“There is no doubt that Sphere has come a long way” — An interview with John Damerell

24 February 2014 | Sphere Project

Outgoing Sphere Project manager John Damerell"Sphere principles resonate with an increasing number of people as they put disaster- and conflict-affected communities at the heart of humanitarian response," says outgoing Sphere Project manager John Damerell.

The Sphere Project manager since 2009, John Damerell, is stepping down at the end of next month. In the following interview he reviews the development of the Project over the last five years and reflects on the current challenges to improve quality and accountability in the humanitarian sector.

Appointed Sphere Project manager in February 2009, Damerell brought his long experience in relief and development work in Africa, Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East to the position. He had been involved in the initial development of Sphere standards in 1997 and from 2002 to 2005 was a member of the Sphere Project management committee - the predecessor of the current Board.

"I came to Sphere with operational experience and, initially, I missed the possibility to do hands-on work during an emergency," Damerell recalls. "However, I quickly came to realise that my experience made it easier for me to better understand some of the issues around applying Sphere in the field. I was able to empathise with - say - the WASH or shelter people when we talked about appropriate standards and indicators."


How do you assess the development of the Sphere Project over the last five years?

It has been a rewarding if challenging period! The focus was on ensuring that the Sphere Handbook and associated materials remained relevant and available to humanitarian field workers everywhere.

When I took over the position, the priority was a revision of the 2004 edition of the Handbook - the 'orange' one. But as soon as we got into the revision process, it became clear that, contrary to what had been planned, the revision was not going to be 'light' in any way. Significant improvements were called for, including bringing the Humanitarian Charter into the 21st century, adding protection principles and looking afresh at the Common Standards - which became the current Core Standards - and all the technical chapters.

I remember that just at the time we were ready to have the draft reviewed, the 2010 Haiti earthquake struck and the majority of our reviewers were deployed. Of course, the humanitarian response took priority - and may have benefitted the review of the draft in the long run - but it meant that added time was needed to finish the Handbook revision. The new Handbook was launched in April 2011 in many countries simultaneously, generating considerable interest within the humanitarian sector.

Building on the new Handbook, the Sphere office staff - with the support of many committed Sphere advocates around the world - developed an e-learning course to serve as an introduction to Sphere's philosophy, principles and core standards. It was quite an undertaking and I think the end product speaks for itself. Everyone in the sector should take a look at it!

The Sphere companion standards have increased in number over the past few years. There are now four of them, covering education, child protection, livestock management and early economic recovery. These companions speak the same language as Sphere and embody the same rights-based approach. The effective broadening of the Sphere-like family of standards into these crucial areas surely helps field workers to improve assistance to those affected by conflict or disaster. I believe Sphere should remain committed to this approach in the future.

We also took steps to increase our advocacy and communications work to ensure that the right people were reached. More recently, probably in part as a response to the changes in the region, we have placed an increased focus on the Arab-speaking world.

In 2013, the Sphere Project office changed its home. We moved from the headquarters of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), our host since the Project started, to the offices of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). The opportunities that ICVA and its network of national and international NGOs offer for the wider dissemination of Sphere are considerable.

Throughout, I have felt privileged to work with a relatively small - just five persons, three of them part-time - but wonderful team. Their level of commitment and productivity has always impressed me.

But we must not forget that the Sphere Project is much more than the Sphere office. I suppose we at the office are the ‘guardians' of Sphere, but the real ‘owners' are the communities of Sphere champions and practitioners in the field.


How do you see the Sphere Project's position within the humanitarian sector?

When the Handbook 2011 edition was launched, Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, called it the "gold standard for humanitarian assistance". I think that is an indication of how far Sphere has come to being globally accepted and used.

NGOs, both national and international, are using Sphere standards. Disaster-affected governments are including them in their disaster management policies. Donor governments are requiring that Sphere be included - and as more than just tick-box procedures - in grant application processes. And more and more, Sphere plays a role in the UN system, both at the operational and coordination levels.

There is no doubt that Sphere has come a long way. Why? I think the Sphere principles - right to life with dignity, right to receive humanitarian assistance, right to protection and security - resonate with an increasing number of people as they put disaster- and conflict-affected communities at the heart of humanitarian response.

