lack of investment into conducting needs assessments is particularly noteworthy, as recouping investment depends on the donors funding the proposal which can introduce a bias against carrying out a needs assessment where it is deemed unlikely that funds will be forthcoming. On a similar note, conducting needs assessments are then only considered necessary if it is judged that it will help secure funds. Arguably the most controversial yet limiting factor when justifying a needs assessment is that decisions about humanitarian response can often be extraneous to the consideration of need and more lenient towards the political interests of donors and/or the marketing interests of development agencies. Reverting back to Watkins, Meiers & Visser (2012), this limitation is a direct example of their argument that decisions are usually made with solutions already in mind and thus the gaps in results, or needs, are ignored leading to hasty decisions and doubtful results.


To conclude, it is appropriate to cite ‘A Pauperizing Myth’ (Rahnema, 1991): ‘What is necessary and to whom? And who is qualified to define all that?’ This question might still remain unanswered, however the literature drawn upon throughout this review suggests that implementing needs assessments across all development practices would ensure aid is targeted more objectively and distributed effectively in order to accomplish desired results.


Darcy, J., Anderson, S. and Majid, N. (2007). A review of the links between needs assessment and decision-making in response to food crises. Study undertaken for the World Food Programme under the SENAC project. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2016). Phased Agricultural Livelihood Needs Assessment Framework and Tools. Guidelines for Practitioners. Rome.

Freudenberger, K. S. (1994). Tree and land tenure: Rapid appraisal tools. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Gerdin, M., Chataigner, P., Tax, L., Kubai, A. and von Schreeb, J. (2014). Does need matter? Needs assessments and decision-making among major humanitarian health agencies. Disasters, 38(3), pp.451-464.

Humanitarian Policy Group (2003). According to Need? Needs Assessment and Decision-making in the Humanitarian Sector. London: Overseas Development Institute, pp.5-10, 64-66.

McCaslin, N. and Tibezinda, J. (n.d.). Chapter 5 – Assessing target group needs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Jan. 2020].

McGregor, J., Camfield, L. and Woodcock, A. (2009). Needs, Wants and Goals: Wellbeing, Quality of Life and Public Policy. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 4(2), pp.135-154.

OCHA (2009). Assessment and Classification of Emergencies (ACE) Project. Mapping of Key Emergency Needs Assessment and Analysis Initiatives. pp.4-6.

Rahnema, M. (1991). ‘Global Poverty: A Pauperizing Myth’ in Interculture, 24(2) pp.4-51.

Robert, K., Parris, T. and Leiserowitz, A. (2005). What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 47(3), pp.8-21.

Robert, K., Parris, T. and Leiserowitz, A. (2005). What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 47(3), pp.8-21.

Save The Children (2016). Vulnerability and Needs Assessment. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 January 2020].

USAID (2014). A Rapid Needs Assessment Guide: For Education in Countries Affected by Crisis and Conflict. JBS International Inc, pp.4-10.

Watkins, R., Meiers, M. and Visser, Y. (2012). A Guide to Assessing Needs: Essential tools for collecting information, making decisions, and achieving development results. 1st ed. Washington DC: The World Bank, pp.1-45.

Williams, T. and Samset, K. (2010). Issues in Front-End Decision Making on Projects. Project Management Journal, 41(2), pp.38-49.

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