Tearfund consultation with staff on quality standards Tearfund consultation with staff on quality standards Photo credit: Tearfund
Addressing the challenge of compliance: Tearfund’s Quality Standards
by David Bainbridge, Tearfund September 2010

Over the last decade the aid community has recognised that there is a quality and accountability deficit in emergency projects. The widespread criticism of the relief response to the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and to later emergencies in the Balkans and elsewhere highlighted the need for standards of good practice in programme quality and accountability. Joint initiatives were launched, including the Sphere Project, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP), the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and People in Aid (PIA).

It has become increasingly clear in recent years that field staff working in emergency situations have become overwhelmed by the range of good practice commitments and standards that they are expected to consider or comply with, alongside all the other policies and procedures of their organisations. As a result, there is often a disconnect between the high-level commitments that an NGO signs up to in its Head Office and the practical realities of projects on the ground. There remains a significant problem with the application of international codes and standards. This article presents a case study of Tearfund’s experience in drawing up a set of Quality Standards, to share learning in adopting one approach to addressing the challenge of compliance.


Common codes and standards

The following are some of the most widely accepted codes and standards referred to by NGOs:


  • The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief.
  • The HAP 2007 Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management.
  • The Sphere Project – Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.
  • The People in Aid Code of Good Practice in the management and support of aid personnel.
  • The Code of Good Practice for NGOs Responding to HIV.
  • The Keeping Children Safe Coalition standards.
  • The UN Statement of Commitment on Eliminating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN and non-UN Personnel.


This daunting array of codes and standards is diverse in style and focus, adding to the confusion for staff seeking to assess whether they are working in compliance. Some standards highlight good practice to maximise the quality of humanitarian assistance, while others focus on eliminating bad practice in addressing fundamental issues of staff conduct and abuse. Some use aspirational language, with verbs such as ‘strive’, ‘endeavour’ and ‘attempt’ used to define the required commitment, thereby leaving room for interpretation and muddying the waters further.

Critical to the practical implementation of codes and standards are considerations of field staff capacity and the nature of support that NGO Head Offices provide to their frontline staff to help them understand and implement these commitments. Tearfund’s experience has been that field staff in emergency situations face immense time pressures to deliver high-quality assistance whilst meeting donor and organisational requirements, often in the media spotlight. Effective induction and training on codes and standards is therefore required if national and international field staff are to be properly equipped with an understanding of the relevant codes and standards, and how they work in practice. In the heat of an emergency response the excuse often given by NGOs is that there is little time for such an investment, when other pressing priorities take precedence. The challenge is further complicated when there are high levels of staff turnover.


Against this backdrop Tearfund took the decision to agree a set of Quality Standards to summarise all of the agency’s relevant external and internal commitments. Tearfund’s field staff had been asking for a ‘one stop shop’ of organisational commitments, and through a process of consultation with staff in the head office and in the field, a set of 12 standards was identified, as set out in Box 1. 


Box 1: Tearfund’s 12 standards

1 – Values

We are committed to outworking (living out) our core values through our staff, in relationships with project participants and all those with whom we interact

2 – Impartiality

We are committed to impartiality. The assistance provided is intended for the poor and most vulnerable. Project participants are selected on the basis of need alone, regardless of their race, religion or nationality.

3 – Accountability

We are committed to transparency, participation, feedback and learning with our project participants.


4 – Disaster Risk

We are committed to reducing the risk of future disaster by strengthening local capacity and reducing future vulnerability to disaster hazards as well as meeting short-term needs.

5 – Technical Quality

We are committed to the technical quality of our projects and to ensuring that they reflect communities’ own relief and recovery priorities.


6 – Children

We are committed to ensuring that programmes are child-sensitive by incorporating child development and child protection in their design, planning and implementation.

7 – Gender

We are committed to transforming communities through restored relationships between men, women, boys and girls and ensuring equitable value, participation and decision-making by all.


8 – HIV

We are committed to addressing the HIV pandemic and peoples’ vulnerabilities to HIV.

9 – Conflict

We are committed to designing activities that are sensitive to situations of conflict and the protection needs of project participants, and that contribute to building their capacities for peace.

10 – Environment

We are committed to protecting the environment through sustainable resource management.

11 – Sustainability

We are committed to seeing that projects have a lasting benefit, being built on local ownership and using local skills and resources.

12 – Advocacy

We are committed to influencing key decision-makers to make and implement policies and practices that work in favour of people who are vulnerable to disaster.

