Issue 6 - Article 2

Developing Minimum Performance Standards in Humanitarian Relief: Why Bother?

November 1, 1996
Peter Walker

Peter Walker works for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Humanitarianism is concerned with the universal right of all people to live without being subjected to violent, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or conditions. There is widespread evidence that these rights are being denied more than ever before particularly amongst those fleeing conflict and violence.

At the same time as the beneficiaries are getting a poorer deal from the humanitarian system, the funders, donor agencies and governments, are demanding higher levels of accountability and performance measurement from implementing agencies.

The Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), an alliance of Oxfam, Save the Children, Caritas Internationalis, World Council of Churches, Lutheran World Federation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and CARE International, which developed the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGO Code of Conduct, (RRN Network Paper 7), believes that we now have to move forward with a technical elaboration of the Code. InterAction, a coalition of over 150 US-based NGOs, is also of this view and recently agreed to work together with SCHR on this project.

Project objectives

The project objective is to develop a Beneficiaries Charter and associated set of agency minimum performance standards articulating what a disaster victim – a programme beneficiary – is entitled to and what standards of assistance s/he has a right to expect the assisting agencies to deliver. This will be done in collaboration with leading NGOs, interested donor governments and UN agencies. The project will also disseminate the resultant products widely within the international humanitarian system and encourage their formal adoption and practice by relief agencies and their donors.

Ongoing work

Other agencies are expressing similar worries, as are a number of key donors and inter-governmental agencies.

  • In Europe, MSF has taken a lead over the past decade in developing standard response packages.
  • A technical grouping involving UN, Red Cross & Red Crescent and NGO personnel has been developing common standards on medical issues, such as a list of essential drugs in disaster response.
  • A similar grouping led by Oxfam and UNHCR has been developing standards in water and sanitation.
  • In the UK, People in Aid is developing a common set of standards in the field of human resource development.

Many of these initiatives are at a very technical level, developing catalogues of standard equipment and procedures, whilst others, like the Code of Conduct, are at the other end of the scale setting ethical and behavioural norms.

The present project proposes to fill the gap by elaborating a set of programme standards to apply the principles of the Code and use the information in the “catalogues”.

But, to elaborate technical standards to guide agency practice, without reference in any way to the rights or aspirations of the assisted beneficiaries, risks becoming a self-serving exercise concerned more with agencies’ accountability to donors and their public. We believe that any set of “industry” standards must first be prefaced by a set of “consumer” standards; a Beneficiaries Charter, which lays out in simple terms what a beneficiary should have a “right” to in a humanitarian crisis.

Essential sectors

To allow agencies to practice their relief programmes in a way which respects the Beneficiaries Charter, a set of minimum performance standards in relief are needed. Such a set of standards would cover the four essential sectors of relief assistance:

  • Food and nutrition
  • Water and sanitation
  • Medical care
  • Clothing, shelter and settlements, including the selection of relief camp sites.

Relief Programme Management and Cross-Cutting Issues

Many previous attempts at deriving standards have focused exclusively on the end point delivery of assistance; quantitative entitlements. SCHR believes that the industry needs to go further and set down guidance on how those entitlements are delivered, covering issues such as local procurement, targeting and distribution systems.

Equally we have to be concerned with actions after delivery. As implementing agencies, we have a responsibility to be accountable to our beneficiaries, to ourselves through programme monitoring, to our donors and, through evaluation, to future programmes. We also need to be take into account certain cross-cutting issues such as environmental and gender considerations.

Minimum performance standards therefore need to cover:

  • What the agency should deliver, or ensure is available, as a minimum for survival, ie. that needed to fulfil the absolute minimum entitlement of beneficiary.
  • What the agency should deliver, or ensure is available, relative to the norms of the country where the victims are being assisted, ie. standards relative to local conditions.
  • The means by which relief is made available to beneficiaries – how is relief assistance provided?
  • Different levels of agency accountability: to beneficiaries and the local population, to donors, to own staff and membership and to future operations (in the form of evaluations and a commitment to continuous improvement).
  • Cross-cutting issues such as gender and the environment.

Project management

This project will be conducted under the auspices of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response in collaboration with InterAction. The SCHR and InterAction initiative will incorporate a wider reference group, drawing in for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), ICVA, VOICE and MSF. This wide group, which met for the first time in early October this year, will allow for each agency/network to focus on a particular sector where its contribution will be the most valuable, helping to avoid duplication of effort, whilst providing vital coordination.

The project will employ a full-time project manager, and managers for each sector on six month secondments from the member agencies. Working mostly from existing material and with reference to recognised professional peer-group networks the project hopes to have derived and published its standards manual by the end of 1997.

For further information, contact:
Karen Donovan
SCHR Secretary
Tel: +41 22 9200971
Fax: +41 22 9200972


Nick Stockton
Oxfam Emergencies Director
Tel: +44 1865 312207
Fax +44 1865 312224


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