Issue 17 - Article 7

Sphere in India: Experiences and Insights

June 5, 2003
Mihir R. Bhatt
8 min read

The question of how to ‘localise’ and ‘institutionalise’ efforts to promote minimum standards of performance in humanitarian response is an important one. Learning from experience is useful for this purpose. This article offers a brief account of the early lessons drawn from the activities of the Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI) in India and elsewhere in South Asia.

Despite the Sphere project’s cooperative, collaborative and consultative mission, to many in India and South Asia as a whole it remains an ‘outside’, ‘Western’ and ‘top-down’ idea. To get accepted and operationalised, Sphere needs to be rooted in the local experience and reality of relief work. It must be internalised in the operations of government organisations and NGOs providing relief. Thus, DMI decided to develop a strategy to find ways of ‘localising’ and ‘institutionalising’ the project in India and South Asia.

DMI’s strategy

The strategy DMI developed comprised five elements:

  1. start from the local realities of relief and relief institutions, and make activities problem-based or opportunity-driven;
  2. set achievable targets according to DMI’s capacity and workload;
  3. .seek out broader institutional participation and local partnerships;
  4. make incremental plans for localisation, rather than waiting for a comprehensive plan; and
  5. ensure that results are visible and measurable at the local level.

Local activities

At the local level, in Gujarat, DMI has undertaken a range of Sphere-related activities in 1999 and 2000. In June 1999, for example, a focus-group meeting was held in Gujarat with cyclone-relief workers from some of the most active and key NGOs and relief agencies to discuss the Sphere standards. The idea of relief standards was also introduced into meetings of the People’s Coalition for Cyclone Relief and Rehabilitation (PCCRR), an informal coordination forum of NGOs in Gujarat. DMI used Sphere’s standards to analyse the media response after the cyclone. For example, did the media see relief as charity, or as a right of the victims? Was the media aware of targeting issues in food aid? (For more on the media coverage of the Gujarat cyclone, see ‘Does Voice Matter? Using Information to Make Relief Accountable in Gujarat’, in Newsletter 16, March 2000, pp. 16–18.) Developing Initiatives for Social and Human Action (DISHA), an active member of PCCRR, routinely analyses the budget of the government of Gujarat, and relates the allocation of resources with Sphere standards. For example, is money allocated to control communicable diseases? What emphasis is placed on the provision of water supplies, compared to drainage?

A further question is how more people can be made aware of the Sphere project. To that end, the idea of the project was carried to the NGO–GO preparedness meeting with the government of Gujarat and the Relief Commissioner’s Office in Gandhinagar in May 1999. Key aspects of the Sphere documents were translated into Gujarati and published in the tenth and eleventh issues of the DMI’s newsletter, ‘Afat Nivaran’, which reaches some of the key players in disaster risk-reduction activities in Gujarat. Reader reaction was positive, and most agreed on the need to address issues of quality in relief, and to measure quality. Extra copies of the newsletter were requested.

The time had come to find a partner to take the next steps. This partner had to be local, spread across the state, credible and with government links. In April 2000, such a partner was found in the Gujarat branch of the Indian Red Cross Society. On 8 May 2000, World Red Cross Day, DMI, the Society and the Oxfam (India) Trust, Ahmedabad, published the Sphere standards in Gujarati in booklet form. The following month, DMI held a multi-stakeholder consultation on Sphere-sensitive public-health assessment tools for disaster situations, which were developed by Oxfam (GB) and disseminated by the Sphere project team. Recommendations included translating Sphere documents into local languages, and developing posters and brochures and publishing them in a ready-to-use form.

DMI also conducted a community-based action review of drought relief in Gujarat by the Oxfam (India) Trust. The discussion on the draft recommendations for advocacy, held on 24 August, involved NGO and district-level government officials. The use of Sphere was recommended to improve field workers’ knowledge of standards and in setting up an effective system to amend existing relief manuals and operations. Very few local NGOs knew about the Sphere project or minimum standards.

National activities

Relief is handled by both state and national governments. Thus, DMI has also been promoting Sphere at national level.

