Activity 1.3 B
Diagnose root causes
This activity will help you get below the surface-level understanding of the problem to identify what things are causing the problem, and what things are contributing to the problem.
Diagnosing root causes requires that we ask – and try to answer – explanatory questions. Explanatory questions often start with the word why, and are framed in a way that positions one thing in relationship to another, for example, Why are people hungry when there is food available at the market?
This is a process of testing what you think are the root causes or contributing factors to the problem you have identified. You should expect to challenge some of your initial assumptions and guesses as to why the problem is occurring, and hopefully gain some deep insights from the information and evidence that you have gathered that will help you understand the causes and contributing factors better.
You may find that you are looking at the problem the wrong way, or that you have misunderstood the problem. In some cases, you may even find that you should be focusing on a more fundamental problem than the one you initially identified. Whether you decide to stick with the problem you originally identified or address a deeper issue, this is completely ok!
Things to consider
- As always, try to engage affected people in the analysis of the problems wherever possible. How a problem is defined, and who defines it, is critical to how it is addressed. Beware of power dynamics if you are discussing causes.
- There can be a tendency in the humanitarian sector to just blame ‘the system’, without making the effort to be more specific, and identify exactly what the ‘systemic’ issues are. Also, don’t fall into the trap of just identifying ‘lack of funds’. Make sure that you are specific in your answers.
- The repeat and persistent questioning involved in the ‘5 Whys’ can be inappropriate in some cultural contexts, particularly if there might be social hierarchies. Make sure you therefore introduce the purpose of the exercise sufficiently well.
- This exercise can be extremely difficult for people who are not used to thinking in this manner (particularly so in countries where the education system is based on rote learning). Therefore, carrying the exercises out in groups will require skilful facilitation.
- Digging deep into causality can highlight power and conflict dynamics. As discussed elsewhere (eg, in Section 1.1.E: Use foresight to identify trends), it may be worth carrying out a conflict or power analysis to ensure that you understand the local political, cultural, religious and power dynamics before embarking on these exercises.