The Quality Standards

The process of consultation was challenging, with staff on one extreme remaining adamant that there should be no cutting back on commitments, and staff on the other extreme arguing that, if we were serious about implementing them, there should be no more than two or three quality standards. The decision to go for 12 sought to provide a balanced approach, with no major commitments being dropped, whilst trying to keep the number manageable. The focus of the Quality Standards was on emergency response, and the standards were limited to commitments which were deemed to be meaningful at the community level, as opposed to standards that reflected organisational systems and policies, such as security management, project management and health and safety. Such a distinction is not necessarily clear-cut and these organisational standards are critical in supporting the implementation of the community-level standards. One weakness in the approach was the lack of formal consultation with project communities on the selection of the standards, mainly due to time constraints. This would be a logical next step as the standards are reviewed and refined.

The first three standards, ‘Values’, ‘Impartiality and Targeting’ and ‘Accountability’, were presented as non-negotiable, to be implemented in all project contexts. The Values standard focuses on the conduct and attitudes of staff, ensuring clarity on the positive values that staff are expected to exhibit and clearly identifying types of behaviour which are incompatible with these values, including sexual exploitation and abuse, fraud and corruption. The intention is that the Values standard incorporates the UN Statement of Commitment on Eliminating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, to which Tearfund is a signatory.

The ‘Impartiality and Targeting’ Standard is linked with the Red Cross Code of Conduct principle of impartiality, and emphasises both selection of beneficiaries on need alone and the imperative to target the most vulnerable. ‘Accountability’ is linked with the HAP 2007 benchmarks. ‘Technical Quality’ is linked with the Sphere Handbook technical standards, whilst also making reference to communities’ own relief and recovery priorities as per the recommendations of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC). The other Quality Standards might traditionally be referred to as mainstreaming priorities, for instance Disaster Risk, Gender, HIV and Children, which are to be prioritised as appropriate to the context but with a non-negotiable commitment in all situations to ensure the safety and dignity of project participants and to avoid unintended harm.

In a number of cases, the quality standard acts as an umbrella statement under which more specific commitments are grouped. For example, ‘Accountability’ reflects the range of HAP benchmarks, with a focus on transparency, participation, feedback and learning with project participants. Arguably each of these could have represented a standard on their own. This highlights one of the challenges when seeking an optimal balance in a statement of commitment such as this: not oversimplifying things, but equally not developing too lengthy or complex a set of standards.


Maximising compliance

The main motivation behind the Quality Standards was to maximise compliance in the field. A three-pronged approach was proposed to support this aim:

1)      Presenting the standards as internal to Tearfund and as core to the organisation, as opposed to externally imposed commitments, with the aim that this would strengthen ownership by staff.

2)      Identifying only a limited number of Quality Standards to make them more manageable.

3)      Providing guidance for field staff that explained in practical terms what application on the ground involves, through the provision of a Quality Standards Field Guide, with practical guidance and checklists.


Once finalised, the Quality Standards were made available on the Tearfund website and were provided to field staff and field offices in the form of posters. The Quality Standards Field Guide was used as a curriculum for one of Tearfund’s core training modules for disaster management staff and partners.

The incorporation of the Quality Standards into Tearfund’s project management systems was an important step if compliance was to be improved. This included introducing a Quality Standards checklist as part of the project proposal development and approval system. At the programme strategy level, an analysis of Quality Standards was included within the strategy template, and an overall Quality Standards action plan was required for each emergency programme, which identified overarching priorities and actions to improve compliance. The Terms of Reference of evaluations were revised to make specific reference to the application of Quality Standards. Finally, a knowledge management system was developed, with key learning from project evaluations, staff debriefing and learning reviews categorised under the various Quality Standards and made publicly available on the website (go to http://tilz.tearfund.org/Topics/Disasters/Disaster+management+evaluations+and+learning).

One of the benefits of agreeing the Tearfund Quality Standards was that it met two external organisational requirements. The Quality Standards represent Tearfund’s Humanitarian Accountability Framework as required in the HAP Standard, and their adoption was a critical step in preparing for HAP certification, which Tearfund received in 2008 for its emergency responses. The Humanitarian Accountability Framework is a publicly available statement of existing commitments made by the NGO, whether internally generated or drawn from international codes and standards. The Standards also represent a clear statement of the standards to which Tearfund works, as required in the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Accountability Framework.

Whilst it is still too early to fully assess the impact of the Quality Standards on the level of Tearfund compliance with its quality commitments, initial indications are positive. Feedback from the HAP certification audit suggests that the framework has been helpful to staff in achieving greater understanding and ownership of the organisation’s commitments. The provision of practical guidelines has helped to ensure that staff have support and access to training. Making the Quality Standards publicly available both on the website and in the field has strengthened transparency and enabled staff to feel more accountable for the delivery of high-quality humanitarian assistance. Finally, the incorporation of the Quality Standards within project management systems has brought Tearfund’s quality commitments closer to the everyday vocabulary of staff at the project level.


David Bainbridge is Disaster Management Director at Tearfund.