Issue 6 - Article 5

Rations or Rights? Humanitarian Standards

November 1, 1996
Nicholas Stockton

Nicholas Stockton, Emergencies Director of Oxfam UK and Ireland, has been one of the most active advocates of the raising of humanitarian standards, contributing to the development of the Red Cross/NGO Codes of Conduct and, more recently, of technical standards and claimants rights. Here, he highlights the issues to be tackled by NGOs in future standard-setting, cautioning that while important, addressing standards alone will not be sufficient to confront some fundamental criticisms of the aid industry.

The renewed clarion call for the setting and imposition of standards for humanitarian aid is increasingly offered as a panacea for solving all the ills of emergency interventions. Indeed, for some the idea of cleaning up the humanitarian industry seems to offer the even more attractive prospect of removing a hideous carbuncle disfiguring the otherwise beautiful face of international development cooperation. The purpose of this paper is to assess the extent to which these hopes and expectations of catharsis through quality control are reasonable. It concludes that while helpful in addressing some issues, there are still many unresolved institutional and procedural problems to be overcome and that there exist other, perhaps more profound challenges that standardisation will not tackle.

Types of standards

The succession of high profile débâcles, in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Burundi that have enmeshed and apparently confounded the international humanitarian industry in recent years has created a chorus of voices, from almost all sectors, for radical reform of the humanitarian system.

The calls come from human rights groups, journalists, the industry itself, and now, in the multi-donor evaluation of Rwanda, from a potent combination of academics and donors in the most authoritative study so far. Many of these critics have called for a variety of new standards to control the humanitarian industry. To review these, it is helpful to propose a basic typology of standards, by which we can categorise and assess the various approaches that have been recommended. These seem to fall into three major categories, ‘professional’, ‘industrial’ and ‘consumer’, each type having a number of sub-variants (see article on Minimum Performance Standards on page 4.

Professional standards

Following the well trodden path of occupational professionalisation, a large and growing body of best practice guidelines in humanitarian service delivery has been produced to prescribe the manner in which ‘professional’ humanitarian workers should ideally operate. There are a number of existing ‘best practice’ manuals, including the RRN Good Practice Reviews, and Oxfam UK & I manuals, which will be added to an extensive and burgeoning international catalogue of overlapping, and sometimes contradictory formulations of best practice.

The next step in the professionalisation process is therefore to establish a single set of standards. To this end the Disaster Relief Committee of InterAction, the US relief and development ‘trade association’, began the process of drafting best practice guidelines for water, sanitation, food security and health training in emergencies. Likewise, the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) recently developed a strategy for the establishment of humanitarian standards which includes the identification of professional best practice. (These two initiatives have since come together in an important move to eliminate duplication and ensure that the standards reach the wider international community – a fuller report on this is featured in the article on page 4).

This article expresses the view that occupational performance standards do not on their own ensure quality control. For example, Oxfam’s status as a leading professional agency in emergency water provision does not by itself guarantee the competence of its engineers, as project evaluations sometimes reveal. The demand for rapid recruitment in emergencies can result in inexperienced and unsuitable staff being pitched into the most demanding and responsible of occupational contexts, with negligible specialist induction and support, as was shown by the recent Multi-donor Evaluation of Humanitarian Assistance to Rwanda.

Professional associations

Therefore, a crucial step in the classical process of professionalisation is the creation of a professional association that can ‘control’ entry into the occupation.

In the UK, the consortium ‘People in Aid’ is currently investigating how to establish such an association of relief and development workers that would enable the creation of professional entry norms, methods of peer review and the endorsement of a standard code of professional practice. (The People in Aid Statement of Principles, agreed at the inter-agency meeting held in July 1996, features in an article on page 14).

There are problems with this approach. The successful creation of a professional body that covers such an enormous range of occupations as exists in the humanitarian industry is without precedent. In the final analysis, it is arguable that the only characteristic shared by many relief workers is that they conduct their work as expatriates. Even this somewhat dubious distinction would be lost were the ‘profession’ to be fully internationalised. It is also highly questionable how, without parliamentary legislation, a professional association of relief and development workers could safely judge professional competence, and still more problematic, incompetence, and then make this information available to employers.

‘Industry’ standards

Deriving from the tradition of industrial and commercial standardisation, is an approach that aims to lay down corporate or institutional norms that can confer a guarantee of quality on the work of selected institutions. The Red Cross Movement and NGO Code of Conduct is one example of what in the USA is referred to as a ‘trade association’ standard. Again ‘People in Aid’ is worthy of mention here as it plans to develop a human resource management standard that would be granted to UK relief and development agencies fulfilling specified staff recruitment, development and management norms. (A parallel idea is the Ethical Trading Standard). In the USA, InterAction are drafting a ‘field protocol’ for humanitarian agencies, detailing best practice in co-ordination, security guidelines, local employment practice and so on. Other initiatives, for example to create standards for ethical fund-raising also fall into this category.

