How standards help humanitarian actors do the right things and do them well

24 June 2016 | Sphere Project

Humanitarian standards help governments, communities and the humanitarian system at large put people affected by crisis or conflict at the centre of humanitarian response, but not without challenges. After decades of improvements within the sector, it is time to renew a collective commitment towards quality and accountability.

The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul tackled many crucial subjects, including the issue of how organisations and individuals can strengthen the quality of humanitarian response and deepen their accountability through the use of standards.

The Sphere Project, CHS Alliance and Groupe URD organised a well-attended side event "It's not enough to do things right, the right things have to be done." The event was sponsored by the governments of Switzerland and Denmark.

Stephan Schønemann, Director for Humanitarian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of DenmarkStephan Schønemann, Director for Humanitarian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, acknowledged in his opening remarks that the humanitarian sector has been gradually improving its practices for more than 20 years. Quality and accountability initiatives, growing professionalisation as well as logistical, financial and managerial improvements have contributed to such progress.

In particular, Schønemann complimented the Sphere Project, the CHS Alliance and Groupe URD for "their amazing efforts in joining forces and creating one Core Humanitarian Standard... building a complementary approach that contributes to harmonising and strengthening the coherence of standards."

"Strengthening [this] coherence... across different sectors of humanitarian work on the basis of shared fundamental values, common structure and consistent language ensures greater ownership and enables increased effectiveness and efficiency."

"However," Schønemann emphasised, "the quality of humanitarian aid from the perspective of beneficiaries, local authorities and media, is regularly questioned." He noted four specific challenges for the sector:

  • Maintaining quality and accountability while adapting responses to new and increasingly complex and fast-changing situations;
  • Making sure that affected communities are put at the centre;
  • Moving from an individual responsibility to a collective one, from coordinating inputs to achieving outcomes together;
  • Transitioning from short-term crisis assistance to support for collective outcomes in protracted emergencies.

Arno Wicki, Deputy Head of Swiss Humanitarian AidPanel moderator Arno Wicki, Deputy Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, opened the discussion by asking "How can we do the right things and do them well?" As obvious as this goal may seem, achieving it is not easy, especially if we also want to ensure that people have a voice.

"From a donor perspective," Wicki said, the question becomes "How can we make the most of the limited resources we have?" "Well, our opinion is that with standards and quality, we can put people at the centre while at the same time being more effective."

Accountability, a bottom-up process

Amina Labarakwe, a community member from Baringo County, Kenya, opened the panel presentations: "My understanding of quality and accountability is of a process through which policy-makers account for what they are supposed to do or have committed to do."

Amina Labarakwe, a community member from Baringo County, KenyaFor her, "accountability is a bottom-up process; it needs to involve community members, because we are key in responding to disasters". As an example of community involvement, she mentioned a committee she was part of, which acted as "the eyes of the community".

According to Labarakwe, this is one way in which community members help to hold organisations to account. Involvement in decision-making processes also contributed to this, such as community participation in procurement processes, which helps to improve transparency.

"My message today," Labarakwe told the audience, "is that the current accountability model where we are more concerned with the donors does not work for communities; rather what we should have is accountability towards both the community and the donors."

Standards, indispensable tools for better response

Alejandro Maldonado, the Executive Secretary of Guatemala's National Coordination for Disaster Reduction, addressed the topic from a government point of view.

Alejandro Maldonado, the Executive Secretary of Guatemala’s National Coordination for Disaster ReductionIn 2009, the Government of Guatemala committed to integrate the Sphere standards. "We developed manuals and protocols to implement our commitment, for example Terms of Reference for procurement activities and purchases," Maldonado explained.

Guatemala government officials work with providers so that their supplies are consistent with the standards, in order to better meet the needs of end-users, depending on context and culture. Standards are "important for accountability and transparency purposes... as an important tool in fighting corruption."

For Maldonado, standards are also useful to plan for future events and decide what goods should be pre-positioned. "Very importantly as well, standards help to minimise human error and support objective decisions versus arbitrarily deciding what goes where," he said.

"As a government, we believe in the importance of standards, especially Sphere's," Maldonado concluded. "Standards are indispensable tools for a better response."

Taking into account the context

François GrünewaldFor François Grünewald, Executive Director of Groupe URD, humanitarian response needs to take into account the context in which it takes place, which is not easy and requires engaging with local actors. In that sense, a very positive aspect of the Core Humanitarian Standard is that "it is about asking questions".

Sometimes standards cannot be met for different reasons. "We need to know why we can't meet the standard to figure out how to improve, and as the migrant crisis is showing us, we need to be agile to adapt to quickly changing situations. That's why we need to keep asking questions such as those in the Core Humanitarian Standard," said Grünewald.

Moving the accountability agenda forward

Highlighting the "incredible progress" made in terms of accountability over the last decade, Lise Grande, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, spoke to "concrete steps we can take at the ground level to ensure that the accountability agenda is put right at the centre of our collective efforts".

Lise Grande, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for IraqGrande suggested four ways in which the cluster system and Humanitarian Country Teams (HCT) can help achieve such a goal within the current international humanitarian system.

First, all organisations wishing to submit projects to a Humanitarian Response Plan should show that they are working to reach Sphere standards and the quality criteria in the Core Humanitarian Standard.

Second, all clusters should develop work plans based on the CHS and work to deliver assistance at Sphere standards. These plans would be reviewed by the HCT to ensure full support for them across the operation.

Third, only organisations that are working to reach Sphere standards and the quality criteria in the CHS should be eligible to seek funds from in-country pooled funds and the Central Emergency Response Fund.

Fourth, HCTs should conduct biannual strategic reviews of their operations to monitor collective progress against the CHS and Sphere standards.

According to Grande, "if we do just these four things, this will put accountability at the very centre of our collective efforts."

Grande proposed that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) change the terms of reference for Humanitarian Coordinators and all cluster leads agencies "to include direct responsibility for integrating the Core Humanitarian Standard and Sphere Standards into the operations" they lead.

Addressing the "ethical gap"

For Grande, the current funding crisis represents a "very real threat to the accountability agenda". To make her point, she used the example of Iraq, a "kind of donor orphan," where more than seven million people "desperately need help and aren't getting what they deserve because the funding isn't there."

When in 2015, donors insisted that a USD two-billion appeal be "prioritised," the HCT engaged in a very difficult process. "Rather than calculating the costs of providing assistance to millions of people at Sphere standards, we were forced to retrench from the standards and calculate the costs of much smaller emergency packages for each cluster."

According to Grande, "the difference between the emergency packages and the standards represent an ethical gap". And in the end, even the emergency packages were only partially funded. However, "humanitarian action only really makes sense when it is principled".

"A principled approach," Grande concluded, "means that we need to assess needs collectively on the basis of an agreed methodology, then calculate the costs of meeting these needs at Sphere standards and use the Core Humanitarian Standard to ensure that we are accountable to populations. Any other approach, honestly, isn't really ethical."

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