Issue 17 - Article 5

Sphere at the End of Phase II

June 5, 2003
Sean Lowrie
11 min read

With the approval of a final phase for the Sphere project (from November 2000 to November 2003), there is an opportunity to reflect on what has transpired so far, learn from the results and ensure that the project’s remaining work is as effective as possible. Sphere offers a unique opportunity to make a substantial and positive contribution to the way the humanitarian system works. But it also challenges the humanitarian community to confront the larger and more difficult issues that undermine the effectiveness of that system.

What is Sphere?

Sphere’s purpose is to make humanitarian assistance more effective, and humanitarian agencies more accountable. Now in its third year, the project is one of the largest collaboration and consultation processes that the humanitarian community has ever experienced. Over 800 people contributed to the technical content of the process, the most tangible output of which is a handbook containing a humanitarian charter, minimum standards, key indicators and guidance notes on the five basic life-sustaining sectors of disaster response: water and sanitation; food aid; nutrition; shelter and site selection; and health.

The handbook is the first programming tool in the humanitarian community to articulate a relationship between principles, legal norms and quality standards. While it was not specifically designed to bridge organisational cultures, the handbook provides a common language and reference point within the complexity of organisations that comprise the humanitarian system. It is also a substantial and leading NGO contribution to improving the lives of people in disasters. What is unclear is the extent of its impact on the work of humanitarian organisations. Before this can be evaluated, a major proportion of the humanitarian system needs to know about the handbook, and how to use it properly. Sphere’s second phase has therefore been about dissemination, training and experimentation.

How the project works

Sphere has been using a ‘multi-track’ approach to disseminate the handbook and the ideas of the project. A primary track is through the project’s management committee – a grouping of NGO networks representing almost 1,500 agencies involved in a sizeable proportion of the work in disasters being done today. The management committee, which meets three times a year, comprises SCHR, InterAction, VOICE and ICVA. Twelve governments fund the project, along with the NGOs on the management committee. Another ‘track’ is Sphere’s website (at, which provides the handbook, training materials, pilot agency information, reports and case studies in three languages free of charge.

This year, another ‘track’ developed when 18 NGOs decided to participate in Sphere piloting. The 18 have committed themselves to incorporating the humanitarian charter and minimum standards into their policy and practice. General dissemination also occurs through a quarterly electronic newsletter, an introductory video, articles, public speaking and participation in relevant meetings. Finally, project staff are increasingly responding to requests from individuals for advice and information.

Policy into practice: the ‘two-track’ training programme

The training programme promotes the idea that the use of this tool (the Sphere handbook) will increase quality and facilitate a more dignified life for people affected by conflict and calamity. The only way to assess if this tool does indeed increase quality is to use it. Also, the training programme challenges people to look beyond specific organisational mandates to the collective impact of the humanitarian system.

The handbook is a simple and clear programming tool. It can be applied at all stages of the programme cycle, in capacity-building, training, advocacy and coordination. The benefits of using it include:

  • the humanitarian system gets a much-needed common language;
  • organisations will learn through the use of benchmarks and more sophisticated indicator justification based on a thorough analysis of the operating context; and
  • individuals will become more proficient through referring to the information in the handbook.

The training programme focuses mainly on the day-to-day work of the individual humanitarian practitioner. This focus acknowledges some of the learning problems in a decentralised, multicultural, crisis-managing sector with high staff turnover. The materials also form the basis of the content used in the interagency field workshops.The workshops are designed to facilitate discussion, raise awareness and promote an understanding of how to use the handbook intelligently. They also stress that Sphere is a process of learning, rather than a static imposition of standards. Anybody in the humanitarian system is welcome to participate. 

A little bit for everyone: the training materials

Most trainers will recognise that the materials will need to be adapted to the needs of a particular audience. Draft versions of the materials are available on the Sphere website, along with extensive instructions and guidance notes. 

The training programme comprises four modules. The introductory module emphasises that Sphere’s minimum standards are meant to be absolute, and universally applicable. The key indicators for each minimum standard help to measure whether the standard is met or not. Not all indicators are universal, but they provide a benchmark from which appropriate indicator selection may develop. Guidance notes help in indicator selection, and illuminate areas of controversy where consensus has not yet been reached, as well as gaps in knowledge.

The four-part programme-cycle module is a pragmatic and easily understood framework for discussion. It emphasises that assessments involve understanding the context, and necessitate striking a balance between speed and accuracy. Commonly used indicators can mitigate bias, ensure consistency, facilitate coordination and feed into an effective information-management system. The problem-analysis section offers different analytical lenses that can be used to determine the full set and complexity of problems facing a population in danger, and proposes that the handbook can be a quick and simple diagnostic tool.

The disaster-preparedness module explores how the handbook can be used in preparedness activities, and emphasises the right to participation by disaster-affected people and the critical need for capacity-building. Both ideas are also frequently represented in the handbook.

The humanitarian-charter module challenges participants to think about what the term ‘humanitarian’ means, and the motivations behind humanitarian work. It explores how principles and international legal instruments can help field staff to make decisions when faced with the inevitable ‘dilemmas’, making the point that decision-making starts with a problem analysis, and combines principles with organisational mandates and cultures.

The Sphere ‘roadshow’

Approximately 1,000 humanitarian practitioners have participated in Sphere training events around the world. In the field, participants usually represent a mix of national and international NGOs, UN agencies, donor staff and government officials. Post-workshop evaluations indicate a satisfaction with time spent and a desire to use the handbook in the future. To find out if the workshops are actually helping people to use the handbook, in August an evaluation questionnaire was sent to over 400 workshop participants, asking if they were now using the handbook.

