Using Sphere: Oxfam’s Experience in West Africa
by June 2003

Oxfam GB’s West Africa regional centre, based in Dakar, Senegal, has disseminated Sphere’s humanitarian charter and minimum standards to its emergency staff and main partners involved in humanitarian response. Since mid-1999, the West Africa regional programme has held workshops to explain the charter, and the standards. It has also assessed Sphere’s usefulness in the implementation of Oxfam’s work, and the extent to which Oxfam can contribute to the project’s third phase.

The workshops

The workshops, which are organised as capacity-building exercises, have benefited countries where Oxfam has a presence. These include Liberia and Sierra Leone, where conditions of conflict prevail, and areas affected by natural disaster, such as the 1999 floods in northern Senegal.

The workshops are organised so as to fit with Oxfam’s reorganisation of its programming at global, regional and local level. This reorganisation is centred around five sets of strategic change objectives (SCOs). Each SCO corresponds to a basic human right, which becomes the driving force of a ‘one-programme’ approach within a region: the right to a sustainable livelihood; the right to health and education; the right to life and security; the right to a say; and gender equity.

SCOs four and five are cross-cutting, and should therefore run across all programmes. The third – the right to life and security – is directly related to the use and dissemination of Sphere. The underlying idea of standards based on the principles of humanitarian law and respect for basic rights to life with dignity are the cornerstone of Oxfam’s programming under SCO3.

The workshops are a practical way to help people understand that they have basic rights, and that their governments are accountable for respecting those rights. Essentially, the workshops aim to empower the people with whom Oxfam works by giving them the tools to request that their rights are met. The capacity-building sessions comprise four main parts.

  1. An introduction to basic principles of humanitarian law, the texts on which the charter is based, and the obligations of states.
  2. An explanation of Oxfam’s ‘one-programme approach’, with particular emphasis on SCO3.
  3. A detailed description of the standards set by the Sphere project, with the clear message that these should be aspired to, but unfortunately may not always be fully met.
  4. An open discussion of the applicability of these standards to specific country situations. This allows for a wide range of issues to be raised, from logistical problems to more political issues, such as donor adherence to these principles (or lack thereof), and the accountability of NGOs, donors and governments to their stakeholders.

First reactions

The Sphere standards are not well known among Oxfam staff. Many of the Liberian, Mauritanian and Senegalese staff and partners did not know that the manual was available in their offices, nor did they know that there was a videocassette presenting the genesis of the project, and its main goals.

The situation is different in Sierra Leone. This is probably because of the extent of ‘pure’ emergency assistance there; the common need for rapid response; and the relatively large number of different actors involved, which necessitates high-quality, coordinated assistance.

The workshop participants from Sierra Leone felt that the Sphere standards had been useful in encouraging donors to accept programmes designed to meet the minimum standards. Using Sphere also enabled Oxfam representatives to pressure governments to respect such principles, and accept that they would be held accountable if they did not. Demand for accountability was generally seen as the cornerstone for developing a solid programme. It was encouraging that workshop participants claimed that they would use the handbook to empower the communities where they work to lobby their respective representatives and local authorities to respect their basic rights.

One area of criticism that emerges from the workshops has to do with how skills and experiences which already exist in a community can be best used. Although there are rough guidelines on this issue, staff and collaborators still felt that there was not enough focus, either on community work or on the local involvement needed to implement programmes adequately according to the standards. Experience has shown that if a crisis arises, most of the able forces in a community are the first to flee, making it sometimes fairly impossible to organise the remaining population in an active group determined and able to take their short-term future into their own hands. Capacity-building in defence of people’s basic rights therefore becomes essential, and Oxfam believes the Sphere project can have a positive impact in this sense.

Minimum standards or guidelines?

Generally, workshop participants felt that Sphere could be a powerful tool. However, staff and partners were concerned that the standards were not practical enough; field workers repeatedly expressed scepticism as to how they could be applied on the ground. Some participants also regretted that the minimum standards dealt only with technical issues directly related to the consequences of natural or man-made disasters. Even though it is specified in the manual that humanitarian-protection issues are not dealt with, this was considered a necessary improvement which should at least be looked at in the final stage of project-impact assessment.

The Sphere video prompted further questions as to whether the standards were applicable globally. Watching it, workshop participants had the impression that there was a clear difference in standards between different groups, and in different areas. Participants felt that the narrative accompanying the video, although excellent, did not sufficiently highlight disparities in funding, an issue which regularly comes up in discussions of the distribution of aid worldwide. Images of refugees in Kosovo using cellular phones were particularly shocking, especially for people who had worked in emergencies in Kivu.

Ultimately, Sphere standards need to be seen as guidelines that we try to reach, and for the moment they cannot be much more than this. Workshop participants saw their work as essential in helping people to help themselves, and argued that this should be their guiding principle from the onset of an emergency. In other words, the best use of minimum standards largely depends on the extent of emergency preparedness work prior to the actual emergency.

We believe that we have already gone some way at the micro level in disseminating knowledge about the existence of the standards, and have enabled field staff, both in Oxfam and outside it, to use these tools to obtain immediate and equitable assistance in times of conflict. The programme for the coming year will evaluate how much of what has been done so far has trickled down to a wider number of communities, and whether or how local or national NGOs have taken on the burden of further dissemination. Oxfam’s Regional Centre will soon be tackling senior managers in humanitarian assistance from West African governments, the West Africa-based donor community and the large international NGOs working throughout West Africa. This task will be carried out with the help of the Sphere training committee, and we hope that it will prompt senior managers to discuss issues linked to humanitarian response, and to commit themselves to ensuring that Sphere standards are a natural basis for intervention.

Françoise Mompoint is Regional Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator for West Africa, Oxfam GB.