What is a needs assessment?
Economic programs and policies are designed to address specific development issues. A needs assessment is the systematic measurement of an observed social or economic problem. The assessment may focus on individuals, households, or institutions. It is an integral part of program design and an important first step. A program cannot be effective if it does not address a well-identified, measurable need.
Needs assessment, also called problem discovery, can reveal both the problem to be addressed, and the potential drivers of the problem. While the symptoms of a development problem are often readily observable in existing survey data (e.g., low primary school attendance rates or high rates of malaria infection), a thorough needs assessment will also document possible causes of the problem. It will quantify the size and characteristics of the population directly affected.
A high quality needs assessments will typically involve both qualitative research (e.g. focus groups and interviews) and quantitative studies (e.g. statistical analyses of demographic surveys). For example, we may observe that maize farmers do not apply fertilizer to their fields, even when fertilizer has been shown to significantly increase yields and incomes. In the absence of a careful needs assessment, we might assume that the farmers are unaware of the benefits of fertilizer; as a result, the program we design might be an intensive information campaign. By conducting qualitative research, we might learn that farmers actually are aware of the benefits of fertilizer use. Further, an analysis of survey data from a representative sample of farmers might reveal that they are credit constrained at certain times each year, and therefore are unable to purchase fertilizer at the start of the growing season. Thus, the information campaign program is likely to be ineffective, since it does not address the need of the community.
Once a thorough needs assessment has been completed, the next step in program design is to gather research evidence that can be applied to address the challenge.