Humanitarian stakeholders welcome harmonising of standards

28 June 2013 | Sphere Project

[For new developments on this subject, see HAP, People In Aid and the Sphere Project on the harmonisation of humanitarian standards]

Ambassador Manuel Bessler

Ambassador Manuel Bessler offers opening remarks at the Humanitarian Standards Forum in Geneva. Photo: Murray Garrard/HAP International

Over 150 leaders across the humanitarian sector gathered at the Humanitarian Standards Forum in Geneva on 27 June to engage with the outcomes of the Joint Standards Initiative and to inform the next steps to make standards more useful for aid workers, governments and others.

Participants heard about the framework for action emerging from the Joint Standards Initiative - the Standards Project. Its overall goal is to help humanitarian actors deliver a more accountable, effective and appropriate response to people affected by disaster or conflict through greater coherence of humanitarian standards.

"Quality is a major concern in today's humanitarian efforts," said Ambassador Manuel Bessler, Head of the Humanitarian Aid Department of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which hosted the Forum.

Ambassador Bessler emphasized the importance of inclusiveness in humanitarian standards: "It is not about controlling or enforcing, but about bringing different voices together to improve the quality that makes us accountable to beneficiaries in the first place."

Led by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) International, People In Aid and the Sphere Project, the Standards Project will actively draw in other stakeholders (i.e., global southern actors and affected populations, other quality and accountability initiatives and standards, UN humanitarian agencies, etcetera) over the next 18 months.

"Not engaging is not an option," said Erik Johnson, Chair of the Sphere Project Board in his opening remarks. "We have a collective responsibility to do better." Johnson invited the Forum participants to join and own the next stage of the process.

"Humanitarian principles will be at the heart of this Project," said Neil Casey, outgoing Chair of the People In Aid Board. "These are non-negotiable." Casey stressed the need to remain ambitious about the goals of the process and invited Forum participants to hold the three initiatives accountable.

A roadmap towards greater coherence

The Standards Project will have four workstreams:

The Project will work with others to develop a new standards architecture centred on humanitarian principles. The standards architecture will make it easier for humanitarian workers to navigate the various standards and use them in a complementary way.

A verifiable common core standard will be developed that is simple to use, accessible and easy to understand, with clear benchmarks and indicators. It is intended that the core standard will underpin current and future standards, technical or otherwise, that apply to humanitarian assistance.

Based on dimensions common to the HAP, People In Aid and Sphere standards, the common core standard will be applied at organisational level and will ensure that humanitarian actors are more accountable and effective.

Harmonised awareness-raising and support activities at country level will be developed, aimed at the successful dissemination of the common core standard.

The importance of verification was a key message from Forum participants. Clear guidance will be developed on verification approaches, methods and tools. The purpose is to help humanitarian actors understand how standards - and in particular the common core standard - can be assessed and verified.

While the Sphere Project will continue to promote voluntary uptake of standards, HAP and People In Aid will continue to invest in the development of verification tools, internal and external mechanisms as well as linking with the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) certification review.

The crucial role of feedback

Forum participants shared input and discussed the proposed four workstreams as well as key issues, such as the role of donors and how to engage other actors in the process.

Participants sounded a note of caution as well: the Standards Project should not become a new, additional initiative nor add a new layer to the current standards architecture. The need to keep momentum and "deliver results along the way" was also emphasised.

In his closing remarks, Forum moderator Dr Peter Walker, welcomed the "critical but positive" feedback received from Forum participants: "I hear you saying 'We want this to succeed'."

He also highlighted the importance of "client feedback" informing the process ahead. "It is going to be a fascinating challenge over the next few months to make sure we are listening to our end-users."

"The world is changing; we cannot look backwards," said Matthew Carter, representative of the HAP International Board. "We have to embrace change even if we do not know what that change is; we need to make ourselves fit for purpose and embrace the challenges that brings with it, as we move forward."

JSI consultationThe Humanitarian Standards Forum marked the conclusion of the Joint Standards Initiative, which began in 2011, involving an intensive period of global consultation, discussion and decision-making about standards coherence. The Standards Project takes this consultation into the implementation phase and will continue the collaboration between HAP, People In Aid and the Sphere Project.

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