Making humanitarian history

Into the sunset together?

Into the sunset together?

Two high profile international initiatives are racing towards a historic conclusion in Copenhagen this December: the SCHR’s Certification Project and the Core Humanitarian Standard.

Both aim to reform the quality of humanitarian work. Will they come together in a beautiful Clooney-style marriage or are we heading for a Kardashian disaster?

The stakes could not be higher. To succeed, the initiatives need to create new institutional arrangements for governing independent humanitarian action. We need a last push and far-sighted leadership to resolve five key issues.


The Certification Project completed four pilots earlier this year and aims to deliver a finalised certification model in the next two months

On the one hand, it’s not clear how previous lessons have been learned. 10 years ago, HAP was set up with almost identical aims. After massive effort, it has not made certification work: only 18 NGOs have been certified and there’s no evidence that certification has improved performance on the ground. (See also a powerful French critique.)

On the other hand, the Certification Project is backed by SCHR’s formidable – and much needed – leadership. It’s encouraging that their report on the pilots finds that most people want to see any certification model build on the Core Humanitarian Standard. It also proposes that certification should happen at a ‘country programme’ level, rather than an organisational level, which is suggestive.

Core Humanitarian Standard

The third draft of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) is available for consultation now until 17th October.

Each draft is better than the last. It has the potential to create a clear set of standards that describe principled humanitarian action – which can be used by management to achieve quality and also as the basis for verification to report performance.

The big questions here are: (a) can the draft be strengthened further to fulfil its potential, and (b) which organisation will own the standard and can revise it (which will be crucial for successful implementation)?

This brings up some old and painful arguments. One is between HAP’s approach of certifying organisations’ compliance with standards and Sphere’s approach of voluntary adoption. The other is about the fit between People in Aid’s Code on HR management (a crucial support function) and standards that describe the core characteristics of humanitarian performance (the service we deliver).

Bringing it together

As a sector, we’ve got an amazing opportunity to move forwards together. We can restate our core standards and reconfigure how we use scarce resources to govern our work, on a well organised and sustainable basis. We desperately need to make sure that old arguments don’t hold us back.

We’ll need real leadership to move us on. I’m sure that the SCHR’s horsepower combined with the progressive boards and leadership of all the organisations involved can get us there.

Five key issues for the common good

It won’t be easy. Everyone involved will need to make compromises on deep-held views, to tackle five key issues for the common good:

1. Can we separate standards for our core service from standards for support functions?
More than anything, we need an unambiguous and powerful set of standards for our core service. A whole range of crucial initiatives can be built out from them, from People in Aid, to common accountability tools, to the Good Humanitarian Donorship Principles. Can we be bold enough to get there?

2. What foundations will the CHS be built on?
To have real force, they need foundations that present key humanitarian principles in ways that work for NGOs, the UN and the Red Cross. The Sphere Charter was painstakingly drafted to do just that, and is widely respected today. Can the CHS adopt it, or find an equally respected alternative?

3. Which organisation will own and revise the CHS?
For the sector, we know it’s good practice for one organisation to set the rules and others to act as coach. None of us in the sector can afford another new entity, neither donors nor agencies. Can we work with the organisations we already have, without creating more bureaucracy? Sphere and HAP stand out as the two strong candidates: which is best placed to own the standards?

4. Will the standards work for management, as well as reporting & oversight?
Any standards should first and foremost work for the people responsible for directly achieving them – i.e. our field teams. That would allow agencies to align their internal management practices with external assessments: a crucial enabling factor to fulfil the promise of standards.

5. How else can we assess and verify our work, apart from certifying organisations?
I think everyone agrees that verification is legitimate and important, to allow internal and external oversight of our work. Can we identify alternative methods of verification, for instance through credible tools to assess the performance of individual programmes (possibly including beneficiary feedback)? This approach could be inherently inclusive of different kinds of organisation, unlike certification which is inherently exclusive.

These five key issues are all linked. The decision makers will be considering them together.

It’s hard to overstate how important they are for shaping the future credibility of independent humanitarian action – and our credibility to govern ourselves.

The question for all of us is: what can we do to help and encourage the boards and decision makers of Sphere, HAP, People in Aid and SCHR to come together for the good of the sector as a whole, looking beyond historical disagreements or their own specific interests?

2 Responses

  1. Alex, thank you for making such a constructive case and powerful proposition on the need to move the quality and accountability agenda in our sector forward. I am afraid that the news is less good than you want it to be. Recently, in the context of one of our first pieces of work, I reviewed a range of goal and standard-setting efforts in the humanitarian community over the last 15 years in great detail. The latest draft of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) (version 3, 1.10.14) was among them. In looking for an opportunity to provide the drafters with my feedback, I was asked to provide a Yes or No on the question whether this draft is ready for publication. I voted against, for a number of reasons, some of which touch on your key issues.

    My first concern is a major one and it relates to your point on the need for a strong (legal) foundation. This draft is fundamentally flawed in terms of understanding the legal framework in which humanitarian action takes place. Essentially, from reviewing the draft, one gets a sense that governments, in particular, the state affected by a disaster or armed conflict, do not exist. The draft is written on the premise that humanitarian action is about ‘us’, the organisations involved in it, and that if we get our act together everything else will be all right. Except for one paragraph in the introduction and one key action in relation to the proposed standard on coordination (6), the state and/or relevant authorities are cut out. I am sure they will be happy to see their role in humanitarian action minimised and that let us do the job instead, based on these new CHS credentials.

    The ignorance on the legal framework is further demonstrated in the statement on the principle of neutrality that it is not universally accepted. I understand that this principle has been the source of heated debates in the drafting process, and apparently there is no consensus on it, but to say that it is not universally accepted is quite inaccurate to be frank. UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 (1991) sets out the architecture for international humanitarian response and coordination. It mentions neutrality among the core principles. Admittedly, a UNGA resolution is not binding, but a judgement of the International Court of Justice is. In 1986, the ICJ ruled that the application of the principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, including neutrality, is essential for humanitarian aid to be qualified as such. Referring to one of the 7 principles as not universally accepted puts us on a very slippery slope as it opens the door for each of the other principles to be questioned.

    Lastly, and briefly, the CHS draft 3 is in need of a very thorough edit. It is full of NGO speak and not very consistent in, for example, using the terms humanitarian action, response, or assistance.

    It follows that if a certification scheme and verification is founded on such a problematic (draft) text, it will inevitably fail to achieve its stated goal, to improve the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian action.

    Can this CHS effort be rescued? Frankly, I am not sure. I know that time is tight and expectations are high. On the other side, to publish something of this poor quality will not make a difference in moving the agenda forward. On the contrary, it may put us in the wrong direction.

    One suggestion might be to submit a CHS draft (better than this one) to the World Humanitarian Summit preparations. This process is the most inclusive to date in the sector, bringing together states, international agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, NGOs of all sorts and kinds, civil society organisations, the private sector, academia, and last but not least, representatives from affected communities. It would give the CHS the clout and leverage it needs to make a difference and, hopefully, improve its quality.

    Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, Executive Director, HERE-Geneva

  2. […] may also be interested in Ed Schenkenberg’s informed & critical response (below the original […]

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