Issue 41 - Article 6

HAP and Sphere focal points in Myanmar: early lessons

December 23, 2008
Erik Johnson, Humanitarian Coordinator, DanChurchAid

The Sphere Project was developed by thousands of stakeholders over the course of several years, starting in the early 1990s. It has one aim: to increase the quality of humanitarian assistance based on a set of agreed principles and standards. More recently, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) has been launched to try to tackle another outstanding challenge in the provision of humanitarian aid, that of ensuring that disaster-affected people have a right to speak and be heard about the assistance they may be receiving. HAP is perhaps the best known amongst several initiatives explicitly trying to address this problem in the humanitarian sphere.

Following the massive earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, Church World Service (CWS) hosted a ‘Sphere focal point’ in the affected area. This project aimed to raise awareness of Sphere standards and promote their implementation. When Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in May 2008, CWS again offered to support a Sphere focal point, this time to be jointly implemented with a HAP focal point, hosted by Save the Children. This article discusses this important project, documents some of the early lessons and poses further questions which will require investigation as the project develops.


The initial objectives of the project have been:

  • To work in collaboration with national and international agencies to determine the most appropriate ways to raise awareness of Sphere and HAP and train agencies on their effective use.
  • To deliver that support, with the aim of improving the quality and accountability of the response.
  • To work in close collaboration with others (such as the NGO Liaison Officer, UN Clusters, INGOs, local NGOs and any other ‘quality and accountability’ initiatives such as the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) minimum standards, with a view to mutual learning and sharing of resources as appropriate.
  • To identify the most appropriate ways to establish longer-term support, and the funding and personnel that would be required to achieve this.
  • To use this experience to advise on lessons learned, and how to improve the provision of similar support in future emergencies.

Whilst both the political environment and the cultural context (which may predispose people not to give feedback) have militated against work to support the use of the Sphere and HAP tools, there are nevertheless a number of dynamic actors and agencies in Myanmar that have helped to get the project off the ground quickly and multiply its output. These have included a full-time NGO Liaison person, who had established an Accountability and Learning Working Group (ALWG) prior to the arrival of the HAP and Sphere consultants, as well as a unique locally based Centre established after Nargis, initiated by international NGOs to support Myanmar NGOs and Community Based Organisations, including promoting their accountability. The CBOs include a range of local ‘NGO-like’ organisations, as well as faith-based groups and informal affiliations of interested individuals. They have played a huge role in the Cyclone response. It is difficult to determine exactly how much of the early success can be attributed to this project, as it is clear that it has played a supporting role to many others’ efforts to promote quality and accountability, with a handful of international NGOs playing a key role in their own operations’ accountability and quality approaches, lessons which they have documented and shared with others.

But despite the presence of the ALWG and other local resources, the initial informal surveys conducted by the consultants on behalf of the Sphere and HAP focal point project found a wide range of prior knowledge and awareness of quality and accountability initiatives, although overall the level of awareness was surprisingly low. Even field staff from one of the most established international NGOs had no awareness of the Sphere Project or the use of standards in humanitarian response. This begs the question why this was so, given that Myanmar had experienced a number of disasters in the past ten years and could arguably be said to have been in a chronic crisis. It may be argued that this was the first ‘emergency’ officially declared by the government, and therefore agencies seized the opportunity to introduce Sphere. However, this alone may not fully explain why the majority of agencies present were so behind in rolling out Sphere prior to Nargis.

As agencies struggled to expand and respond in the early days after the cyclone, many ‘new’ actors emerged, and many of the organisations and individuals providing assistance had little or no prior experience in relief. The urgent need to respond superseded many development agencies’ desire to ‘take time out’ to train and gain new competencies relevant to disaster relief. Gaining common understanding of humanitarian concepts between field workers and managers in Yangon has also proved difficult. More senior staff in Yangon have sometimes been unable to share these new tools and ways of working with their field staff and partners, while many agencies have operated by ‘remote control’, with little or no capacity to directly monitor work in the field.