Evidence shows that individuals are beginning to use the handbook without the facilitation of the project team, which indicates that ownership may occur, and that workshops may have an impact. In addition, a pilot workshop on training trainers has stimulated several Sphere field workshops independent of the project team. These are encouraging signs; the evaluation should tell us more.

Discussions, debate and common misconceptions

Several discussion points frequently arise in the workshops. One of the more common is the misconception that Sphere and the Ombudsman project are one and the same, when they are in fact different initiatives, each managed by their own committees.

Occasionally, there is discussion about the interpretation of Sphere and its implications. Some believe that minimum standards are dangerous in that they may be used by donors or governments to control NGOs, or that inexperienced staff may feel that the minimum standards are the sole measure of quality, and use them blindly. In a recent interagency workshop in Washington, a participant used the following metaphor to describe her understanding of Sphere: ‘Vehicles are a tool for humanitarian work, yet vehicle accidents are the greatest threat to aid worker life. We all drive and we minimise the risks by learning how to drive properly’. Similarly, Sphere is a tool, and the training programme is about how to use this tool in an intelligent way to maximise its benefits and opportunities.

Ultimately, however, the training programme assumes that NGO staff are capable of undertaking a thorough contextual analysis before making programmatic decisions informed by the handbook. The humanitarian community has matured since the days of the stereotypical ‘aid cowboy’. References to analysis, capacity-building and participation throughout the handbook reinforce this depth and maturity.

Another misconception is that the Sphere project office monitors compliance with Sphere. While there is no formal signing-up mechanism, the 18 pilot agencies that have agreed to integrate Sphere into their operations have in effect ‘signed up’. Some NGO networks have not ruled out an internal signing-up procedure. However, there is no mechanism by which the project office can monitor compliance, and it has no interest in doing so. The project did commission related research on accountability, and concluded with two principal recommendations: one, improving the quality and transparency of NGO internal monitoring and evaluations; and two, joint assessments/evaluations by NGOs in the field.

A frequent complaint concerning the minimum standards is that they cannot be achieved without resources and access to populations in danger (humanitarian space). While this is addressed in the introduction to the handbook, this complaint comes from a perception that Sphere is an auditing, rather than a programming, tool. The workshops emphasise that the handbook can be used to improve quality and to advocate for longer-term solutions. But there is no ‘magic bullet’ in a world where people’s lives are deliberately jeopardised by warring factions, corrupt governments and a frequently disinterested international community. Striving to meet the minimum standards is only a part of the response to these issues. The minimum standards are not rules, but an articulation of the right to disaster assistance. If every right imposes an obligation, NGOs can advocate more strongly (from a common and legitimate platform) for government bodies to fulfil their obligations and address humanitarian space.

Looking ahead

One of the challenges facing Sphere is to balance the need to raise awareness with the need to keep expectations realistic regarding the power of the tool. Sphere is not a regulatory initiative; its sole purpose is to improve the lives of people in disasters. Is that a sufficient reason to adopt and test it? Further investigation into the issue of profile versus expectations leads to the question of how organisations set priorities. Prioritisation and organisational change are usually in response to external pressure. While the conclusions about NGO quality in the Rwanda multi-donor evaluation were an external impetus for improved performance, Sphere is essentially an internally-driven NGO initiative. As a grouping of independent, unique and values-based organisations, NGO self-coordination might be similar to trying to herd cats to move the same direction. However, the same metaphor might be used for the entire humanitarian system, with its complex grouping of actors and forces, from legal to political to bureaucratic and civil-society organisations, each with a different measure of success. Will humanitarian agencies embrace Sphere’s positive elements and consider it an empowering process? Instead of fearing how external actors may abuse the tool, NGOs should perhaps be asking how they can use standards and indicators to serve their fundamental humanitarian principles, and improve their performance. Sphere has certainly been a catalyst for increased debate on what quality and accountability mean. Moreover, the response to the project has been significant because it represents an idea that resonates with many people from every quarter of the humanitarian system. Due to persistence and wide-ranging support, many people are finding out about the handbook, and responding to it in thoughtful and positive ways. We would like to thank the many donor agencies who support the project.

Due to significant demand, the project has been extended. Activities in the final phase include more workshops, more training of trainers, continued piloting work, promotion and dissemination, and the production of a video outlining the handbook’s practical application in the field. There will also be an evaluation of the project’s impact. Final-phase activities will culminate in a new edition of the handbook at the end of the third year, based on the feedback received from those affected by disasters, field practitioners, technicians, human-rights activists and humanitarian actors. The philosophy of the final phase is not to create a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, but methodically to reduce activities, with the goal that the handbook will become sustainably integrated into the humanitarian system.

To confront today’s most crucial humanitarian issues, organisations need to be better equipped to act together in crises, and to advocate strongly for real solutions. As one of the few humanitarian-policy initiatives with a team to work on promotion, dissemination and testing, the Sphere project is an example of ‘civil society issues coalescence’. Yes, this coalescence has produced only a tool. However, it is a significant tool, and it is a leading contribution to improving humanitarian quality and accountability by NGOs. It helps towards achieving a common language that enables global, joint action to meet the significant challenges facing the growing number of victims of conflict and calamity around the world.

Sean Lowrieis Sphere Project Training Manager, London, UK.


Comments are available for logged in members only.