Method in the madness? Some new ways to learn from staff experiences in humanitarian crises: the historical case of UNICEF


  • Jeremy Shusterman


humanitarian learning, staff debriefing, tacit knowledge, UNICEF, international organizations, humanitarian crises


This article reviews why tapping into tacit knowledge of relief workers to inform humanitarian responses is seen as a valuable exercise that paradoxically often fails to live up to expectations. This paradox is explored through the example of historical efforts undertaken by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to learn from the tacit knowledge of its staff. The article briefly reviews the challenges to learning within humanitarian organizations, and why humanitarian organizations may see tacit knowledge as an attractive alternative source of evidence. System-wide challenges in ‘learning to learn’ (Minear, 1998: unpaginated), identified in the 1990s, have largely remained the same. A counter-productive ‘thirst for immediacy’, and the nature of emergency relief staff’s relationship to knowledge continue to make the commitment to learning a difficult one to sustain. The article, however, argues that should such learning exercises be reframed more firmly as a research endeavor, some of these obstacles might be overcome. It provides leads on a possible way forward in the context of a pilot initiative for humanitarian learning at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.


ALNAP 2004. ALNAP review of humanitarian action in 2003, field level learning. In: ALNAP (ed.). ALNAP.
BEIGBEDER, E. 2008. Lessons learned debriefing: emergency and recovery phases of the Tsunami response (April 2005-April 2008). UNICEF.
BORTON, J. 2016. Improving the use of history by the international humanitarian sector. European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire, 23, 193-209.
CHARNOW, J. 1984. Coming aboard on the history project. UNICEF.
CHOO, C. W. & DE ALVARENGA NETO, R. C. D. 2010. Beyond the ba: managing enabling contexts in knowledge organizations. Journal of Knowledge Management, 14, 592-610.
DE WAAL, A. 1997. Famine crimes: politics and the disaster relief industry in Africa, Oxford, Bloomington, Indianapolis, James Currey, Indiana University Press.
DEVEREUX, S., SIDA, L. & NELIS, T. 2017. Famine: lesson learned. Brighton, Sussex: Institute of Development Studies.
DFID 2014. Promoting innovation and evidence-based approaches to building resilience and responding to humanitarian crises: an overview of DFID's approach. DFID.
DROEGE, S. B. & HOOBLER, J. M. 2003. Employee turnover and tacit knowledge diffusion: a network perspective. Journal of Managerial Issues, XV, 50-60.
FAST, L. 2017. Diverging Data: Exploring the Epistemologies of Data Collection and Use among Those Working on and in Conflict. International Peacekeeping, 1-27.
HINGST, G. & GILGAN, M. 2007. Fostering an enabling environment for programming in insecure contexts: lessons learned from Afghanistan. EMOPS Debriefing Notes Series - Lessons Learned on Emergency Response by UNICEF Senior Leaders.
HOFFMAN, P. J. & WEISS, T. G. 2008. Humanitarianism and Practitioners: Social Science Matters. In: BARNETT, M. N. & WEISS, T. G. (eds.) Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. Ithaca and London: Cornell.
JACOBS, D. 1983. Interview with Mr. S. Bacic.
JOLLY, R. 2014. UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), London, New York, Routledge.
KNOX-CLARKE, P. & DARCY, J. 2014. Insufficient evidence? The quality and use of evidence in humanitarian action. In: ALNAP (ed.). London.
LEWIS, D. 2009. International development and the 'perpetual present': Anthropological approaches to the re-historicization of policy. The European Journal of Development Research, 21, 32-46.
MAXWELL, D. & MAJID, N. 2016. Famine in Somalia. Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12, London, C. Hurst & Co. .
MINEAR, L. Learning to Learn - Discussion paper prepared for a seminar on Lessons Learned in Humanitarian Coordination. In: SWEDEN, O. A. M. O. F. A. O., ed. Humanitarian Coordination Lessons Learned, 3-4 April 1998 1998 Stockholm, Sweden. OCHA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden.
MOE, S. 1985. Interview with Mr. Brian Urqhart.
NATSIOS, A. S. 1996. Humanitarian relief interventions in Somalia: The economics of chaos. International Peacekeeping, 3, 68-91.
NONAKA, I. & KONNO, N. 1998. The concept of 'Ba': building a foundation for knowledge creation. California Management Review, 40.
PEET, M. 2012. Leadership transitions, tacit knowledge sharing and organizational generativity. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16, 45-60.
RAMALINGAM, B. 2006. Tools for knowledge and learning - A guide for development and humanitarian organisations. In: ODI (ed.) Research and Policy in Development Programme. London: ODI.
RICHARDSON, J. 2000. First Innocenti debriefing for senior staff in emergency countries. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.
RICHARDSON, J. 2001. Action plan for regional emergency staff debriefings, CEE/CIS region. Geneva: UNICEF.
SAKAI, S. 2007. Advocacy and engagement with non-state entities - Nepal 2002-2006. EMOPS Debriefing Series - Lessons Learned on Emergency Response by UNICEF Senior Leaders. UNICEF.
SKOOG, C. 2007. Lessons on emergency preparedness - Haiti 2004-2007 and selected other cases. EMOPS Debriefing Note Series - Lessons Learned on Emergency Response by UNICEF Senior Leaders. UNICEF.
SPIEGELMAN, J. 1985. Interview with Vlado S. Zakula.
TACOM, S. B. 1995. An overview of the history project: 1982-1994. UNICEF.
TERRY, F. 2002. Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press.
UNICEF 1982. United Nations Children's Fund - Report of the Executive Board - 10-21 May 1982. New York: United Nations.
UNICEF EVALUATION OFFICE 2017. Towards improved emergency responses - Synthesis of UNICEF evaluations in humanitarian action 2010-2016. New York: UNICEF Evaluation Office.
WALKUP, M. 1997. Policy Dysfunction in Humanitarian Organizations; The Role of Coping Strategies, Institutions, and Organizational Culture. Journal of Refugee Studies, 10, 37-60.
WEISS, T. G. 2013. Humanitarian Business, Cambridge, Polity.