Dos and doníts of training on humanitarian standards in emergencies

10 April 2014 | Sphere Project

Training in emergencies - Philippines - Photo Loren Hyatt / Lutheran World Relief

Training of humanitarian workers in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo © Loren Hyatt / Lutheran World Relief

Experienced Sphere trainers share their wisdom on how to deal with on-the-spot training in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

When a sudden disaster strikes, the capacity of humanitarian actors to respond is usually stretched and new staff needs to be hired on the spot. At the same time, government officials who do not normally deal with emergencies are faced with the need to respond to overwhelming demands. Add volunteers to the mix, and you get the picture that makes training people on humanitarian standards during emergencies a crucial need.

We consulted some experienced Sphere trainers and asked them what their advice for this type of situation is. This is what they shared with us.


• Make sure the training is targeted and relevant to the situation.

"The training should be context-specific," says Uma Narayanan, a trainer based in Malaysia, "and targeted towards the on-going emergency response." She suggests, for instance, short workshops focused on the preparation of relief packages.

"Make sure you use case stories and examples from the current emergency," agrees UK-based trainer Anne Lloyd.

• Keep the training short... (whatever ‘short' may mean).

All the trainers consulted agree that during the early stages of a disaster response things are hectic and the people involved do not have a lot of time to spend in workshops, no matter how important they may be. Therefore, trainings need to be kept short. But what exactly does "short" mean?

For Martín Villarroel García, a trainer based in Bolivia, the maximum length should not exceed two days. According to Narayanan, half a day works best.

Lloyd suggests a one-day workshop combined with the possibility of expanding it later on. "I've found that a one-day introduction followed by a field trip focused on how Sphere can be used in practice, with practical tips, works very well," she says.

• Take a hands-on, advocacy-oriented approach.

"It's important to keep the training centred around practical issues," says Villarroel. For instance, in addition to using relevant case studies, he suggests focusing on the Key actions described in the Sphere Handbook technical chapters.

For Lloyd, taking advantage of all the opportunities to promote the use of Sphere standards is key. In addition to field visits, she suggests that cluster meetings are a good place to remind people of the need to work to humanitarian standards.

Narayanan also highlights the need for "constant reminders about Sphere standards in various platforms and forums," which incidentally also increase the receptivity of humanitarian staff to training activities.

• Use local resources and build on previous trainings.

"Wherever there have been some Sphere training activities done before the emergency," Lloyd says, "it's important to build on them." Likewise, "involving local trainers is useful in order to facilitate a more relevant training experience," Narayanan adds.

• Involve non-humanitarian actors.

"Training workshops need to have a multidisciplinary approach, involving staff dealing with different areas of the response," says Villarroel.

For Narayanan, government officials are a key audience that needs to be targeted. "They have different concerns, questions and attitudes as well," she says, "although they may not voice them very openly."

Lloyd agrees: "Government officials may feel concerned and wonder what Sphere standards are, so it's important to include them in all training opportunities."

• Make sure there are plenty of Sphere Handbooks available.

"At the early stages of the emergency it's important to ensure the availability of Sphere Handbooks," says Lloyd.

Something that is sometimes easier said than done. Villarroel recalls a suitcase full of Sphere Handbooks that didn't make it through the customs of a certain country in spite of benefitting from an official invitation.

"We managed to give each of the 35 participants a photocopy of the handbook friendly version we developed in Latin America, and to achieve that we used all the (scarce) paper and ink available at the Health Ministry," he explains.


• Don't overwhelm participants.

"For instance by getting into too much detail," says Narayanan.

"Or by focusing on theoretical or historical issues," adds Villaroel. "Even if humanitarian principles and rights are essential, concentrating on the purely juridical aspects is not advisable," he says.

Villaroel also recommends not emphasising the Sphere Handbook Key indicators too much, but rather focusing on the Key actions.

• Don't put people off by making conformity to Sphere standards look too hard.

"There is often the concern that using Sphere standards at the beginning of a large scale emergency response is too ambitious," says Lloyd. "However, people can be encouraged by not setting out to meet all the standards in the early stages, but rather working towards them, or at least considering them and thinking of the implications of not meeting all of them," she adds.

For Lloyd, "in all emergencies, it's important to think how Sphere standards can be used, what one needs to aim for, whether Sphere can be used for advocacy."

• Don't expect people to attend several-day long workshops.


What else to keep in mind?

Sphere Emergency Training Toolkit"It's important to focus on the fundamentals: the Humanitarian Charter, Protection Principles and Core Standards," says Villarroel. "Humanitarian principles and the rights-based approach are crucial," he adds.

"Those NGOs that are new to disaster response, for instance because their previous mandate was more development-oriented, are usually very open to humanitarian quality standards, something that needs to be taken advantage of," says Narayanan.

According to Villarroel, "Sphere principles and standards express a commitment to humanitarian action in favour of vulnerable populations."

For him, "training in emergencies is the art of combining what is urgent with what is indispensable." That is, "to combine the application of the principles and rights stated in the Humanitarian Charter - to life with dignity, assistance and protection - with the speed required by the response." This is easier, says Villarroel, when humanitarian actors are committed to those rights and principles.

"Sometimes the enthusiasm shown by participants is infectious, as was the case in a recent training in the Philippines which involved local and international NGOs as well as government officials," recalls Narayanan. "Those experiences motivate me and make me want to keep promoting Sphere standards."

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