Sphere Executive Board: Building an inclusive approach to quality and accountability

28 August 2017 | Sphere Project

Sudanese refugee girls from Darfur play ball during a gym course in the Djabal camp, eastern ChadThe primary focus of Sphere will be to support practitioners to learn and develop professionally, engage with organisations that innovate in ways that strengthen quality and accountability, and help the community connect with each other directly around quality and accountability challenges. Photo: Sudanese refugee girls from Darfur play ball during a gym course in the Djabal camp, eastern Chad. © F. Noy / UNHCR

With the Handbook revision underway, the Sphere Executive Board is focused on deepening partnerships, aligning the organisation's institutional structure, and building capacities to support practitioners around the world.

The first meeting of the Sphere Executive Board in its new status as an NGO took place in Brussels on 17-18 May. Sphere became a non-profit association in late 2016, in a move to become yet more responsive to practitioners globally and to strengthen even further its contribution to the humanitarian sector.

Executive Board members reviewed the progress thus far of the Sphere standards revision process. Noting that the most widely inclusive consultation process in Sphere's history was well advanced, the Board appreciated the new approaches to extend global reach to bring in diverse feedback, experience and opinions.

The publication of the second draft of the revised standards, scheduled for early October, will be a crucial moment to validate proposed changes, contribute additional evidence, and share comments before the text is finalized later this year.


Cash and the Sphere Handbook

Ahead of the Board meeting, a public event was held to discuss the role of cash-based programming in humanitarian response.

The panel discussion, hosted by Caritas Belgium and coordinated by Magali Mourlon from the NGO network VOICE, addressed the balance between cash and other aid modalities, the right level of cash-based programming, its impact on the role of humanitarian professionals, and on the humanitarian-development divide.

The next Sphere Handbook will strengthen references to cash programming considerations across all the chapters, expanding from only food security in the 2011 edition. In-kind assistance, service delivery, technical assistance, and multi-purpose cash may all be considered, the challenge being to find the right mix in context.

"Concretely, this means that the Sphere standards will reference cash-based programming throughout its technical chapters, with a strong focus on market analysis as a minimum consideration in assessments. Yet we also need to acknowledge the specific areas where cash may face limitations such as public goods or some aspects of public health," said Sphere Executive Director Christine Knudsen.

"As the use of cash has increased over the last years, reaching about 7% of aid delivery in 2017 and spreading from food security to other sectors, there is growing evidence of the effectiveness and efficiency of well-developed cash-based interventions," said Isabelle Pelly from the Cash Learning Partnership; Pelly is the Handbook revision technical lead on this subject.

Matthew Keyes, food expert at the European Commission Directorate General for Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), suggested that cash-based programming should reach up to 35% of their aid budget in 2017.

Silke Pietzsch, from Action Against Hunger USA, challenged the idea that cash is not appropriate for certain sectors. She stated evidence from nutrition programming that suggests that families' choices help keep stunting at a lower level over time. 

Mit Philips, from Doctors Without Borders, advocated for commitments to providing essential health care services, regardless of the increase in resources dedicated to cash-based programming.

Cautioning against blunt calls for scaling up the use of cash as a cure-all, Knudsen praised the nuanced discussion held by the panellists. "Sphere will strive to reflect these challenges in its revised standards," she said.

  • Watch for a more in-depth article on the role of cash-based programming in the revised Sphere Handbook in September.


Deepening partnerships

Executive Board members received updates on work being done through the Humanitarian Standards Partnership, which is currently focused on developing the first humanitarian standards application for smartphones and tablets. The app will be launched in September.

The Board unanimously welcomed the initiative taken by the Age and Disability Capacity Building Programme (ADCAP) to apply for membership of the Humanitarian Standards Partnership. ADCAP has developed the Minimum standards for age and disability inclusion in humanitarian action.

While the two demographic groups targeted by the ADCAP standards have also been addressed by the Sphere standards as essential considerations across all chapters, the Board agreed that the ADCAP work provides deeper guidance in this area, which is essential to quality and principled action. ADCAP and Sphere are complementary.

The Board received a report on the first meeting of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Steering Committee. The CHS Steering Committee is made up of Sphere, Groupe URD, and the CHS Alliance, as well as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, a UN representative, and Community World Service Asia.

The first meeting of the CHS Steering Committee helped stakeholders clarify the body's governance role and expectations around it. The second meeting will be hosted by Sphere and take place in Geneva in October. It will help consolidate an inclusive and complementary approach to strengthen the global uptake of the CHS.


Aligning strategy, branding and new institutional status

The Executive Board discussed how strategy and branding will align with the new institutional status of the organisation. This includes new ways in which Sphere globally frames its contribution to the humanitarian sector, humanitarian professionals and organisations.

The new status of Sphere allows it to transition from an output-based handbook project, to focus on its convening role in setting minimum humanitarian standards, including how these standards are applied in practice across varied contexts. The primary focus of the organisation will be to support practitioners to learn and develop professionally, engage with organisations that innovate in ways that strengthen quality and accountability, and help the community connect with each other directly around quality and accountability challenges.

Board members also reviewed the new governance of the organisation. Sphere is now led by a General Assembly, an Executive Board and a Secretariat headed by an Executive Director. The Executive Board substitutes for the General Assembly during an interim period until the latter's first ordinary meeting in May 2018.

A variety of membership models and their implications are currently being considered. The new Sphere by-laws, to be approved by the General Assembly, will define a road map for becoming a member.

Following on from the earlier membership discussion, a rich exchange unfolded around the concepts of connecting with, belonging to, and joining Sphere, as well as around the balance between Sphere's role as holder of technical quality standards and as the premier promoter of accountability and a rights-based approach.

With the Humanitarian Charter as its bedrock, Sphere may need to be very clear about its distinctive roles for different actors, such as those who adhere to Sphere's values and others who work with humanitarians and may be more interested in technical expertise.

Board members acknowledged with appreciation the growing diversity of Sphere's donor base, as well as donors' long-term commitment, expressed in the growing number of multi-year grants awarded to the organisation.


Board members

Maria Chalaux Freixa, Alwynn Javier, and Ramzi Saliba were welcomed to the Executive Board as new representatives of Oxfam, ACT Alliance, and the Humanitarian Response Network of Canada, respectively. The Board expressed gratitude to Sarah Kambarami (ACT Alliance) and Bárbara Mineo (Oxfam Intermón), who stepped down as members after faithful services to Sphere.


  • The next meeting of the Executive Board will take place in Geneva on 27-29 September.

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