Working with universal standards in local contexts

16 September 2016 | Sphere Project

Community shelter training in VanuatuCommunity shelter-building training in the Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean hit by Cyclone Pam in January 2015. Photos © Save the Children Australia

For Sphere standards to be more useful, appropriate and ultimately effective, they can - and must - be adapted to local contexts. This is one of the key findings of recent research based on three case studies.

Proper contextualisation of humanitarian standards is often not fully understood or implemented. Taking this fact as a starting point, three graduate students from the London School of Economics and Political Science conducted a six-month research project to explore the challenges and opportunities involved in adapting Sphere standards to local situations.

Contextualisation is the process of taking into consideration the local situation in order to interpret existing standards and adapt indicators for meaningful application. Its importance lies in the fact that it increases the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance and helps practitioners maximise local opportunities and minimise errors.

The study's lead question is on the extent to which Sphere standards can be contextualised by different actors and in different response situations. The authors also offer lessons to facilitate proper and effective contextualisation.

The study reviews how the Sphere Handbook's Shelter and Settlements standards were adapted in the responses to three disasters: the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the 2015 Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and the 2015 floods in Malawi. The limited scope of the research project did not allow for the inclusion of conflict-related crises.


Holistic approach

In the search of responses to their lead question, the authors also discuss in depth four criticisms of the Sphere Handbook found in academic literature: Are the Sphere standards too inflexible for meaningful contextualisation? Are they truly global? Do they address key humanitarian issues? Can the right-based approach promoted by Sphere be applied globally?

Based on their analysis of the three case studies, the authors conclude that for the most part, these criticisms "spring from a lack of understanding of how to effectively and holistically use the Sphere Handbook".

Using the Handbook in a holistic manner means that "technical chapters" (e.g., Shelter and Settlements) need to be read and used in conjunction with "foundational chapters" (that is, the Humanitarian Charter, Protection Principles and Core Standards, now replaced by the Core Humanitarian Standard - CHS).

The case studies found that the responses to the three disasters were all good examples of such an holistic approach. In all of them, Core Standards and/or Protection Principles were used to fully capture contexts, local customs and traditions and to fully involve the local community, including vulnerable groups, in designing and subsequently adapting the disaster response.


Knowledge gap

The study found a knowledge gap between management and frontline staff. Overall, management staff tend to have the highest amount of training on Sphere and how to properly use the handbook. As a result of their formalised training or exposure to Sphere, they tend to "have a more favourable and relaxed view of the handbook".

However, it is frontline staff who, being at the forefront of the response, are the best placed to contextualise the standards to the realities on the ground. And yet, they often have the weakest understanding of Sphere, largely due to lack of training and exposure. As a consequence, they often tend to either "ignore the standards or see them as the unchangeable ‘Word of God'".

The authors suggest that more focused guidance by the Sphere Project office as well as timely and efficient training, in particular for frontline workers, can mitigate some of these perceptions and make the Sphere Handbook a more effective tool.


“Digestible” contextualisation

Not only international agencies working in what may be a foreign land need to be concerned with contextualising humanitarian standards, the study notes. "Local actors also need to adapt their work, with many unaware of specific conditions present in different communities and within different social groups."

Practitioners should be aware of the potential pitfalls of doing contextualisation badly or solely at the start of a project, the authors warn. "Contextualisation cannot be left to chance. It is too important a process to be done in a haphazard way."

If highly structured, formal processes are clearly not desirable or feasible in the high-pressure environments in which humanitarian practitioners work, the study recommends a formal yet "digestible" process that is carried out in a critical, responsive and holistic way. "The process must strike a good balance between depth and ease of use."

Among the recommendations of the study, the authors suggest that the next edition of the Handbook should stress the need for contextualisation even further so that the topic can be better understood by practitioners.

"The Sphere Project should create optional tools and guidance, separate to the Handbook, to assist practitioners in the process of contextualisation," the study advises.


Affected communities

Community shelter training in VanuatuThe study contains a wealth of lessons learned - particularly through the detailed case studies - and recommendations for the Sphere Project, humanitarian agencies and practitioners as well as governments.

One last but crucial recommendation addresses the affected communities directly. The study suggests that community groups, local governance structures and other leaders should be aware of and understand the Sphere Handbook. "This would allow them to actively participate in programmes relating to their recovery as well as hold humanitarian organisations accountable for the provision of appropriate assistance."


While the study offers useful insights on the challenges and opportunities in contextualising the Sphere Handbook, the authors also suggest that further research be undertaken to fully understand and address a number of unresolved issues.

The case studies revealed that practitioners are very keen to engage in the contextualisation discussion - and hence the need to actually have that discussion. Getting such direct input from field and regional staff is probably the biggest contribution of this piece of research to a better understanding of standards contextualisation.

As the 2018 edition of the Sphere Handbook will most likely place greater emphasis on this issue, the findings of this study will be carefully considered. While the study does not reflect Sphere's official position on contextualisation, we do warmly recommend that practitioners read it and consider the three case studies for trainings.


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