The Initial Assessment: A Quick Checklist

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The Initial Assessment: A Quick Checklist

Delivering Aid Amid Disaster

United Nations document


Date: 2005

Source: UNICEF Staff. Emergency Field Handbook: A Guide for UNICEF Staff. New York: UNICEF, 2005.

About the Author: In December 1946, the United Nations created the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to act as a children's disaster relief agency following World War II. Its first mission was to provide for the health and welfare of war-affected children in Europe, who were in need of health care services, clothing, and food (among other things). Although the initial focus was on providing life-sustaining services and eradicating treatable diseases in children, UNICEF rapidly broadened focus to consider the assurance of basic human rights for all of the world's children: sufficient healthy food, adequate shelter, education, and safety from violence or exploitation. UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. More recently, UNICEF sponsored the World Summit for Children in 1990, delineating a United Nations endorsed ten-year program designed to improve the quality of life for the world's children. It has taken an in-depth look at the effects of armed children on children, and launched a global campaign for the betterment of children's lives, entitled Say Yes For Children in 2001. In 2002, a United Nations Special Session on Children set precedent by allowing children to act as delegates to the session. Through its many programs, UNICEF continues to positively impact the lives of all of the world's children.


There are typically four components of general disaster response: planning or preparedness before the occurrence of the disaster/crisis; crisis or disaster response; immediate recovery and preliminary reconstruction; and long-term rehabilitation and rebuilding. In the planning or preparing for a disaster stage detailed plans of likely disasters are created, along with response scenarios. Nonperishable items critical for quick response may be stockpiled or sources of rapid supply may be identified. Of course, this planning is only effective for foreseeable disasters. For example, if a town is located on the coast in a hurricane-prone area, it is reasonable to have a hurricane preparedness plan. Many urban and densely populated areas have disaster plans in place in the event of a terrorist attack. In the United States, local, city, and state governments have a variety of disaster plans in place. The federal government has created the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to anticipate and prepare for disasters involving the United States or its population (on American soil or elsewhere).

If an impending disaster is predicted—such as a hurricane, flood, tsunami, or tornado—and there is both sufficient preparation time and an adequate communication system, there may be a warning period prior to the disaster. The appropriate disaster plan may be implemented including evacuation of the highest risk areas, closure and boarding up of buildings, and instructions to the public via public radio and television stations. During the crisis or disaster itself, efforts are focused either on mitigating the effects of the crisis or on reacting to immediate needs for rescue or the provision of food and clean water. The immediate post-disaster period includes rescue, search and recovery, determination of a hierarchy of needs, notifying appropriate agencies and mobilizing resources, and gathering and sharing information. Among the first actions following a disaster are the provision of emergency medical assistance, triaging and transporting the injured to medical facilities, setting up and implementing a communications system, and a preliminary assessment of physical, material, and structural damage. Long-range recovery and rehabilitation take the concepts of the initial recovery phase and extend them across time. Among the priorities of this phase are: educating those affected regarding the changes in their environment or life circumstances; providing support and reconstruction services for those affected; restoring all lost services and infrastructure; and planning for the future development of the area.


This checklist is a tool to help guide UNICEF's initial rough assessment, before a more formal rapid assessment by sector can take place. It can be used by non-specialists to get a basic understanding of areas where people might need assistance.


Rapidly obtain the following information through initial field visits with other UN partners, if possible, and from contacts with UNICEF field and sub-offices, and partners in government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other UN agencies.

Characteristics of the crisis and baseline data

  • What is happening? What do you know about what is happening? What do you not know about what is happening?
  • Where is the problem occurring? Include latitude and longitude, if possible.
  • What is the geographic extent of the affected area?
  • What are the physical and ecological characteristics of the affected area?
  • What is the severity of the crisis in different localities?
  • What appears to be the major dynamic of this crisis? Is there an expected end to the crisis? When?
  • Who has the most reliable and accurate information about what is going on?
  • What is the impact of the crisis on the government? What is the expected response of the government and local authorities, if any?
  • What was the population in the area before the disaster (size, economic status and location of communities)?
  • What political and administrative structures still exist in the affected area?
  • What type of development or other aid programmes were or are operating in the area?
  • Is there a regional dimension to the emergency? Is there more than one country involved?

Number and status of affected people.

