Sphere renews its involvement in the Core Humanitarian Standard - Interview with Unni Krishnan

19 June 2014 | Sphere Project

Unni Krishnan, Chair, Sphere Project BoardSphere Project Board Chair Unni Krishnan.

At its meeting in New York City in May the Sphere Project Board decided to renew its involvement in the development of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS).

In the following interview, Sphere Board Chair Unni Krishnan explains the rationale and implications of that decision.


Why did the Sphere Project Board decide to get involved in the CHS process again?

The latest meeting of the Board was mainly dedicated to devising a new strategy to usher the Sphere Project into the future. We are very excited about the possibilities we see for developing a global standards network.

This new vision, conceived 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, reiterates Sphere's core commitment to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance and accountability to communities impacted by disasters and conflict. A people-centred approach that has their dignity and rights at the heart remains central to this vision.

In that context, the importance of a single core humanitarian standard was clear. In the light of some recent positive developments in the CHS process, the Board felt that many of its previous concerns had been addressed. This provided sufficient grounds for Sphere to get involved afresh in the development of the CHS.


Why did the Sphere Board discontinue its involvement in the development of the CHS in November last year?

There were several reasons, which we may have not communicated properly at the time. Maybe it is not too late to explain them.

At the time, the Board felt that the CHS was being written from the perspective of organisations rather than that of people affected by disaster or conflict, which is Sphere's distinctive approach. That made it difficult to see how such a standard would fit into the Sphere Handbook, especially because the way it dealt with organisational and operational aspects was unsatisfactory.

As we were not able to reconcile these approaches, the quality of the product suffered and none of the parties involved was entirely happy with it. Sphere did not want to appear to be holding back the other initiatives and so stepping back appeared to be a way to allow them to work to their full strength.

For the Sphere Board, it was also important to make sure that the CHS was better than the core standards currently in the Sphere Handbook, which was not the case at the time. Nor was it clear that the CHS had the right characteristics for voluntary adoption.

At the same time, concerns were raised about the process, which for us ought to have been more inclusive, as well as about the impact of an unrealistic timeline on the quality of the product.

Finally, the Board felt that talk about a merger of the three initiatives, an idea pursued by the other involved parties, was premature and actually pre-empted a proper discussion in which ‘form follows function'.

For all of these reasons, the Sphere Board decided to discontinue its involvement in the process.


But those concerns have now been addressed...

Yes! In particular, the Sphere Board welcomes the inclusion of distinct programmatic and organisational aspects in the standard as well as the efforts to include a larger number and diversity of organisations and technical experts in the consultation process.

We believe the introduction of an independent writing group is also a step forward and we fully appreciate the willingness to reconsider the CHS decision-making process as well as its timeline to enable Sphere constituencies to contribute to it.

The Board believes that having a single core humanitarian standard would benefit the whole humanitarian sector, rather than having multiple sets of potentially competing core standards.

We believe that the renewed participation of the Sphere Project and its constituencies in the process will bring greater quality, credibility and acceptability to the CHS.


What does this decision mean in practical terms?

As a result of the Sphere Board decision, a small group of Sphere representatives met with those of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and People In Aid to discuss the next steps in the development of the CHS.

We wanted to find a mutually acceptable and robust approach to finalising an inclusive CHS that could be fully incorporated into the Sphere Handbook.

In the light of feedback from members of the CHS Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and Technical Steering Group (TSG), NGO networks and Sphere Board members and companion standards, further work was done on the CHS draft before the second period of consultation and field-testing was launched.

Included in the feedback were clear indications that the second draft of the CHS was too organisation-centric, and needed to be more people-centred and designed to be used by people responding to crises; hence it was agreed to strike a better balance between those aspects.

Secondly, Sphere agreed with HAP and People In Aid that subsequent drafts of the CHS should be written by an independent writing group of practitioners with experience in the development of humanitarian standards rather than by staff of the three initiatives.

We are deeply grateful to this group for accepting the assignment at such a short notice. They met during the second week of June and did a great job. In our view, the new version of the CHS represents a substantial improvement.

We also re-emphasised the importance of opening the CHS process to people throughout the sector. A revised process was agreed which maintains the consultation and testing from July to September, enables a penultimate revision in late September and provides a final period of online consultation for minor modifications and endorsement by the sector in October.

In accordance with the original structure of the CHS, HAP and People In Aid agreed that Sphere representatives should be included in all the decision-making bodies of the CHS, including its Project Executive, Joint Board Committee, Technical Advisory Group and Technical Steering Group. Sphere will also provide support to the independent writing group without compromising their freedom and remit.


What will happen next?

The detailed next steps agreed on by HAP, People In Aid and the Sphere Project were made public in a joint statement.

As the Sphere Project, we are committed to engaging actively in the remaining phases of the revision of CHS, including the consultations, field-testing, rewriting, editing and finalisation, which we believe provide a thorough, robust and inclusive process. We strongly encourage Sphere constituencies and Board organisations as well as people throughout the sector to participate in the process and contribute to the CHS.

The Sphere Board is keen to ensure that the final CHS is verifiable and can be effectively used by both those committed to voluntary standards and those pursuing certification.

Once finalised, the CHS will be incorporated into the Sphere Handbook, replacing its Core Standards. It will also replace the HAP Standard and the People In Aid Code of Good Practice.

Sphere is committed to taking part in discussions about how to manage, promote and revise the CHS in the long-term. We believe that there are various options to doing this through collaboration without necessarily creating a separate body. We intend to make creative suggestions and proposals and we have clearly indicated that Sphere is not pursuing a merger with HAP and People In Aid.

Finally, Sphere will also help organise and co-host a conference to launch the CHS in Copenhagen on 12 December 2014.

In brief, we look forward to working together with HAP, People In Aid, Sphere companions and others to develop a high-quality Core Humanitarian Standard.

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