However, there's still work to be done. Sphere users are always challenged to consider the context within which they are working. The Sphere Handbook is not a how-to guide, nor will you find all the answers in its pages. It is important to understand that no two humanitarian responses are the same - the context has to be factored in, to avoid aid workers throwing up their arms in frustration and saying that ‘Sphere doesn't work here'.


The Sphere Project is part of a wider quality and accountability movement within the humanitarian sector. What role does Sphere play in this regard?

The fact that there are several standard-setting initiatives in the sector today, over and above the four Sphere companions I mentioned earlier, suggests that working to standards is something with which the humanitarian workers feel comfortable and see as being beneficial. I believe the use of standards and indicators allows the field worker to have something that is achievable and verifiable to guide their efforts.

The quality and accountability sub-sector, which involves more than just standards-setting initiatives, has also grown over the years. If a few years back we were just five or six people attending the meetings of the ‘Q&A group', we now need a much bigger table. Within this evolving scenario, Sphere has made and continues to make a significant contribution by actively engaging in dialogue with others.

In many respects, this is a sign of the increased professionalization in the sector. If a degree in humanitarian affairs didn't exist when I was starting out, today universities and institutions providing education and training on humanitarian issues are mushrooming. For Sphere, this means that we need to engage with these academic and training institutes to ensure that humanitarian standards are included in their curricula.

A consequence of the professionalization within the sector is an increased focus on the role of and need for certification. Sphere takes a voluntary approach to this issue. We acknowledge that certification processes may use Sphere standards but the access to the standards cannot be ring-fenced by certification. The choice must remain with the user.


Recently, the Sphere Project was involved in what was labelled as an effort to achieve greater coherence among humanitarian standards...

During the last couple of years, the Sphere Project has engaged with two standards-setting initiatives [HAP International and People In Aid] in an attempt to seek greater coherence among humanitarian standards. This effort took place in parallel to the Sphere companionship process I mentioned earlier - which is another expression of the same thrust - and was called the Joint Standards Initiative (JSI).

The JSI sought to first better understand the situation faced by aid workers when it comes to improving the quality and accountability of their work and, second, seek ways to make improvements.

One of its most significant achievements was the JSI stakeholder consultation. The consultation report debunks the notion that when it comes to humanitarian standards the main issue is ‘proliferation'. Instead, it found that the main obstacles to their implementation are lack of knowledge and inadequate training.

For me, this was a bit of a wake-up call. Although the consultation confirmed that Sphere standards were not only the most frequently used but also the most useful, I realised that perhaps we needed to do better on these fronts, paying greater attention to training and awareness-raising in the future.

Following the JSI process, the three initiatives involved attempted during 2013 to develop a Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS), drawing on the HAP Standard, the People In Aid Code of Good Practice and the Sphere Core Standards. At its meeting in November last year, the Sphere Board decided that the Sphere Project would no longer be involved in the development of the CHS and any related activities.

While not wishing to elaborate on the Board's decision, I would like to say that through the CHS process some fundamental differences of approach came to the fore. They suggested that it would be better for HAP and People In Aid to move ahead without Sphere being felt to be ‘holding things back' precisely because of those differences.


How do you see the future for the Sphere Project?

The Sphere Project is alive and well! There is so much going on that demands a continuation of the work it does. At the same time, the changes in the humanitarian landscape need to be taken into account.

We have seen the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's shift from humanitarian reform to a transformative agenda. Similarly for Sphere, the Board will review its current strategy in 2014 with a new strategy being developed thereafter - to take the Project forward.

The Sphere Project is involved in the humanitarian effectiveness theme of the World Humanitarian Summit, called for by the UN Secretary General in 2016. The process leading up to the Summit will surely provide direction for the sector and will be important for Sphere's new strategy as well.

And of course, there will be a new Sphere Project manager very soon who will bring new ideas and fresh energy to the Project.

The challenges remain as ever - the need for Sphere not to be regarded as a Euro-centric, northern-dominated initiative; to consolidate its role as the ‘lingua franca' of the humanitarian sector; to remain relevant.

But I am confident that the new manager together with the Sphere office team will be up to meeting them. After all, they can count on the wider Sphere community to whom Sphere really belongs.


What are you going to do next?

Now, I am bowing out. I think after five years it is about time - and it is time for fresh blood to come to the position. After having concluded the transition of the Project from the IFRC to ICVA I feel I can now start to think about what I want to do next.

Although I choose to leave the Sphere office at this point in time, I am confident that I will remain in touch with the Project and the sector.

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