Humanitarian standards to go under reform process

Israeli Defense Forces in Haiti.
Israeli Defense Forces in Haiti.
Israel Defense Forces

An effort is underway to create a set of standards that will guide humanitarian action in cases of conflict and disaster. The Humanitarian Standards Forum, held in Geneva at the end of June, brought humanitarian leaders together to begin the process of creating the new standards.

The guideline developed going forward will serve as a set of instructions for all humanitarians. Responses will be guided by the standards in order to ensure that it is not only effective, but is mindful of the dignity of every person.

“Quality is a major concern in today’s humanitarian efforts,” said Ambassador Manuel Bessler, Head of the Humanitarian Aid Department of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which hosted the Forum. “It is not about controlling or enforcing, but about bringing different voices together to improve the quality that makes us accountable to beneficiaries in the first place.”

The effort is led by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP International), People In Aid and the Sphere Project. Sphere published a series of standards in a handbook during the late 1990s following failed responses to conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia. It set minimum standards for delivering life-saving supplies like food and water as well as protecting people from violence.

“An international evaluation said around 80,000 deaths, mainly from cholera and dysentery, in camps for those fleeing the Rwandan genocide could have been avoided if the humanitarian response had been more effective,” writes Megan Rowling for the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Going forward the project will engage with the humanitarian sector to solicit feedbacks so that people participate in creating the standards and eventually use them.

Unexpectedly, talking with hundreds of aid workers revealed that they didn’t think there were too many standards out there. Rather they said the different codes of conduct should be harmonised and made easier to use, Carter added.

“Instead of the field workers we’ve all seen turning up with a suitcase full of guidelines, or lack of such a suitcase, there will be one standard that everyone will work to,” he said. “It’s already looking quite clear where there is going to be instant agreement, where there’s overlap, and how we go about developing it.”

The proceedings will be something to watch gong forward. Setting standards for humanitarian responses will have an impact on how agencies do their work.

“Humanitarian principles will be at the heart,” said Neil Casey, outgoing Chair of the People In Aid Board. “These are non-negotiable.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.