By the time the full-time consultants arrived in July, things had improved considerably, due in large part to increased access from mid-June. The ALWG had met several times, and many agencies had undertaken initiatives to translate the Code of Conduct and other key documents into Burmese. Indeed, one of the early lessons concerned the importance of coordinating translations of key documents – all documents, HAP and Sphere ones – into national languages, ensuring that translations were of high quality and that documents were faithfully reproduced. Meanwhile, initial proposals that the ALWG should have a compliance enforcement role were dropped in favour of a learning model, which appears to have been instrumental in its success and well-suited to the wide range of competencies and an atmosphere where agency staff were already under great pressure to deliver.

The demand for training was enormous, and the consultants from both HAP and Sphere began offering training as soon as they arrived, in July, to both local and international organisations, as well as a government ministry. This overwhelming demand for training is particularly interesting given the number of anecdotal reports of ‘training fatigue’; following the cyclone there was a large and diffuse effort to build the capacity of response agencies, with both Myanmar and international NGOs torn between the desire to gain new competencies relevant to disaster response – and perhaps please their donors – and to simply get out there and do the work. Sphere training aside, this is perhaps another area that merits further enquiry; in the early days of a sudden-onset disaster, how can we support actors’ responses through capacity-building that is directly related to the task at hand, rather than providing stand-alone ‘training’ that is likely to be a brief pause from the actual response work? A related challenges lies in trying to move from a training-focused approach to one that promotes the implementation of Sphere and accountability methodologies throughout the project cycle.

Together with the ALWG, the HAP and Sphere consultants also established a national resource team, or Core Support Group, on Quality and Accountability. This group of approximately 15 Burmese nominated by the ALWG and other appropriate agencies will provide continuing support to their own and other agencies. The ALWG has also established accountability indicators for the IASC Integrated Monitoring Matrix, and continues to document agencies’ experiences and share them with others.

It appears that the integration of the HAP and Sphere focal points has been widely perceived as a good idea; too many initiatives at the same time, especially amongst a population not previously exposed to the plethora of quality and accountability initiatives currently available, can be confusing and counterproductive. However, adequate resourcing and continuity are also crucial, and the potential benefits of synergy can only be captured if the two initiatives closely coordinate their planning and staffing. In the next phase, a more integrated plan will ensure continuity and promote synergy, and enable a clearer interface with the Accountability and Learning Working Group.

Some have also drawn a correlation between the size of agencies’ programmes and their ability to effectively implement accountability mechanisms, with smaller programmes better able to more quickly roll out accountability mechanisms. The Core Support Group is likewise an area where there are some lessons to learn. CWS concluded from its work in Pakistan that establishing a national training and knowledge resource was essential. However, exactly how this should be done, who should be included, when it is appropriate and how it needs to be supported merit further analysis.

Promoting accountability in a culture of assent

Feedback is a difficult area. The political context – where Burmese people are not used to giving feedback to those with greater power and authority – is compounded by a cultural context where many may not find it appropriate to ‘complain’ about the aid that they are receiving. Yet despite the myriad difficulties in communication in Myanmar, agencies are successfully using complaints boxes, megaphones, radio, telephone complaints lines and mobile notice boards, amongst other tools. The outcome of all of these attempts remains unclear, but there is a lot of sharing about the efficacy of various approaches, both at the ALWG and in Clusters. Likewise, an early pilot project to assess the feedback mechanisms being employed by some agencies had itself received mixed responses, with some finding the lack of clarity, preparation and sensitivity disappointing. CBOs and local NGOs show promise as potential interlocutors between communities and INGOs. Communities appear to be more willing to share complaints amongst themselves and then have them communicated to international organisations.

Many seasoned aid workers have remarked how ‘unspoiled’ the affected populations are relative to other disasters they have worked in, where the ‘aid industry’ has succeeded in creating a steady expectation of assistance amongst the ‘consumers’ of aid. It remains to be seen how long this will last; the use of instrument-based rather than solution-based assistance, as well as the continued reduction of beneficiary caseloads, will doubtless have a negative impact. But perhaps the degree to which agencies are able to promote and respond to constructive feedback will also help shape the post-Nargis relationship between agencies and villages in the Delta.

