Issue 53 - Article 12

The Sphere Project: taking stock

March 21, 2012
Aninia Nadig
The Sphere Project
Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response

Since it was established in 1997, the Sphere Project has played a central role within the humanitarian community. By defining minimum standards, the initiative strives to enhance the quality and accountability of humanitarian assistance. The publication of the Sphere Handbook Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response 2011 edition has spurred renewed interest in the Sphere Project. It also coincides with intensified discussions on professionalising the humanitarian sector. This article outlines the major changes in the 2011 edition of the Handbook and offers a few reflections on the challenges that lie ahead.

The role of Sphere

nadig-box1The Sphere Project has come a long way over the past 15 years, establishing itself as a force for convergence and collaboration within the humanitarian community. Starting out as a project of international NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, it initially focused on training and institutionalising Sphere principles and standards within NGO families and networks. Over time, it earned recognition within the broader humanitarian sector. Today, the UN largely embraces the Sphere minimum standards, and governments – both donors and disaster-affected countries – increasingly turn to Sphere when looking for benchmarks of quality and professionalism in humanitarian aid. Several countries, including India and Guatemala, base their national disaster management guidelines at least in part on the Sphere indicators. This is due largely to the successful advocacy work by Sphere focal points.

The Sphere Handbook 2011 edition

The Sphere Project’s continuing relevance is in part due to the considerable effort put into its revisions, the most recent of which took over two years. Worldwide consultations collected input from over 650 individuals working for some 300 organisations in more than 20 countries. Current issues within the humanitarian sector were discussed and, contingent on consensus and established best practice, taken on board. The updated Sphere Handbook therefore represents current best practice in humanitarian response. All the chapters are compatible with other relevant sets of guidelines and humanitarian structures, and refer in particular to the Humanitarian Cluster system, inter-agency networks and UN agencies.

The Humanitarian Charter, Protection Principles and Core Standards

These three sections set out the ethical, moral and legal principles upon which Sphere is built. The technical chapters refer to them at all times, and should be read in conjunction with them.

The Humanitarian Charter, the cornerstone of the Sphere Handbook, was completely rewritten to make it more accessible and intelligible. It is also more explicitly linked with the rest of the Handbook, in particular the Protection Principles and Core Standards. The Charter is based on three common principles: the right to life with dignity, the right to receive humanitarian assistance and the right to protection and security. An annotated reference section called ‘Key documents that inform the Humanitarian Charter’ was added in order to strengthen the link between the Charter and the legal framework it is based on.

Four Protection Principles, applicable to all facets of humanitarian activity, have been added to the Handbook. They reflect the dual nature of protection in the humanitarian sector: on the one hand, protection is a mindset and approach pertaining to all humanitarian response activities; on the other, protection is a specific activity, for which there are now specific protection standards developed by ICRC. Accordingly, Principles 1 and 2 (do no harm and access to impartial assistance) are very broad and will apply to all humanitarian agencies. Principles 3 and 4 (protection from physical and psychological harm and the provision of assistance with rights claims and access to remedies and recovery from abuse) may require protection-specific actions. Agencies not engaged in such activities should still be aware of these principles and integrate them into their advocacy work where possible. More specific sets of standards should be based on the four Protection Principles.

In the Core Standards, the Sphere Handbook expresses the conviction that humanitarian response should support the capacity of people affected by disaster or conflict. It recognises the need to build humanitarian response on local coping and self-help mechanisms whenever possible. This includes working with local and national authorities. Coordination with a variety of actors and the importance of understanding local contexts (including conflict sensitivity) are also referred to. The importance of addressing psychosocial needs is reflected in the Protection Principles and Core Standards, and in one standard of the Health Action chapter. Disaster risk reduction and early recovery are mainstreamed, reflecting concern about changing risk patterns due to environmental degradation and climate change.

The technical chapters

The relevant Humanitarian Clusters contributed significantly to the revision of the technical chapters, thereby strengthening the link between the traditionally NGO- and Red Cross/Red Crescent-based Sphere Project and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) system. The chapters are structured more coherently and reflect a growing need for coordination within and between the technical sectors. Cross-cutting and emerging themes Children; older people; persons with disabilities; gender; HIV and AIDS; environment; climate change and disaster risk reduction (DRR); early recovery; and the Sphere companion standards (INEE for education in emergencies, LEGS for livestock responses in emergencies and SEEP for economic recovery).  were represented by focal points from the beginning of the revision process. Their emphasis on common concerns resulted in stronger wording on vulnerabilities and capabilities of affected populations throughout the Handbook.

