Issue 22 - Article 11

Institutionalising Sphere: 20002002

May 29, 2003
Maggie Brown, Nan Buzard, Sean Lowrie and Joao Neves

For more than two years, the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards have been piloted in 20 different NGO organisations worldwide. In this article, Sphere Project staff take stock of progress, and plot a course for the future.

The Sphere Project was launched in July 1997 by a group of humanitarian agencies to improve the quality and accountability of disaster response. It has developed a Humanitarian Charter and a set of universal minimum standards in core areas of humanitarian assistance: water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter and site planning and health services. This article describes the experiences and perceptions of key actors in the Sphere process: the pilot agencies at headquarters and in the field, the Sphere Project staff and Sphere trainers, and the Sphere Management Committee. It is based on visits to 102 pilot-agency field offices in Central America, East Africa and South Asia in late 2001, as well as the views of participants in Sphere training workshops over the last two years.

Increased awareness …

Overall, there is evidence of a growing awareness of Sphere among humanitarian actors at all levels: pilot agencies, the NGO community, UN agencies and national government disaster-management departments. Sphere is being incorporated into agencies’ policies and procedures for disaster response: of the 102 offices visited, 37 had used Sphere in assessments; 54 had used it in project proposals; 27 had used it in project monitoring; and 24 had used Sphere in evaluations. In some countries, national governments have incorporated some of the Humanitarian Charter’s principles and minimum standards into national policies, and even into legislation. In nine out of ten pilot-agency offices visited, at least one staff member was aware of Sphere, and most offices had at least one copy of the Handbook. The majority had first heard of Sphere through internal communication or training, suggesting that pilot agencies have made concerted efforts to communicate information on Sphere to the field. National NGOs tended to hear about Sphere later than did international agencies.

… but limited systematic application

Although Sphere has been incorporated into many pilot agencies’ procedures, the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards are not yet implemented systematically in the field; while there are many examples of good practice, there is still a gap between awareness and application. The following factors appear to be particularly important in effectively applying Sphere in disaster response:

  • country-level support;
  • significant investment in well-planned staff training prior to a disaster event;
  • skills, commitment and experience in promoting the participation of affected people in programmes;
  • skills in project-cycle management; and
  • an agency-wide commitment to Sphere.

Questionnaires conducted during field visits show that Sphere is applied more extensively in project planning and proposals than in assessments, monitoring and evaluation, but that overall application is still limited.

The principal reasons for the limited application of Sphere in assessments are the pressure to respond rapidly following a disaster, and a weak skills base in project-cycle management. In relation to time pressure, most pilot agencies accept that assessment should be iterative, gathering and reviewing situational information over time. For that reason, pilot-agency representatives consider that shortage of time is not an adequate justification, and that Sphere should be used to analyse assessment information, even if this does not happen in the first-stage response. Building skills in project-cycle management should increase Sphere’s use in assessments. In relation to the use of Sphere in monitoring, pilot agencies are aware that monitoring in general is a particular weakness. Additional simple monitoring tools in the Sphere Handbook could help to reinforce monitoring capacity. To promote more effective participation of the population at all stages of the project cycle, it would also be helpful to include meaningful indicators on participation in the revised edition of the Handbook, which is due out in October 2003.

Although Sphere is not yet applied systematically around the project cycle in disaster response, there are many individual instances where Sphere has been used by pilot agencies. These reveal both successes and difficulties, generating useful conclusions, as well as helping to form views on why Sphere is important, and how it can enhance quality and accountability.

Beyond the project cycle

The use of Sphere within participatory disaster-response programmes appears to be growing. Agencies with long-term experience of participatory methodologies have been able to share Sphere standards and indicators with communities, and negotiate disaster response or rehabilitation targets based on them. Responsibility for achieving the targets has been divided between the community and agency. Some agencies are debating the relevance of Sphere as a source of long-term development indicators in addition to its use in disaster response. Pilot-agency representatives considered this particularly important for accountability to the affected population. More active preparation and distribution of examples of participation would increase experiences of this nature.

