Benchmarks, Sticks or Carrots? Differing perceptions of the role of standards
by Sarah Longford, RRN November 1998

In the closing days of Phase 1 of the Sphere Project, discussion and debate about the practical use of minimum standards in disaster response intensified at humanitarian agency headquarters.

Why? With the imminent launch of Phase 2 of Sphere and circulation of a draft preliminary edition of The Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Relief, apprehension resurfaced in some quarters about the apparent rigidity of the standards. Was it really possible to set common benchmarks or yardsticks for disaster response? Are they applicable and relevant? How do you ensure compliance? Will initiatives such as the ombudsman approach suffice when agencies fall short of the stick? And what carrots are needed to get everybody on board?

In September, a group of French NGOs, including Action Contre la Faim, Médecins du Monde, Médecins sans Frontières, and group Urgence Réhabilitation Développement expressed concern to the Sphere Management Committee about “significant shortfalls” in the recommended list of standards, which cover water and sanitation, nutrition and food aid, shelter and site selection and health issues. Concerns raised related both to conceptual and technical issues. Many of the technical concerns, as well as concerns over operational practice, had already been taken into consideration in subsequent versions of the standards (the French NGOs were using an early draft version of the standards), so this was a sequential problem easily resolved.

More problematic have been the differing perceptions about the issues of principle which form the backbone of the standards debate. Among the fears raised by the French NGOs were that the standards could essentially only be applicable in secure and “ideal camp situations” and had inadequately taken into account the diversity and changing nature of humanitarian situations; that there were inconsistencies between advocating for participatory approaches and prescriptive and imposed standards; and that NGOs from developing countries had been “excluded from the process”.

An over-arching worry was that the standards were already considered as the “unique and universal reference” by some humanitarian actors and donors, and that a “bureaucratic, normative, standardisation process” might kill innovative initiatives by agencies faced with the reality of changing and complex situations.

Many of these concerns have in fact already been debated by the agencies who have worked on Sphere. Staff from some of the criticising agencies were themselves very involved in the work of establishing the Standards over the last two years, a process which has drawn on the broad range of experience of 641 named individuals (and countless un-named) from some 228 organisations, including NGOs, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, academic institutions, the UN and governmental agencies. Nonetheless, differing perceptions about the conceptual approach and value of this initiative to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system have persisted.

Acknowledging the concerns of the French NGOs, agencies supporting the Sphere project have reasserted their baseline position. With the ultimate objective of the Sphere project being to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance provided to people affected by disasters, and to improve the accountability of agencies to their beneficiaries, their membership and their donors, the standards are seen as an important tool in defending people’s rights, asserting humanitarian agencies right of access to disaster victims and lobbying government to fulfil their obligations under existing international law, conventions and practice.

Furthermore, they maintain that in order to develop a framework for minimum standards, certain assumptions about situational settings including resource availability, security conditions, etc. had to be made. It has also been reaffirmed that agencies should not be threatened by the standards as there will still be room for innovative and flexible approaches.

With regard to next steps and process – the issue that seems to have been most problematic in the past and be most relevant for the future, there are plans to enter a wider process of dissemination and institutionalisation of the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Phase II of the Sphere project.

It has been recognised that the French agencies’ concerns, and dialogue with them and other partners, both in the north and south, must inform the work of the next phase. The Sphere Management Committee will also invite the signatories of the French letter to a meeting to share views on the next stages of the development of the standards. The preliminary edition of the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Relief will be subjected to a trial period in a wide variety of humanitarian emergency response settings prior to publication at the end of 1999. Participating NGO networks are therefore being encouraged to seek their members’ commitment to take part in this “pilot phase”.

Getting thus far in the search for commonality of approach has not been an easy task. And the next stage of testing the relevance and applicability of the standards will also pose fundamental challenges. But the very fact that a lively debate continues, reflects the real effort being made to bridge cultural and philosophical differences, as well as developing meaningful accountability mechanisms.

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