Water, sanitation and hygiene promotion

In close coordination with the WASH cluster, this chapter integrates initiatives to strengthen system-wide preparedness, coordination and technical quality. The very first WASH standard in the chapter highlights the need to better coordinate WASH activities and hygiene promotion. WASH survey methods, including the Rapid Assessment, Comprehensive Assessment and Monitoring tools developed by the cluster approach, are referred to and used. Specifically, there is new wording on the implementation and use of water treatment at household level, and on the Water Safety Plan.

Food security and nutrition

The food security and nutrition chapter The content of the former section on food aid is now covered in the section on food transfers.  has been restructured to reflect and promote a more integrated approach to the prevention and treatment of malnutrition and sustaining livelihoods in emergencies. Central to this is the conceptual framework of the wider causes of undernutrition. The framework identifies poverty as an underlying cause of undernutrition and details the shortand long-term consequences of undernutrition.

Whereas malnutrition was previously introduced within the chapter’s nutrition component, this conceptual framework now underpins the entire food security and nutrition chapter, recognising that all the areas it covers, as well as many others dealt with in the other three technical chapters, lie within this framework. A new standard on cash transfers was included in the food security section.

Shelter, settlement and non-food items

New developments in the shelter sector include the consideration of transitional longer-term recovery and reconstruction issues during the initial or emergency response phase; the need for strategic planning; and the use of a wide range of programming options including cash, vouchers and promoting access to local markets. A diagram explains the issues at hand for displaced and non-displaced affected populations. It outlines different emergency response scenarios and highlights the different settlement options that can be considered.

Health action

Increasingly, affected populations live in non-camp settings dispersed among local populations and in urban contexts. The health chapter reflects this fact. It recognises the need to support and strengthen local health systems while providing life-saving health services, and to adopt a long-term vision during disaster response to provide an opportunity for ‘building back better’ – hence the link to the WHO Health Systems Framework (2007), which promotes common understanding of what makes up a health system.

With ageing populations, the disease profile of many lowand middle-income countries is changing, and chronic diseases are creating an extra burden in addition to the more familiar problem of infectious diseases. Acute complications and the exacerbation of chronic diseases, which have become a common problem in many disasters, are addressed in this chapter. The health of newborns receives more attention in a new section on child health.

Challenges ahead

The power of the Sphere Handbook lies in its adaptability to local contexts. Each of the Handbook revisions has taken into account developments in humanitarian contexts. For example, the 2011 edition makes reference to urban contexts, which are attracting increasing attention. Despite continuous updating, the Handbook must be used wisely. If the Sphere indicators are not adapted with sufficient understanding of specific local circumstances, aid programmes may exacerbate existing tensions among and within populations. As a result, the Handbook may end up doing more harm than good.

The importance of the Humanitarian Charter, the newly added Protection Principles and the Core Standards must be emphasised. The people-centered, rights-based approach expressed in these chapters makes Sphere more than a mere set of technical standards. Efforts to promote the right use of Sphere, as well as diversified training and outreach activities, are ongoing. Institutionalisation remains important so that agencies and governments are prepared for sudden emergencies. This may be an issue for organisations to tackle as part of a wider reflection on the functioning of the humanitarian sector as a whole.

This wider reflection is also ongoing in the form of a debate around the professionalisation of the rapidly evolving, increasingly complex humanitarian sector. In line with this increased interest in standards, three of the main standard-setting initiatives – the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), People In Aid and the Sphere Project – are working to achieve greater coherence among themselves, with the aim of making it easier for aid workers to find their way around the numerous sets of standards and to put them into practice. Consultation with stakeholders will determine how these standards are being used, and how they can be made more coherent. A Humanitarian Standards Forum, to be held in Geneva in Spring 2013, will discuss the results of this consultation and possible future directions proposed by the initiatives. In the meantime, the Joint Standards Initiative, a collaboration between HAP, People In Aid and Sphere, was deployed to the Horn of Africa crisis. Beginning in October 2011, the team’s principal aim has been to support humanitarian agencies in providing accountable and appropriate programming that meets accepted standards of quality and accountability.

Aninia Nadig works in Promotion and Materials Production in the Sphere Project office in Geneva. For more information visit the Sphere website ( or contact the Sphere Project office (


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