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Setting standards for the aid industry

Kenya-Dadaab, August 2011. For generic use
(IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation)

The humanitarian community has gone through a period of soul searching in recent years, following the failure to protect victims of genocide in Rwanda, the chaotic lack of coordination after the 2004 Asian tsunami and the sex-for-food scandals in West Africa. Yet attempts to set universal standards and to certify aid agencies have been inconsistent and controversial.

This week, practitioners are taking part in the Humanitarian Standards Forum in Geneva to assess the state of humanitarian accountability and to chart a path forward.

Nearly 200 senior representatives from major humanitarian organizations are debating whether and how agreed-upon standards and certification processes would improve the effectiveness of aid provision.

Creating universal standards

There has been a proliferation of different standards among agencies, said Matthew Carter, steering group chair for the Joint Standards Initiative (JSI), which was launched by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), People in Aid and the Sphere Project.

“Over the last 20 years, the humanitarian sector has grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. While the early 1990s saw an absence of standards, the current situation may pose the opposite problem, with over a hundred standards initiatives now in existence in the humanitarian sector. Field workers and others have experienced a challenge in combining and implementing the number of standards in an efficient, complementary and effective way,” he said.

The JSI has set out to harmonize the standards of its three member organizations. Carter says that between now and next July they are planning to develop a new core humanitarian standard, with clear benchmarks and indicators, as well as guidance on how the tools can be applied and on dissemination and training. The core standard is currently under discussion in Geneva.

For the moment, the Sphere standards are the most widely known and used. The Sphere handbook is a fat volume covering everything from the general principles of humanitarian assistance to the nitty-gritty of daily aid work - including an individual’s minimum water ration (7.5 to 15 litres a day) and the number of latrines a camp should have (one per 20 people).

The Sphere Standards include commitments on accountability to both donors and beneficiaries. “We commit,” it says, “to working in partnership with affected populations, emphasising their active participation in the response. We acknowledge that our fundamental accountability must be to those we seek to assist.”

Do accountability mechanisms improve aid?

Many humanitarian organizations have embraced the concept of improving accountability, but it has been less clear whether accountability standards and mechanisms actually improve aid quality.

Wendy Fenton, the coordinator of the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) Humanitarian Practice Network, raised this issue at a meeting on improving humanitarian action in London last week.

“The focus on accountability standards and mechanisms seems to have a detrimental impact on the quality, sometimes, of humanitarian programming, because people are so concerned with focusing on those standards and meeting them that you don’t see the forest for the trees. And I don’t know if we have really demonstrated the relationship between meeting those standards and improving the quality of responses,” she said.

"We really don’t want to be seen as a closed shop, and we want to allow for new and fresh initiatives"

Attempts have only recently been made to evaluate whether these measures improve aid provision.

Research consultant Andy Featherstone recently completed a study of the effectiveness of community consultations and involvement - a key part of many accountability mechanisms. Because he could not find situations where community consultations were entirely absent, he compared places where accountability mechanisms were well established to those where they were more recently introduced.

Looking at groups in Kenya receiving aid from Christian Aid projects and communities in Myanmar being helped by Save the Children UK, Featherstone found modest evidence that these mechanisms did, indeed, improve aid.

In places with established accountability mechanisms, beneficiaries were able to provide advice on better targeting of assistance, and on the cheapest and best places to procure inputs, saving the projects money. And recipients were far more satisfied when they were more closely involved with implementation.

Says Featherstone, “We know that accountability mechanisms can contribute to project quality and impact, but at the same time we know that practice is patchy… Now we have more evidence. We can be that much more assertive. We know that accountability mechanisms strengthen our ability to help the people we are seeking to assist, so there really is no excuse not to use them.”

Vetting humanitarians

Standards and accountability mechanisms are relatively uncontroversial compared to another proposed measure: the certification of humanitarian organizations.

Certification would offer a way for governments and communities to determine which agencies are reputable, trustworthy and effective. But while HAP has been offering certification to humanitarian groups since 2007, there are currently only 16 organizations on its list.

Philip Tamminga, who is the certification coordinator for the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, says, “Lots of organizations have signed up for HAP, are members of HAP, but very few of them have actually gone through the whole process of becoming a HAP-certified organization. And we want to know and understand why that is, and what would it take to get us a little bit further along.”

Oxfam has taken a clear public stand in favour of certification. Carsten Volz, Oxfam International’s humanitarian director, says, “We like certification. We want to support it. It’s a very complicated world out there; there are a lot of new actors.” In spite of this support, Oxfam is not HAP-certified.

Other aid groups, like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), distrust the selectivity and political implications of certification.

“We really feel there is a kind of who’s in and who’s out cartel... If you look at northern Syria, for example, yes, there are a few of us from the traditional system who are there, but the big responders are local responders, are diaspora groups, or activist groups. Maybe they aren’t signed up to the humanitarian principles… but they are providing significant support. We really don’t want to be seen as a closed shop, and we want to allow for new and fresh initiatives,” said MSF’s Sandrine Tiller.

“And also, it’s a donor-led process, let’s not kid ourselves. And donors will favour those that are certified. As you know, many NGOs are accused of being a Trojan horse for donors’ interests, so this will be somehow the proof of the pudding. If you look at the Busan accords, China, Brazil, India said, ‘Oh we’re not going to sign up to that; we have our own way of doing things’, so I think certification will end up being a readout of those European governments’ favourite organizations.”

Tamminga accepts that some aid agencies will not be interested in certification, but insists that it will be valuable nonetheless.

“If you look at other initiatives, like fair trade,” he said, “you won’t get all the coffee producers of the world, for instance, to sign up to some standards of responsible social and ethical behaviour. But once you do achieve a certain critical mass, by the mere fact that you have got enough working on this line of travel, you begin to influence behaviour through the whole sector.”


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:

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