Spring 2008, Issue 8

Disaster, Conflict, Hunger: Another Day As a Researcher of Complex Emergencies

Daniel Maxwell Daniel Maxwell, PhD, joined Tufts in 2006 as an associate professor at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and as research director for food security and complex emergencies in the Feinstein International Center. He is working to bring rigorous scientific principles to research areas involving people affected by complex emergencies and the humanitarian agencies that assist them.

Maxwell received his PhD in development studies/sociology of economic change from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1995. He pursued postdoctoral work on urban livelihoods, food security and nutrition before joining the CARE East Africa Regional Management Unit, where he held positions as food security advisor, regional program coordinator, and deputy regional director. “I’ve always tried to straddle the divide between rigorous research and operational reality” says Maxwell. “The issue really is about the information on which people base their actions, and the political realities that shape their choices.” In their book Food Aid After Fifty Years (Routledge 2005), for example, Maxwell and colleague Christopher Barrett of Cornell University provide detailed information on how the current US food aid system could be improved. However, the political clout of the US agriculture and shipping industries that benefit from the current aid system has, in part, kept change from occurring.

Maxwell’s work at the Feinstein Center involves not only discovering what food security data need to be collected and how to best collect and analyze the data, but also finding how to put that information into the hands of those able to use it to improve food security. He has several research projects underway and several more in the planning stage. Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Assistance is a collaborative project with Transparency International and the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute. This study will provide Transparency International with the data it needs to develop a “tool box” of good practices for preventing corruption. “The issue is about accountability in the humanitarian industry,” says Maxwell. “The tsunami in Southeast Asia brought home that corruption was a skeleton in the closet of humanitarian assistance. In the aftermath of the tsunami it was quite clear that a lot of resources had been lost, not just through bad planning but actual diversion, theft, fraud, etc.” This project will involve interviewing personnel from seven humanitarian agencies about their perceptions of where, in a typical program cycle, the greatest risks of corruption exist, what is currently being done to deal with those risks, and where the gaps are.

The project Targeting in Complex Emergencies will gather data on how well assistance is directed to the people who require it and is not misdirected to people who don’t require it, a process called “targeting.” In particular, it will look at community-based targeting as opposed to administratively based targeting. “For a long time targeting was done on some kind of administrative basis; that is, you’d look at the population and say that people who meet these criteria are eligible,” says Maxwell. “But the correlation between the criteria and real need is only partial at best. So there has long been an attempt to empower communities to manage these resources at the local level.” The literature suggests that community-based targeting can work well in emergencies in which there are no discriminated minorities, internally displaced people, or conflict, and in which there is good local governance. However, its usefulness in complex emergencies that don’t meet these criteria has not been researched well. This study will involve recipient community interviews in four countries. It will provide targeting data from complex emergency situations that can be used to develop pragmatic guidelines for improving targeting in future emergencies.

Livelihoods Change Over Time is a planned, three-to-five-year prospective longitudinal study that will look at livelihoods in complex emergencies. The goal is to understand what the drivers of change are in order to advise humanitarian agencies. “Even though we think of humanitarian emergencies as being transitory, crisis-like events, the evidence is that most of them go on for long periods of time,” says Maxwell. This study will involve periodic household surveys of assets, livelihoods, access to necessities, and availability of education for children. It will look for the drivers of change—both change for the better and change for the worse—in order to identify where humanitarian assistance will have the most impact.

Maxwell is currently collaborating with national and international colleagues. At Tufts he is collaborating with several at the Feinstein International Center and in the Friedman School. He welcomes collaborations with researchers from other schools. The most obvious relationships would be with colleagues at the Fletcher School, but there are many possibilities that could broaden the scope of this important research.

For more information, please go to http://fic.tufts.edu/?pid=31.


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