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Inter-agency coordination

Pilot agencies in most countries acknowledged that inter-agency coordination on humanitarian assistance is weak. In some countries, agencies recognised that Sphere has the potential to enhance coordination and provide a common perspective on disasters, although this has generally not happened. Although there has been limited coordination in disaster response using Sphere, there are a number of examples of joint agency work using Sphere. Three models have emerged:

  • integrating Sphere as a tool for quality and accountability into an existing NGO umbrella or coordination body, and promoting Sphere’s application by members, for example the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) in Sri Lanka and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA);
  • establishing new interagency (pilot) groups to promote Sphere. This has been discussed in Honduras, Kenya and India, but it is not clear whether these initiatives were sustained; and
  • using Sphere in inter-agency work in a disaster response that is not likely to be ongoing and does not have a separate structure, for example joint assessments using Sphere in the refugee camps in Pakistan, and attempted joint work in Orissa.


Advocacy using Sphere has met with mixed success, but some NGOs believe it to be significant in raising the awareness of government officials and donors of the rights of disaster-affected populations. For many, the concept of life with dignity is the most significant principle in advocacy. Pilot agencies report that they are confident in using Sphere as a basis for advocacy given the legitimacy that it has achieved through wide consultation and consensus. In debates on applying Sphere in lobbying and advocacy, some pilot agencies suggest that national NGOs can make a greater impact at local level, while international NGOs may be more effective at national and international levels.

Pilot agency staff members in various countries reported that it is essential for NGOs to share Sphere with government agencies in order to create a favourable policy framework for implementation. Governments also expressed interest in using the Sphere Handbook to inform disaster policies, procedures and legislation in Nicaragua, Honduras, India, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya. In Angola, the government used Sphere and the Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Populations to inform legislation for the displaced. The government has trained Provincial Humanitarian Coordinators in all 18 of Angola’s provinces in Sphere, and uses Sphere in planning humanitarian services.

Early in the development of the Sphere Project, agencies expressed concern that some governments might use it to make increased demands on international agencies and donors by making them accountable for the use of resources at the level of indicators. Except in extreme circumstances, such as Afghanistan in 2001, this does not appear to have been the case. On the contrary, it seems that most of the nine governments visited by the pilot implementation team understand that achieving standards is a joint responsibility, and one which can be constrained by resources.


On field visits, pilot agencies frequently noted how Sphere has helped to improve the quality or effectiveness of humanitarian assistance:

  • Sphere provides technical indicators of performance, rather than basing proposals on previous emergencies;
  • using Sphere as a comprehensive checklist has drawn attention to issues that may otherwise not have been noticed, for example gender and participation;
  • exposure to Sphere helps to minimise the misuse of aid. In the Gujarat earthquake response, for example, those agencies that were not aware of Sphere tended to provide culturally-inappropriate items, which were later rejected by the population; and
  • Sphere outlines the skills required for a professional response to disasters and demands that NGO staff are better trained and adopt a more professional approach.


Pilot agencies mentioned Sphere’s impact on accountability less frequently than they talked about its effects on quality. Nonetheless, Sphere can help to promote accountability to affected people by encouraging participation in assessment and project design and management. Where the population had been informed about the Sphere standards and indicators, pilot agencies reported that communities felt valued, and expressed satisfaction with the disaster response. Following the earthquake in El Salvador in January–February 2001, for instance, the Lutheran World Federation worked with the local community to assess, design and manage a disaster response programme in shelter, water and sanitation. In Central America and India, World Vision is considering sharing Sphere with local communities as a point of reference.

Some pilot agencies reported that Sphere is particularly important in promoting equity in the distribution of goods and services. The existence of standards helps to increase predictability and reduce differences between agencies working in the same disaster response. One pilot agency observed that this is particularly important in situations of ethnic tension, where differences in rations can rapidly be blamed on discrimination. In trying to promote global equity, Oxfam has used Sphere to analyse differences in disaster response between regions, for example between the Balkans and Africa.

Ongoing issues

While pilot agencies have made significant progress in training and disseminating Sphere, its practical application in fieldwork remains modest. This gap must be bridged if Sphere is to become a relevant and powerful resource in disaster assistance. This process will clearly take time, but must include a concerted effort to support direct application at the field level. While much of this effort must be done by agencies themselves, there was broad agreement among pilot agencies and Sphere staff that the Sphere Project office should provide support through modest, targeted activities that build on existing foundations and agency interest.


Sphere staff are Maggie Brown, Nan Buzard, Sean Lowrie and Joao Neves. An evaluation of Sphere is currently under way, and is due to report in August 2003; interim reports will also be made available on the website: The revised Handbook is due out in October 2003; in the meantime, feedback forms are available on the Sphere website.


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