  • What is the approximate number of people affected by the crisis (with a rough percentage of women, children and children under five)?
  • What are the reported numbers of dead, injured and missing persons?
  • Are there especially vulnerable groups? Who are they and what are their numbers?
  • Have families become separated? What percentage?
  • Do most people have shelter, clothing? What percentage?
  • What are the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the different groups (language, average family size, typical household living arrangements)?
  • What are people doing to help themselves?
  • What, if anything, are women doing differently than men to cope?
  • Are youth groups and organizations active in development initiatives? If so, what is their role in normal circumstances and are they able to help local communities in this emergency?
  • Are traditional coping mechanisms operating? If not, why not?
  • Are there coping mechanisms in place that UNICEF could easily support?
  • What is the government and its partners (bilateral or multilateral, civil society or NGO) doing to mitigate the impact of the emergency?


  • Have people been displaced? If so, from where? What is the cause?
  • What is the approximate number of children in the displaced population?
  • Is the displaced population growing or expected to grow? Are numbers of children likely to change?
  • Are people likely to move farther?
  • If so, where are they likely to go and when?
  • Is the host community assisting or able to assist those who are displaced?
  • Is there enough space for all those likely to arrive?
  • What type and quantity of possessions have people brought with them? Did they bring domestic items?

Access, security and threats

  • Has the UN done a risk and threat assessment? What phase?
  • Is there year-round access to the affected population?
  • If not, what is preventing access?
  • What are the security threats for the affected population and humanitarian actors? Is there continued fighting? Are there landmines, banditry, blockades, rioting, natural risks, etc.?
  • Are people threatened because of their gender or ethnic, political, religious or national identity?
  • Are non-state actors involved? Are they recognized by the government?
  • Has movement been restricted by the government or by non-state actors?
  • Is UNICEF already engaging non-state actors? How? In what circumstances?

Health and nutrition

  • What are the immediate and obvious health problems (wounds, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal diseases and parasites, malaria, measles)?
  • Are health facilities functioning?
  • Where are the health centers and hospitals? If possible, use GPS to locate and facilitate mapping of available resources.
  • Are there adequate health workers for the facilities?
  • Have there been disruptions in supply of medicines, medical equipment or in the cold chain? Of what magnitude?
  • Are any groups without food?
  • If so, is this because food is unavailable or because the people lack purchasing power?
  • Are households able to prepare food?
  • Are there visible signs of malnutrition—children too thin or with oedema (swollen belly)?
  • In a quick check using a mid upper-arm circumference strip, are there children who classify as moderately or severely malnourished? What percentage of those sampled?
  • Do people have shelter? Is it cold enough to need blankets?

Water and sanitation

  • Do people have access to water?
  • Where are the water points? If possible, use GPS to locate and facilitate mapping of available resources.
  • Is water sufficient for all beneficiaries?
  • Is the water safe for drinking?
  • Do people have adequate containers to safely store and transport water?
  • Are hygienic items (soap, sanitary protection) available?
  • What sanitation facilities are people, especially women, using?
  • How are people disposing of excreta?

Child protection

  • Are there reports or evidence of children being killed, deliberately targeted or caught in the crossfire?
  • Are there reports or evidence of separated or unaccompanied children?
  • Are there reported cases of rape and sexual abuse?
  • Are there reports or evidence of traumatized children?
  • Is there anybody in the affected community who is monitoring andresponding to these protection issues?
  • Are traditional childcare arrangements functioning?
  • Are there indications of stigma against any particular group of children? If so, what?
  • Are there children orphaned by AIDS among those affected by the crisis?
  • Are there reports or knowledge of landmines in the affected area?
  • Are there landmine victims? How many? Of what age?


  • Are the schools functioning? Are alternate learning spaces available? Are children going to school? What percentage are in primary and secondary levels?
  • Are there facilities and community structures for care of preschool-age children?
  • Where are the schools? If possible, use GPS to locate and facilitate mapping of available resources. Is there any disparity in attendance between boys and girls? Why?
  • Are there teachers in the affected community? Are there customarycaregivers for younger children?
  • Is there damage to school facilities? How much? Are there alternative places for children to learn?
  • Are there other factors hindering school attendance (fear, threats, violence, mines, natural risks, sociocultural factors)?


