Context Analysis

A context analysis is carried out at the beginning of a humanitarian response with the objective of understanding the local physical, socio-economic and political context. It provides the foundation for improved design and implementation of humanitarian response. There are several tools for conducting a context analysis and one of these, PESTEL analysis, is briefly explained here.  

Key Actions

Consider carrying out the context analysis in three short phases: (1) preparation, (2) data collection and (3) data analysis and documentation:

Step 1: Preparation phase

  • Identify criteria to determine what the context analysis will address, where and when
  • Select key context analysis questions and scope of works
  • Develop a workplan and budget and define roles and responsibilities for team members and partner organisations

Step 2: Data collection phase

  • Collect secondary data, carry out desk review and document findings
  • Conduct stakeholder mapping and identify important stakeholders and their roles
  • Prepare to collect primary data (data collection plan); this may include Key Informant Interviews and Focus Group Discussions. Adapt and contextualise the corresponding questionnaires and guides
  • Debrief regularly and discuss and review findings to refine the scope of works; identify outstanding questions for follow-up interviews

Step 3: Data analysis and documentation phase

  • Summarise and analyse information gathered during data collection to identify key findings and implications for programming and to inform stakeholders
  • Document key findings and decisions
  • Validate findings with relevant internal and external stakeholders, which supports ownership of the findings

Remember that this is not a Needs Assessment and Analysis and may not need detailed data collection methods.


Understanding the context is essential to design a sustainable and appropriate humanitarian response. The objective of a context analysis is to understand the socio-economic and political environment. The additional understanding will primarily help to design a Needs Assessment and Analysis, develop a Strategic Plan, consider Inclusive Planning, appropriate Technology Selection and an Exit Strategy. It helps to prevent unintentional harm or the exacerbation of social tensions, especially between displaced populations and host communities. It helps to understand stakeholders’ capacity, interests, influence and power structure and identify where partnerships, coalitions and coordination will be important. It also maps out the existing legal frameworks, formal and informal institutions to recognise and respect.


The context in which decisions are made and how humanitarian programmes are designed and implemented can significantly influence whether they succeed or fail. Context analysis facilitates an understanding of a given situation by unpacking the political, socio-economic and technological/environmental factors that could have an impact on a humanitarian response and its effectiveness.

Context analysis enables responders to (1) generate contextual information beyond the immediate situation (the visible effects of the problem) and instead explain why things are the way they are and how they are connected (the less apparent systemic issues and the non-traditional actors who influence them), (2) understand what influences the decisions made by local authorities, bureaucrats and frontline service providers (state and non-state), learn about their perspective and decision making processes and consider how affected populations may be impacted and (3) identify practical and realistic entry points when designing interventions that contribute to an effective response while remaining true to humanitarian principles and values.

Examples of common types of humanitarian context analyses include PESTEL (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal) analysis, stakeholder analysis, political economy analysis, conflict analysis and market analysis.

A context analysis does not focus on needs and is therefore distinct from a Needs Assessment and Analysis. Consequently, while the outputs of a context analysis may point to potential opportunities (geographical areas, sectors/services of focus, etc.) for the organisation, it will not include significant information on the needs or gaps in services required to design or implement a programme.

Context analysis is the starting point for understanding the environment, stakeholders, existing power relations, resource distribution, governance and legal frameworks, sources of livelihoods, social networks and access to services.

A PESTEL analysis is a strategic framework commonly used to evaluate the environment in which a humanitarian programme will be designed and implemented that considers Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal factors:

Political analysis includes political stability, local and national power structure and anticipated political change. For example, selecting where a camp is to be sited can be an intensely sensitive political issue and affect the type of sanitation system to be implemented. Political chaos and tensions; changing policies and bureaucracy can negatively impact sanitation interventions.

Economic analysis considers economic growth, exchange, inflation and interest rates, economic stability and anticipated shifts in commodity and resource costs or credit availability. For example, a large influx of displaced people can have a significant effect on local economies with disastrous consequences for the local residents. It can cause serious tensions between the two populations, affecting all agencies involved in the provision of services. Problems can also arise when the level of service being offered to displaced people is better than that received by the host community, particularly in the provision of water in regions where water is scarce or where better sanitation services are offered to the displaced people.

Social analysis considers demographics, population growth, age distribution, social policies, attitudes towards work and job market trends. Where refugees are hosted by the local community, an inordinate strain will probably be placed upon local coping mechanisms. This should be recognised and programmes designed not only to provide a service to the displaced populations but also to reinforce local capacity.

Technological analysis analyses the existing technologies being used for sanitation service provision along with the traditions and affected populations’ expectations of technology. Sanitation infrastructure and services vary depending on the socio-economic and geographical location. The implications of using high-level technology should be assessed, taking account of the potential requirement for specialised spare parts, high levels of skill and technical knowledge, an existing pool of trained and skilled personnel and the dependency of the whole operation on power supplies.

Environmental analysis includes contextually relevant issues (floods, droughts and the biotope), environmental regulation and climate change risks. For example, untreated wastewater/faecal sludge will have an adverse environmental impact and result in a public health hazard. As a result, it is important to abide by local environmental regulations for wastewater/faecal sludge treatment.

Legal analysis includes legislation and regulations relevant to the context such as the sanitation system, target group, organisations involved in the humanitarian response, standards and the local regulatory regime. For example, it is important to understand the local standards in place for a sanitation facility as these will define the type of sanitation technology to be implemented.

Context analysis complements in-depth assessments that may be sector or programme-specific. It is not sufficient on its own for programme design but provides an invaluable understanding of the local context to ensure that programmes are effective and responsive to local dynamics.

Author(s) (2)
Shirish Singh
IHE Delft Institute for Water Education
Dorothee Spuhler
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (2)
Catherine Bourgault
Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)

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