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5 J. Int'l Humanitarian Action 1 (2020)

handle is hein.journals/jinthuma5 and id is 1 raw text is: Knox Clarke and Campbell Journal of International Humanitarian Action
https://doi.org/1 0.1186/s41018-020-00068-2

(2020) 5:2

Journal of International
Humanitarian Action

Decision-making at the sharp end: a survey
of literature related to decision-making in
humanitarian contexts

Paul Knox Clarke'' and Leah Campbell'

Decision-making lies at the core of any humanitarian re-
sponse. An effective response requires a series of deci-
sions: on whether and where to intervene, on the scale
and nature of the intervention, and on how to best allo-
cate resources, coordinate with other agencies, and
maintain the safety and security of affected people and
of humanitarian staff.
Given the importance of decision-making, it is sobering
to observe how critical evaluations are of the ability of hu-
manitarian leaders to make decisions. Decision-making is
often slow (Adams et al. 2015; Agulhas Applied Know-
ledge 2015; Murray et al. 2015; Quasmi 2015; Sanderson
et al. 2015; UNICEF 2015; Darcy 2016a); disassociated

*Correspondence: pknolOCarke@gma l.com
Centre for Deveopment and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes
Gipsy Lane Campus, Oxford OX3 OBP, UK
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article

C Springer Open


from strategy (Hayles 2010); opaque (Murray et al. 2015;
Ambroso et al. 2016); and unaccountable (Agulhas
Applied Knowledge 2015; Clarke et al. 2015; Darcy
2016b). Overall, humanitarian decision-making has been
characterised as 'informal, emergent, ad-hoc and reactive'
(Comes 2016: 2, see also Maxwell et al. 2013).
Despite these reported failures, relatively little aca-
demic attention has been given to decision-making in
humanitarian response. Much of the work that does
exist points to gaps in understanding: lack of knowledge
about what decisions are made, by whom and how
(Hayles 2010; Maxwell et al. 2013; Heyse 2013). Beyond
this, the majority of academic attention has tended to
focus on a small number of specific areas, particularly
supply chain and logistics (e.g. Gutjahr and Nolz 2010;
Yu and Lai 2011; Villa 2019) and the quality and use of
information in decisions (e.g. Bradt 2009; Darcy et al.

© The Author(s). 2020 Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,
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In a humanitarian response, leaders are often tasked with making large numbers of decisions, many of which have
significant consequences, in situations of urgency and uncertainty. These conditions have an impact on the
decision-maker (causing stress, for example) and subsequently on how decisions get made.
Evaluations of humanitarian action suggest that decision-making is an area of weakness in many operations. There
are examples of important decisions being missed and of decision-making processes that are slow and ad hoc. As
part of a research process to address these challenges, this article considers literature from the humanitarian and
emergency management sectors that relates to decision-making. It outlines what the literature tells us about the
nature of the decisions that leaders at the country level are taking during humanitarian operations, and the
circumstances under which these decisions are taken. It then considers the potential application of two different
types of decision-making process in these contexts: rational/analytical decision-making and naturalistic decision-
making. The article concludes with broad hypotheses that can be drawn from the literature and with the
recommendation that these be further tested by academics with an interest in the topic.
Keywords: Decision-making, Leadership, Complexity, Uncertainty

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