  • Are there reported cases of rape and sexual abuse?
  • What are the normal patterns of behaviour in the community relating to HIV/AIDS affected and infected groups, and is there any sign of stigma and discrimination?
  • What is the HIV-prevalence rate in the area or among the affected group? Rapidly collect secondary data from existing sources, including hospitals, NGOs, surveys, health management information systems, etc.
  • Is HIV prevalence particularly high within certain population groups affected by the emergency?
  • Are minimum universal precautions available (safe blood supply, sterilization or disposal of sharps, gloves, condoms, etc.)?
  • Are there groups such as impoverished or displaced people, illegal migrants, children and women (especially unaccompanied) or people depending on food aid or the distribution of other items, that are at particularly high risk of sexual exploitation or violence because of the situation?


  • Which local or international organizations have a presence in the affected area, and what are their fields of expertise?
  • Could these organizations become implementing partners, if necessary?
  • Which organizations have good local contacts and counterparts?

Logistics and operations

  • What is the weather expected to be like in the short- and medium-term? Are weather conditions and seasonal changes likely to affect public health or the delivery of assistance?
  • How is the affected area best accessed? What are the road conditions to and in the affected area?
  • Are UNICEF's usual local suppliers operating? Would they be able to increase their provision of supplies, if needed?
  • What means of transport are locally available (trucks, aircraft, animals, boats)?
  • Are telecommunications systems functioning?
  • Are banking and financial systems functioning in the local area? Are they functioning nationally?


Although the general response to disaster and crisis situations remains the same regardless of population, children present a greater cause for concern, due in part to their inability to be self-sufficient at an early age. Once the initial event has occurred and immediate medical concerns have been addressed, child welfare and protection becomes paramount. Children are often separated from family members in a crisis or disaster, and they may be orphaned or lose one or more immediate family members or caregivers. If children have lost parents or caregivers, it is critical to ensure safety, shelter, and protection for them, in order to provide for their basic survival needs. Even in intact families, homes are often lost or left during a disaster. One of the early goals of child-focused agencies is to register children who have been separated from their families. Then the agencies seek ways to reunite families or attempt to find stable placement for children who have lost their families. Children who are orphaned or separated from their families are particularly vulnerable to abuse or exploitation, so it is essential to protect them from further trauma and harm.

In the wake of a crisis, normal routines are lost, schedules and daily activities no longer exist, and the world of a child becomes frightening and unstable. Following a disaster, most child relief agencies quickly focus on the creation of centralized, child-safe spaces, either in schools, child activity centers, or day care centers. In those facilities, there are generally programs of grief and trauma work, psychotherapy, stress management, and trust-building activities, to aid children (and adults) in coping with the grief, loss, trauma, and changes in their lives. Schools are rebuilt early in the reconstruction process, both to give a semblance of normalcy to children's lives and to provide a place for job and vocational training (often necessary when the disaster damages or destroys the economic infrastructure of the region).

Nutrition and hydration are essential for supporting and maintaining life. Relief agencies focus not only on bringing in adequate food and clean drinkable water, but also work with local agencies and in-country resources to create long-term means of providing water and nourishment. Such efforts often include supporting the creation of a new infrastructure by bringing in livestock and the means to establish agricultural system, setting up water purification facilities, and creating sanitation programs.

In the aftermath of a disaster, conditions are often created that can lead to large-scale health issues, such as outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and typhoid. These health issues are the result of the loss of sanitation, contaminated food and water, and possible vermin or rodent infestations in the affected areas, or in areas where large groups of displaced people are crowded into temporary shelters. Medical relief workers bring in vaccines, institute prophylactic measures, and work with local (sometimes newly trained) professionals and paraprofessionals to create public health systems.

Not infrequently, disasters and crises occur in areas that are already stressed due to political instability, civil unrest, drought, famine, pandemics (such as AIDS or tuberculosis), or geological conditions (areas prone to earthquakes or flooding). In those circumstances, it is necessary for relief agencies not only to rebuild what has been lost in the immediate event, but to work with local agencies and governments to create infrastructures, social networks, and economic systems. This creates longer term stability and provides the population with a means to sustain itself and develop over time.


Web sites

Direct Relief International. "Focus Areas: Focusing on Mothers and Children." 〈〉 (accessed January 5, 2006).

Federal Emergency Management Agency. "A Guide to the Disaster Declaration Process and Federal Disaster Assistance." 〈〉 (accessed January 5, 2006).

The Sphere Project. "The Sphere Project Handbook—Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response." 〈〉 (accessed January 5, 2006).

UNICEF. "Millenium Development Goals: About the Goals." 〈〉 (accessed January 5, 2006).

World Health Organization. "Health Action in Crisis." 〈〉 (accessed January 5, 2006).

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