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Humanitarian best practice - dignity, not just digits

A young woman among people seeking rebar and other potentially saleable or salvageable objects in earthquake rubble, Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. March 2010
(Nancy Palus/IRIN)

As established standards of humanitarian response are being put to the test in Haiti, aid experts say safeguarding the dignity of those affected by January’s earthquake requires agencies to think beyond mere numerical benchmarks.

Most commonly cited standards are enshrined in the Sphere Project, a collaboration of hundreds of NGOs, UN agencies and academics, which produced a handbook for humanitarian responders (currently under revision).

A team of quality and accountability experts is currently in Haiti to monitor adherence to Sphere by agencies providing water, food, shelter and sanitation facilities to around 1.5m people in the wake of what the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) described as “the biggest natural disaster in history”.

Standards versus indicators

While aid workers sometimes use the words “standards” and “indicators” interchangeably, in the context of Sphere they have distinct meanings.

Standards are qualitative. Of latrines, for example, the handbook says: “People should have adequate numbers of toilets, sufficiently close to their dwellings, to allow them rapid, safe and acceptable access at all times of the day and night.”

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Indicators are more concrete and in many cases purely quantitative. “A maximum of 20 people use each toilet,” for example.

“One of the things that concerned me [early on] in Haiti was that a lot of people were throwing up their hands and saying: ‘We can’t meet Sphere here’,” said Anne Lloyd, a consultant providing training and support in accountability and Sphere.

“Sphere is more than just numbers. Rather than thinking of Sphere as numbers and saying ‘we can’t meet these here, full stop’, the approach [must be] looking at Sphere overall and at how we can achieve these and what happens if we can’t achieve them."

“Conditions [in Port-au-Prince] are difficult,” Lloyd said. “There is not a lot of space. We are talking primarily about an urban area which was very overcrowded in the first place and suddenly people are all tumbled out of their houses and on tiny squares in city centres...

“When agencies say it’s so difficult to do Sphere here, I agree. It’s incredibly difficult to follow those standards and indicators in that environment. However, don’t throw it out completely. Have a look at it… What is Sphere about? Sphere is about people having rights to a life with dignity,” she said, adding that effective disaster response requires paying attention to Sphere common standards, which cover such aspects as beneficiary participation, monitoring of response actions and aid worker responsibilities.

People at a water distribution site in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cité Soleil. March 2010

Nancy Palus/IRIN
People at a water distribution site in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cité Soleil. March 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Bonnes pratiques humanitaires - la dignité, pas seulement les chiffres
People at a water distribution site in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cité Soleil. March 2010

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
People at a water distribution point in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cité Soleil

Médecins Sans Frontières emergency desk officer Mego Terzian cautioned that any kind of benchmarks can be troublesome. “The problem with Sphere as with any standards is that they are not adapted to the particular situation in Haiti. And NGOs can find it difficult to move away from these to adapt their responses to the specific needs at hand.”

Gauging effectiveness

For some NGOs, such as Oxfam-Great Britain, the local context is integral to aid activities in Haiti and the evaluation in terms of adherence to Sphere.

“The overall success of the humanitarian community in ensuring attainment of Sphere should never be judged simply by reference to [generic] quantitative indicators,” said Nicholas Brooks, who coordinates the agency’s water sanitation and hygiene activities in Haiti.

“For example, we measure our WASH [water, sanitation, hygiene] achievements not only through records of litres of water supplied to camps and numbers of latrines, but also through water use surveys and sanitation monitoring, which frequently indicate practices of returning to original homes to access alternative water supplies and more familiar toilet facilities.”

The WASH cluster in Haiti has a strategy for gradually improving sanitation, Brooks said, by reducing the ratio of people per latrine from 100:1 for the first three months of the crisis to 50:1 for the next three months, and to 20:1 after a year.

Vivian Paulsen, IFRC communications coordinator in Haiti, said while NGOs are not reaching Sphere’s water and sanitation indicators due to the scale of the disaster, the situation is improving. “In the beginning humanitarian organizations provided five litres of water per person per day. That has now increased to approximately 10 litres.”


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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