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Setting the aid bar higher

A young girl getting water at the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad
(Celeste Hicks/IRIN)

Since the Sphere Project first published in 2000 its handbook outlining minimum standards in disaster response, much has changed in the aid world. Climate change is the new disaster, humanitarian reforms have reorganized the aid system introducing cluster leads for emergency sectors, and millions more disaster-affected people live in towns rather than rural areas.

The Sphere Project, a collaboration of international NGOs and the Red Cross Movement to improve quality disaster responses, is updating its handbook outlining best practices in food aid, nutrition, health, water and sanitation and emergency shelter.

The updated guide, known as the Sphere handbook, will reflect the increasing complexity of the aid world and more explicitly address civil-military relations, disaster risk reduction and early recovery, environmental impact, psychosocial support and the role of cluster leads in humanitarian response.

Nine disaster response sectors - among them education, protection, and early recovery - are headed up by either UN agency or NGO cluster leads to help provide more coherent, coordinated emergency interventions.

Despite an increasingly crowded market-place of new aid quality guidelines and best practices, Adam Poulter, head of the humanitarian team at NGO Care International, told IRIN that Sphere still stands out. “The Sphere handbook is a bit like the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”…if you are starting afresh on a sector and need some guidance, use Sphere. It is an all-in-one book and you can travel with it.”

The new handbook, expected to be published in 2010, will provide links to more in-depth companion guides in a number of sectors, including livelihoods and emergency education, and to other quality standards such as the Humanitarian Accountability Project’s Sphere project manager John Damerell told IRIN.

''There is no value in having standards that are bad practice – we don’t need the lowest common denominator''

Humanitarian cluster leads are now charged with developing standards and guidelines in their sectors’ disaster response - be it shelter or protection. But Graham Saunders, international shelter head for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), told IRIN this is a complementary rather than competitive process.

“Sphere is the starting point, it’s the ‘what’, while the clusters can provide the ‘how-to’.”

The IFRC also heads the international emergency shelter cluster. Saunders is one of 22 experts consulting on Sphere’s revisions.

Creating ambitious new standards while keeping the handbook short is a challenge, said Saunders.“It is always going to be a dilemma to provide simple, consistent, clear, concise yet comprehensive guidelines, but we must try.”


Equally challenging is maintaining such standards when there is inadequate funding, access difficulties, resource limitations, and other barriers, according to aid workers.

Ensuring no queues at water sources last more than 15 minutes, one of the current Sphere standards, have rarely been met in camps in Darfur or eastern Chad, aid workers told IRIN.

“This issue comes up all the time,” said IFRC’s Saunders. “But there is no value in having standards that are bad practice – we don’t need the lowest common denominator,” he told IRIN.

He added: “Denying people 3.5m2 of covered living space can compromise safe separation of the sexes, which means a women’s shelter might have to be built, or it could lead to higher transmission of respiratory infections, requiring more frequent health check-up visits.”

Saunders told IRIN the guidelines are a tool to be adapted to each context, and stressed the revised handbook should give better guidance on how to do this.

“If the standards are not met, there will always be other consequences. The problems don't go away…if you can’t meet the standards you don’t give up,” Saunders said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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