What will 2017 bring for humanitarian standards

20 December 2016 | Sphere Project

Photo: Nepal earthquake 2015 © Pierre Prakash/EU-ECHO

"When crisis strikes, affected people don't think of their needs in terms of different sectors or services. For us humanitarians, the question is how do we work so that people get what they need, not what our sector has to offer?" Photo: Nepal earthquake 2015 © Pierre Prakash/EU-ECHO

By Christine Knudsen (*)

The year ahead will see significant moves in the humanitarian standards landscape - and mark Sphere's 20th anniversary!

As the number of people requiring humanitarian aid around the world reaches new highs - nearly 93 million in 2017 according to the UN - humanitarians continue to seek ways to improve the quality of assistance and our collective accountability. The year ahead is going to see many developments that will take us a long way in that shared direction.

Towards new Sphere standards...

Launched by humanitarian practitioners in 1997, Sphere represented a fundamental shift away from a charity-based approach towards one which recognised that all people have the right to life with dignity, even in the most challenging crisis environments.

In 2017, Sphere will be marking 20 years of this essential change by doing what it does best: supporting humanitarian values and promoting universal human dignity by strengthening standards that will guide humanitarian practitioners for years to come.

From February, the revision of the current edition of the Sphere Handbook will begin in earnest. A kick-off workshop on 31 January will gather lead authors and thematic experts to define the parameters of the revision process, agreeing on how best to rally the global humanitarian community to reflect on evidence, experience, principles and practice.

The revision will consider several drivers of change in humanitarian response. These include questions of how assistance is provided (cash, in kind or service delivery), changes in operating contexts (with the majority of the world's population now living in cities), and a more diverse sector as new actors enter the humanitarian field, comprising national and municipal authorities, civil defence, military and others.

The revision will also take into account the need to make the Handbook and related tools accessible across multiple platforms, including apps and cloud-based repositories for source materials, updated guidance and learning tools.

...incorporating the CHS

The revision of the Sphere Handbook will also be the opportunity to fully integrate the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) into its architecture beyond the current references and guidance to its application.

The harmonised CHS is an opportunity to evolve beyond the Sphere Core Standards, change and improve practice, bringing about real shifts in accountability - to affected people, to staff, to donors and to each other.

But we know that the core cannot stand on its own without quality standards and deep consideration of protection. An integrated approach is the only meaningful way to make life with dignity and fuller realisation of rights a reality, even in the worst crisis.

The revision of the Handbook next year opens an exciting opportunity to make the linkages between the core and the sectoral standards clearer. By integrating the CHS into Sphere, we will make the foundations more apparent throughout the standards, strengthen the guidance for applying the CHS in practice, develop the linkages with protection and the humanitarian principles and weave the sectoral chapters together more fully.

How do we strengthen the indicators and provide clearer guidance to contextualise them? What do the Protection Principles and the CHS say to water engineers and what they need to know about them in their work? What does accountability to the affected community look like in a field hospital?

The CHS too will be strengthened in this process as its indicators and guidance are reviewed based on the collective experience accumulated through working with them over the past two years.

Coherent, comprehensive standards at your fingertips

Today, Sphere's philosophy is at the core of an approach to developing standards that is shared by a growing number of standards-setting initiatives in the humanitarian sector.

And let us be clear: when crisis strikes, affected people don't think of their needs in terms of different sectors or services. For us humanitarians, the question is how do we work so that people get what they need, not what our sector has to offer?

How do we bridge water and education, livelihoods and health, shelter and protection, logistics and cash so that people get what they need, when they need it and in line with best practice? This is where partnership comes in.

Grounded on a shared foundation - the Humanitarian Charter, the Protection Principles and the Core Humanitarian Standard - the Humanitarian Standards Partnership builds a common, coherent framework that covers nine areas of humanitarian response: water and sanitation, shelter, food security and nutrition, health (Sphere), education (INEE), child protection (CPMS), economic recovery (MERS), livestock (LEGS) and market analysis (CaLP).

The aim of the Partnership is to make it easier for all of us to use the right standards at the right time. Beginning next year, joint outreach will promote standards and help users to see the cross-linkages between different areas of work.

A jointly developed smartphone application will make the full set of standards available on mobile phones and tablets. The app will provide practitioners with online and offline access to user-friendly, interlinked, searchable standards and interactive tools, with the option to receive news and training alerts.

Practitioners will have the key tools they need at their fingertips in one place. Just one step, but a significant one, that proves that initiatives working together can bring about change and help good work to be done even better.

Working together in 2017 and beyond

The revision of the Sphere Handbook is an opportunity for the humanitarian community to think about how we face new challenges in new ways, building on what brings us together. And as Sphere has its roots in a process which is broad, consensus-based, open and inclusive, we invite you to stay tuned for opportunities to contribute to it!

What an exciting year we have ahead of us! Let's go on working together to continue making humanitarian assistance better.

(*) Sphere Director

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