  • DMI joined the Oxfam (India) Trust and a large number of NGOs in Hyderabad in February 1999 to discuss the Sphere project.
  • In Delhi, DMI distributed copies of Sphere documents at the Annual Relief Commissioners’ Conference in May 1999. They quickly ran out, and several relief commissioners asked for additional copies in Hindi or local languages.
  • Also in Delhi, Sphere was discussed with leading training institutes at the first meeting of the National Advisory Group on 12 June 1999.

DMI also joined the Oxfam (India) Trust in Delhi to conduct a ‘training of trainers’ on the Sphere project for 30 selected NGOs, GOs, community-based organisations (CBOs) and donors. The training was conducted by the Sphere training team. A Hindi-language translation was released at the workshop.

As a follow-up, an informal Sphere in India Committee has been set up, and currently has a membership of almost 35 NGOs, GOs and CBOs. A core group of Sphere pilot agencies is being created, and an action plan has been developed. This is not easy as agencies have different institutional structures and priorities and limited experience in coordination. The plan includes translating Sphere documents into local languages, producing awareness posters, holding meetings to introduce Sphere, collecting case studies, and linking up with relief commissioners. This process is being taken forward in partnership with Oxfam.

DMI also received the Sphere Project Team in Ahmedabad on 1–3 July 2000, and discussed ways of constituting a core group of pilot agencies. A national meeting is planned in December 2000, to which the pilot agencies and government agencies will be invited.

Regional activities

DMI’s active role in Duryog Nivaran, a South Asian network, means that it also has access to the wider region:

  • The Sphere project document was introduced at the regional policy forum on the ‘Future of Mitigation, South Asian Disasters’, held on 5–6 February 1999 in Delhi and attended by 66 representatives from the media, government and NGOs. The participants recommended minimum standards for relief wages.
  • Concepts of quality and performance were aired at the UN–ESCAP Region Consultation held in February 1999 in Bangkok, Thailand, where they were well received.

Lessons learned

The value of organisational learning of the Sphere standards is recognised in India, and emergency managers see knowledge of the standards as a key asset in relief response. But this group is small, and its members do not see documenting and sharing best practices as sources of superior learning. They do not fully consider creative ideas and innovative thinking around Sphere standards as essential to successful relief in India.

Learning from relief has been embraced in theory, but is still surprisingly rare in practice. Emergency managers find it easy to imagine using Sphere, but difficult to actually do so. The main reason for this is the lack of guidelines. Discussions of Sphere have paid little or no attention to the gritty details of implementation.

They have presented a case for minimum standards for relief, and painted a tempting picture of the desired results. Most are operational and action-oriented. But key questions have not been addressed: How do I, as an emergency manager, get started? What tools and techniques must I master? What processes must be in place? When and how is each approach best used? What do I need to do to lead the learning process around Sphere standards? And how will I know when my NGO has truly become a Sphere-abiding or -using organisation? Unless these questions are answered in ways that fit with local conditions, Sphere will remain an ‘outside’ idea.

Sphere must move forward from being a project to becoming a campaign. The aim of this campaign should be to provide answers to these questions and, in the process, help emergency managers build more effective learning around Sphere standards. This campaign must be comprehensive; in exploring the landscape of learning, it needs to draw on research from many fields so as to provide a broad, integrated view. Much of the evidence must have deep practical importance, but has never before been assembled in one place or translated into terms that are accessible to emergency managers. From these studies will emerge a picture of the diversity of learning, the practices that contribute to success and failure, and the behaviour required of emergency managers and volunteers in promoting the Sphere standards at the local level.

The Disaster Mitigation Institute was introduced to readers in HPN/RRN Newsletter 16. DMI, a community-based agency, is active in responding to victims of cyclone, flood, drought and malaria.

Mihir R. Bhatt is Director, Disaster Mitigation Institute.

DMI, 411, Sakar Five, Near Natraj Cinema, Ashram Road, Ahmedabad 380 009, India. Tel: +91 79 658 6234/3607 Fax: +91 79 658 2962 E-mail


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