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A roundup of development and relief manuals

March 10, 2010

Perhaps it ages me in this time of PDFs and e-books that I think about books in terms of the relative value they provide against the weight and space they take up in my luggage, but this is the list of books that I think have the highest general benefit to weight ratio. For what it’s worth, even though I have most of these as electronic files, I still pack the hard copies with me. They need no batteries, are still usable if you spill coffee on them or drop them in a puddle, and are (slightly) less likely to be stolen. They’re also easier to mark up with a pencil or highlighter, and can be used to hold down pile of papers in a breeze or if there is a fan on in the room.

Of course, there are any number of more specific books that might prove invaluable, depending on what you’re doing and where, but here, in no particular order, are the ones I most often find myself reaching for when I’m working in the field:

Oxfam Handbook of Development and Relief

Although it’s getting a little long in the tooth (1995), this one is on my list of must-haves just because it is such a thorough treatment of many of the issues in community development from a practical perspective. It manages to pack a good chunk of development theory in with a lot of practical advice. The first volume in the set deals with approaches to development, the importance of focusing on people and capacity building, while the second is devoted to economic production, health and responding to emergencies (some editions have a third, which is a directory of aid agencies, but in the internet age that’s largely useless). The books are very much a guide to Oxfam’s approach, and not every NGO will agree with all of it, but every section has the same in-depth-pro-poor-gender-aware-thoughtfulness that we’ve come to expect from Oxfam, and is well worth packing in your suitcase. You can buy it from or Powell’s Books (buying through these links helps me support this site).

Engineering in Emergencies

I think that if I could only recommend one book to people who think that they would like to be humanitarian relief workers, or indeed, to humanitarian relief workers, it would be this one. My first copy fell apart though being used so much, my second got stolen, and I think I must have left three or four copies behind in different offices when I moved on. Don’t be put off by the title – while it is a little engineering heavy in parts, and while the initial target of the first edition was civil engineers looking to make the transition to relief work, it covers a lot of the same issues that everyone will face.

The book is divided philosophically into two parts, the first is general information on relief work. It includes an introduction to the nature of emergencies, humanitarian standards, the humanitarian system, a primer on the kinds of organizations you will find, personal effectiveness, security, safety, assessment, planning, and management. It’s a whistle-stop tour, for sure, but it’s packed with useful information and fascinating insights.

The second half feels like the original scope of the book – it’s a guide to a lot of the practical problems people face in the field, and includes chapters on logistics, telecommunications, environmental health, sanitation, water supply, pumps, mechanical & electrical plant, vehicles, road building, airstrips, and refugee camp management. So don’t try to read this thing cover to cover, just skim it, and then, at the point when you have to figure out why the only generator in your compound has stopped working, or how to pull your Land Rover out of a river, or how much water 1,000 refugees will need, reach for your copy. You can buy it from and Powell’s Books (buying through these links helps me support this site).

UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees Handbook for Emergencies was last updated in 2007 (third edition). It is solid (if somewhat UN-centric) look at the issues of emergencies involving large numbers of refugees or displaced people. It is divided into four main sections, the first focusing on an introduction to the UN and their mandate in refugee emergencies; the second on the mechanics of emergency management (planning, assessment, implementation etc), the third on technical sectors and problem areas in refugee response (population estimation, community based approaches, site management, water, food etc) and the final section deals with administrative and other support functions (including staffing, communications, dealing with stress and military relations).

While some sections are very specific to the UN, the book as a whole is well worth the weight in your luggage for its thorough discussion of the issues and approaches to refugee emergencies. Better still, it’s available as a free download from the UNHCR here. While you’re there, check out the UNHCR electronic library, which has a lot of other interesting resources.

USAID Field Operations Guide

The classic little red book, this is the United States Agency for International Development’s handbook for Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) members. While it does deal specifically with USAID systems, that’s not a bad thing – understanding how DART works is worth the time in itself, and the general information packed into this tiny book is incredible – every inch of every page is packed with tables, charts and information of every kind.

The first section deals mainly with USAID information, but also includes a checklist on personal security and health that is worth having, along with some general advice on culture shock and stress. Part two focuses on assessments, and again has a useful series of checklists that are great when you’re trying to remember all the things you need to look for, as well as a quick one paragraph on a huge number of topics including data collection, needs assessments, terminology and the specifics of assessments in each of a bewildering number of sectors. The third part is about vulnerable populations and assistance, including topics like protection, assistance, water, food, health etc while part four covers the structure of the DART, and is only really useful if you find yourself dealing with one, or serving on one.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is that its appendices are packed with tables from everything from unit conversion, to characteristics of different types of radio, and from map reading to aircraft lift capabilities and runway requirements. The value of the book is not as a manual, it is too small and abbreviated, the reason this book has stood the test of time is that it is an aide-memoir that is small enough to carry in your pocket.

You can download the book for free here.

SPHERE Guidelines for Minimum Standards in Disaster Response

Another must-have, this is the generally accepted reference for minimum standards in emergencies, SPHERE is an inter-agency effort to set guidelines for quality and quantity of service provision to disaster affected communities. The book, and much, much more, can be found on their website. It’s a great starting point for figuring out the minimum number of latrines a population will need, or what the lowest possible ration size you can get away with is, but more importantly, it’s a philosophical approach that will help you do better work in the field. Take the time to explore the site and become familiar with the methodologies. If you’re buying a hard copy, make sure you get the most recent (orange) version, not the older (blue) edition.

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