Calling out beneficiary names during an aid distribution in Kibati camp, DRC Calling out beneficiary names during an aid distribution in Kibati camp, DRC Photo credit: Julien Harneis (via flickr)
NGO certification: time to bite the bullet?
by Charles-Antoine Hofmann November 1999

The humanitarian enterprise has grown dramatically over the last two decades. There are more NGOs, with more resources, and with more visibility. At the same time, the aid industry has faced a corresponding growth in criticism of its persistent weaknesses, including lack of professionalism, poor coordination, duplication and wasted resources. In response, the sector has developed a series of codes and standards to regulate itself. While these have gone some way to improve the quality and accountability of humanitarian assistance, there are limits to what can be achieved through self-regulation. As far back as 1996, the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR) clearly stated that the development of codes and standards is not enough: ‘some form of regulation or enforcement is needed to ensure improvements in performance of NGOs’.+Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, 1996. Ten years later, the joint evaluation of the tsunami response made a similar recommendation.+Joint Evaluation of the International Response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami: Synthesis Report, 2006, Tsunami Evaluation Coalition.

Despite these calls for a regulatory system, very little has happened. In part this reflects the complexity and diversity of the sector. It is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all approach would work, given the wide range of organisations involved, the broad spectrum of activities they engage in and the very different contexts in which they operate. It is also unclear who should have responsibility for certification: NGOs themselves, donors, affected states or an external body? What should be certified: the organisation, its programmes or the personnel delivering programmes? And what should the objective of a certification system be?

This article explores some of these questions. It builds on research conducted by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) in 2011, and on some of the current experience in the sector. The question of certification is likely to remain high on the agenda given current financial turmoil and the resulting pressures on aid organisations to demonstrate value for money. However challenging such an endeavour would be, there are some useful experiences in the humanitarian sector and elsewhere to build on. The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) has developed a certification system focusing on accountability and quality management. Some states already have processes and laws in place to regulate NGOs, and donors including ECHO have established conditions that NGOs must meet in order to receive funding. Private and public sector experience also offers some useful insights.

The purpose of a certification system

There is no agreement on what the purpose of a certification system should be. Is it to improve the quality and impact of humanitarian response? Is it to strengthen the accountability of NGOs, particularly with donors? Or is it to make sure that only organisations that meet professional standards operate in disaster response? The design of a certification system would largely depend on the answers to these questions. If the primary purpose is to ensure the application of quality standards by those certified, then self- and peer assessment are likely to play a central role. If it is to exclude poorly performing organisations, a more robust regulatory system needs to be in place.

While these different objectives are not mutually exclusive, the main driver for a certification system should be improving the quality of humanitarian response. This would ultimately enhance the credibility and professionalism of NGOs. There is, however, no hard evidence that certification systems actually improve quality. Systems tend to focus on organisational processes, but the link between good organisational procedures and programme quality is based on an assumption that the former contributes to better results and quality. Conversely, poor organisational procedures (poor financial management, lack of clear policies, weak HR management) are believed to result in poor programme quality. In the private sector, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has developed the ‘ISO 9000’ norm for quality management. Abiding by it, however, does not guarantee that the products or services delivered will be of good quality. A company may conform with ISO 9000 standards and have all the right processes in place, yet still manufacture a poor-quality product.

What should be certified?

To overcome this important limitation, the certification process would need to move beyond the organisational level to address programming issues. The focus should be two-fold, looking at organisations as a whole, including governance, finance and human resources (this is the approach taken by SGS in its NGO Benchmarking Certification Audit); and operations, focusing on quality standards such as the Sphere Minimum Standards and the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs, ensuring that organisations use them and checking that they are met in particular programmes. A third area of focus is personnel, and ensuring that staff involved in programme delivery meet certain professional standards. The Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) project – a collaboration between academic and humanitarian organisations – is currently considering ways of certifying and accrediting humanitarian personnel.

