Historical moment? The launch of the Core Humanitarian Standard

December 12, 2014
Dorothea Hilhorst

Today is the launch of the Core Humanitarian Standard in Copenhagen. Not exactly frontpage news, but quite a moment in the history of humanitarian assistance.

20 years ago the increased politicisation of aid and the proliferation of humanitarian agencies triggered the formulation of the Code of Conduct for Disaster Relief. It contained 10 principles, starting with (amended versions of) the classical principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. 6 principles were added regarding the quality of implementation.

The Code was quickly signed up by hundreds of humanitarian agencies. When the Code had been in place for 10 years, I did a sector-wide survey on the question whether the Code had become alive. The good news was that the principles were widely supported by workers and stakeholders of humanitarian action. On the other hand, the Code also seemed forlorn and orphaned. The International Federation of the Red Cross held the registrar of signatories but had otherwise no responsibility towards the Code. There was no steering, no guidelines for implementation, no training, let alone a mechanism to monitor compliance. In the meantime, there have also been new Standard initiatives, including Sphere Standards, People in Aid and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership.

A few years ago, a process was started to bring about a new, shared standard that would combine the best of existing standards and be more embedded. The result was launched today: the Core Humanitarian Standard . The classic principles underpin the CHS, which sets out 9 commitments. They are accompanied by pointers for action and pointers for the responsibility of organizations.

A major difference with the Code of Conduct is the people-centred nature of the CHS. The CHS is written from the point of view of crisis-affected communities and people. When the Code is applied, crisis-affected communities and people will receive appropriate and relevant assistance; have access to the assistance they need at the right time; are not negatively affected and are more prepared, resilient and less-at-risk as a result of assistance; know their rights and entitlements; have access to safe and responsive complaint mechanisms; can expect improved assistance of learning organisations; receive assistance from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers; and can expect that assisting organisations manage resources effectively, efficiently and ethically. The people-centredness of the CHS empowers communities. It also results in an inclusive standard that can be equally adopted by humanitarian agencies, as well as any other development, peace-building, rights-based or other organisations responding to crises.

A second difference with the Code of Conduct is that the CHS is the result of a 2-year process in which thousands of people were consulted, could comment on or test different versions of the CHS. Today, the CHS already has a broad ownership, considering the numerous statements of support pouring into the launching event. The CHS will be supported by an organisation that will develop guidelines, and support the implementation of the Code with training, tools and advice. The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership and People in Aid are merging to become this support institution.

Finally, there is a parallel initiative that should enable certification and verification of agencies against the CHS. This initiative is spearheaded by the Steering Committee of the Humanitarian Response (SCHR) and is still being developed. It is gradually expanding its support-base, but has also met resistance. Some agencies fear over-regulation and bureaucratisation that would stifle innovation. They are also concerned that this process would lead to exclusion of humanitarian actors, especially in the South. For this reason, it is important to clearly separate the two initiatives of the CHS and the certification/verification mechanism. Everyone can adopt and use the CHS, while some can select to undergo certification.

The CHS may be a great leap towards empowerment of affected communities and quality and accountable delivery of assistance. Whether the launch of the CHS will indeed be a historic moment will have to be time-tested. Will the CHS become alive and be used in practice? Will organisations start to incorporate the commitments in their policies, structures and programmes? Will the CHS become the basis of evaluating aid? Will crisis-affected communities and people be able to voice their demands to realise the quality and accountability of aid? The ground work has been done – it is up to the sector to make it real.

Dorothea Hilhorst is a Professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Wageningen University


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