Like professionalisation, a critical weakness of this approach is that institutions empowered to conduct peer reviews and impose sanctions do not currently exist. In their absence, donor agencies are proposing to promote quality control by conditioning aid contracts against, as yet undefined, industry standards.

Both the ODA and the OFDA are on record as saying that they intend to introduce some kind of corporate accreditation scheme, as recommended by the Rwanda evaluation. Several senior staff in ECHO are also known to favour such an approach. This has certain problems.

NGOs with significant private donor income would not be affected, except where countries had the will and capacity to enforce an accreditation scheme. Worryingly, experience of such regulatory regimes suggests that performance quality is not a key consideration in licensing NGOs.

Furthermore, it would surely be folly to suggest that the interests of states and humanitarian objectives are always compatible. In cases where these were not, humanitarians would quickly learn to regret any comprehensive endorsement for a state monopoly in running regulation and accreditation schemes. A careful examination of the humanitarian content and orientation of any country’s foreign and security policy record would surely dispel any naive assumptions of complete mutuality of purpose.

Trade Associations

The onus must therefore fall upon networks of humanitarian agencies to develop mechanisms for enforcing members’ compliance with agreed behavioural standards. Again, this approach will not be without drawbacks. The legitimacy of a trade association depends upon exclusion as much as it does upon inclusion. If we draw up the rules of the club today, how many of tomorrow’s Oxfams will be excluded. How many small and Southern agencies would make the grade? Would trade association standards stifle innovation? Would radicalism and critical debate be kept private, so as to prevent bringing the association into disrepute?

Furthermore, for the present, in a highly segmented and non-regulated industry such as prevails in the international aid market, professional and trade standards provide no final guarantees for the intended beneficiary, since these could only ensure the application of quality standards to individuals and institutions, not to the system as a whole.

‘Consumer’ standards

The key difference between ‘professional’, ‘industry’ and ‘consumer’ standards is that the latter have the potential to strengthen (or generate) ‘consumer sovereignty’ in the face of service provision monopolies. For example, the right of the ‘humanitarian claimant’ (see also page 4) for protection from violence under international law could, in theory, be elaborated so that it would be possible to judge the efficacy of the whole system, and thereby make it more accountable to the intended beneficiaries.

Arising out of this movement to provide such statutory rights for citizens, a considerable amount of work, particularly by the United Nations agencies, has been devoted to defining the essential life support requirements for persons affected by humanitarian emergencies.

Whilst much of this work has sought to establish minimum universal standards of service provision, for example in litres of clean water, kilojoules of food etc., the approach has been dogged by physical relativities (e.g. the effect of temperature upon energy consumption) and sociological debates (e.g. cultural norms in water consumption etc.).

Inherent in any project to establish humanitarian rights will be hazardous judgements about what constitutes an acceptable range of life chance indicators. What crude death rate is deemed acceptable? What standard deviation from this norm is considered as acceptable, and how will this translate into minimum individual as opposed to minimum average standards?

While these are difficult moral questions within any one community, they become infinitely more challenging from a global perspective. For example, what standard of service provision should be offered when the ambient life chance indicators of host groups fall below the level presented by a refugee community?

Ultimately, in this debate it will be necessary to confront the empirical reality where global and regional inequalities condemns the populations of large parts of the world to less than half of their biblical allotment of three score years and ten under ‘normal’ circumstances. Should international humanitarian standards apply to everyone, everywhere? And if not, why not? Because of the profound and perhaps subversive implications of these questions, we need to make every effort to get them answered.

Sadly international humanitarian law has not yet been elaborated into mandatory entitlements, nor operationalised into institutional responsibilities and system wide accountability.

So far, instead of establishing what humanitarian claimants are entitled to, ‘consumer standards’ have attempted to produce a science based calculus of what people in extremis need for elementary survival. At present humanitarian food aid is not quantified on a mandatory protein/energy based calculus of food rights, but rather is a matter of divvying up available supplies up into rations, influenced by political considerations and nutrition criteria in that order.

Is Quality the Only Issue?

There may be dangers in believing that by subjecting the international aid and humanitarian industry to quality controls we can solve all the major issues confronting us. There are some very challenging critiques of humanitarianism, indeed of the whole world of international aid that will not be ‘fixed’ through the setting of professional, agency and consumer standards alone. I believe that the new challenge is to identify and forge linkages that can demonstrate the moral and pragmatic reasons why the opportunity costs of extreme poverty should be borne by those who most profit from it. Perhaps we should now send the humanitarian bill to the corporate sector rather than leaving it to be picked up by states. Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that new strategic alliances between progressive governments and enlightened humanitarian agencies could be built around a campaign to build global tax regimes that create disincentives to corporate behaviour that fosters political violence. An elaboration of humanitarian and human rights would help to quantify this bill: standards and principles come with a price tag. It will soon be time to decide who will pay.


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