While a comprehensive approach combining all three dimensions may be desirable, it would inevitably result in a very complex and unwieldy mechanism. Choices have to be made, and thus it may be necessary to focus on only one of these aspects. This article looks at the first two dimensions: organisations and their operations. The certification of humanitarian personnel, although an interesting avenue, takes a different approach, involving academic and training institutions and some form of professional association.

A focus on operations puts more emphasis on the quality of humanitarian action, yet it is also a more complex area given the differences in contexts and in types of programmes, with specific technical standards for each sector. Certifying organisational processes is easier, and standards would seem to be more easily transferable across organisations. A mixed approach, using a small set of standards focused on organisations, but also including some elements of programmes, would seem an appropriate way forward. To obtain certification, an organisation would need to comply in terms of organisational processes at its headquarters, and would need to demonstrate that such standards are also used in a sample of its operations. For this to be manageable, such a system should not cover specific technical areas. An obvious starting-point would be to use some elements of the Code of Conduct, as well as Sphere’s Minimum Standards. Other existing standards developed for specific organisational processes – finance, HR, logistics, governance – could also be used.

The certification process

Based on experiences in the private and public sectors, a certification process includes the following three steps:

  1. Self-evaluation against an agreed set of standards and criteria.
  2. A peer review visit by a team selected and trained by a certification body, which reviews the evidence, visits premises, interviews staff and other stakeholders and produces an assessment report, including recommendations.
  3. An external review by the certification body of the evidence and recommendations against key criteria, which results in a judgement that is formally communicated back to the organisation (similar to an external audit).

It is important to note that all three steps may not be necessary in all cases: smaller NGOs may decide to focus on the first and possibly second steps. There can therefore be different degrees of certification. A full certification requires the completion of all three steps. This is important as it would provide external scrutiny, independence and credibility. The composition of the certification body is a critical element. It must not be dominated by a particular group of stakeholders, in order to maintain a strong degree of independence. It is not desirable, and probably not feasible, to have a single certification body. Based on an agreed set of common standards, a certification system will need to be flexible so that it can be adapted to different needs and contexts.

Remaining challenges

The development of a certification system for NGOs would involve a number of important challenges.

  • Certification systems are expensive. This is a regular criticism of such systems in the private sector. While focusing on a small set of standards with a lean and flexible approach would reduce the cost, it may still remain unaffordable for smaller NGOs with limited resources. Ensuring that NGOs with fewer resources are included in the process is therefore paramount: a certification system should reward merit and professionalism, not size and resources.
  • Certification could become a bureaucratic exercise that has little to do with improving the quality of programmes, and could inhibit innovation and risk-taking. Focusing not just on technical or management standards, but also on the values that underpin humanitarian action, as expressed in the Code of Conduct, may address this.
  • Finally, certification systems may enable donor governments and the governments of affected states to exert additional control over humanitarian organisations in ways that could undermine principled humanitarian action and negatively affect the quality and effectiveness of the response. This is why the standards against which NGOs would be certified must be defined by humanitarian organisations themselves, and why the certification body must be independent.


The issue of certification tends to arise in the aftermath of responses to large-scale disasters. Recent debates following the response to the Haiti earthquake have echoed earlier calls for certification. Such a system would open up the humanitarian sector to greater external scrutiny, which is less likely in self-regulatory approaches. Arguably, a certification system would also restore confidence in the humanitarian sector among donors, the public and the recipients of aid.

There are at least three important considerations if such a system is to be successfully developed. First, strong leadership will be needed so that fears and obstacles can be overcome. Second, it will be critical to create real ownership on the part of the many stakeholders involved. Ultimately, a certification system should aim to serve the humanitarian NGO sector at large, and thus must be flexible enough to adapt to different needs and contexts. Lastly, there should be no doubt about the intention of certification: to improve the quality of humanitarian action for the benefit of people in need.

Charles-Antoine Hofmann is Executive Secretary, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SCHR.