Lost in translation

While translating the rhetoric of rights-based approaches into a practical implementation methodology is difficult in many contexts, in Myanmar the challenges to creating an environment conducive to open and honest feedback are especially acute. When feedback is gathered, some agencies have found it difficult to determine who it should be attributed to, and whether vulnerable groups have been represented. Furthermore, methodologies that work with one community may not work with another. And, as in Pakistan, promoting awareness of quality and accountability amongst government authorities on any level can be very difficult. In this regard the only lessons that the Pakistan project can recommend are that persistence and patience are required.

‘Accountability’ is a simple yet subtle concept, and translating it into the local context has proved as difficult in Myanmar as it has elsewhere. But one key lesson is clear: terminology is important. As in many other languages, the term ‘accountability’ is untranslatable. ‘Complaint’ is a loaded term, and ‘feedback’ is likewise problematic in Burmese. Some have opted for the imperfect ‘suggestion’, which also requires a degree of explanation in order to foster the right kind of feedback. The point is that good bilingual interlocutors are required, and a set of key terms should be decided on and consistently followed. This has now been done, and a Red Cross/Red Crescent Glossary of Terms has been helpful.

Next steps

While it is too early to deem these efforts a success, there has been an enormous amount of progress. Whilst there are many ways of translating the rhetoric of rights into an operational methodology, it is clear that the Sphere standards, the Code of Conduct and the principle of accountability are linked to a rights-based approach. Those who have worked in Myanmar over a longer period can attest to the fact that many of the discussions about a rights-based approach would have been unheard of merely a year ago, when ideas of ‘feedback’ and ‘rights’ were deemed far too dangerous or controversial. For now, at least, it appears that these concepts and terminologies are being tolerated, if only within the narrow confines of the Nargis response. One of the recommendations of the ALNAP ‘Lessons for Operational Agencies’ paper published in 2008 was that the ‘lack of certainty of access in Myanmar, and how it may continue, challenges the kind of accountability frameworks that can be practically established’. However, in light of recent positive experiences with promoting accountability and quality, the Nargis response agencies may have an even more crucial responsibility to promote accountability and quality, exploiting this unique opportunity.

Perhaps the most compelling question of all remains unanswered: what is the impact of all of this? Have the Sphere and HAP focal points – and the various other like-minded initiatives – made any difference? This is a question that deserves to be answered on at least two levels: the level of impact on practitioners’ awareness, and the degree to which any increased awareness has led to improved quality and accountability for affected populations. Whilst it will probably be impossible to establish an accurate and quantitative baseline for awareness amongst different staff groups and populations, some actors will be able to comment on the degree to which they have witnessed a change.

References and further reading

Marc Purcell, Axe-handles or Willing Minions? International NGOs in Burma, Australian Council for Overseas Aid, 5 December 1997.

Kelly Wooster, Report – Sphere Response to Cyclone Nargis, July 2008.

Celestine Nyamu-Musembi and Andrea Cornwall, What Is the ‘Rights-based Approach’ All About? Perspectives from International Development Agencies, IDS Working Paper 234 (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 2004).

ALNAP, Cyclone Nargis: Lessons for Operational Agencies, 2008.

Save the Children has secured funding from DFID and will take the reins from CWS to provide six months of further support in Sphere standards and HAP for three key groups of stakeholders: intensive coaching with eight INGOs and one Myanmar NGO network on designing and implementing a Quality Management System, further training and on-the-job practical assistance for agencies and the Core Support Team, and general guidance and ad hoc work in response to requests from the broader community through the ALWG. The next chapter of the Sphere and HAP project, and the ultimate implications of the wider Nargis response, promise to be just as interesting as the first.

Erik Johnson has worked in disaster relief for IRC, Merlin, Oxfam GB and DanChurchAid (a member of the ACT Alliance) in Africa and Asia for over ten years. His e-mail address is: Special thanks to Kerren Hedland and Anne Lloyd for their important contributions to this article, as well as to the staff of DanChurchAid, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, the Sphere project, Save the Children and Church World Service for proofreading.


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