I’m delighted to introduce a guest blog, by Philip Tamminga, the Project Coordinator of SCHR’s Certification Project. He replies to my blog on the Core Humanitarian Standard and Certification processes with his own unique insights and five key points for success.
You may also be interested in Ed Schenkenberg’s informed & critical response (below the original blog).
Thanks for drawing attention to these two important initiatives, the Core Humanitarian Standard and the Certification Review project. As you say, this is a real opportunity to make history in the humanitarian sector, and one we collectively can’t afford to miss.
For the last two years I have been leading the Certification Review project and have been heavily engaged in the CHS process. I would like to share some personal reflections on the issues you raise – this should not be interpreted as the position of the SCHR or it members.
The Core Humanitarian Standard
As you note, the third draft of the CHS is now open for consultation. Like you, I think each version is better than the last. It is by no means perfect. It could use a good edit for consistency, style and NGO jargon, and personally, I think it should include neutrality. But it accurately reflects the outcomes of over two years of intense consultations on the most important elements that define a principled, accountable and effective organisation.
The CHS tries to synthesise the core concepts repeated again and again in the sector in a single, consolidated framework. It’s not a substitute for some of the key policy documents and codes of conduct that have guided our work, nor is it intended to replace the many specific standards (programming, management, financial, etc.) that we also need and use to be effective organisations.
The content is as close to consensus as we are likely to get in today’s context (imagine trying to negotiate the Geneva Conventions today – it would be almost impossible!). So, from my perspective, it is incredibly important to respect and support the outcomes of the consultation process, and endorse the final version in December and move forward. This will require, as you point out, leadership and sustained political commitment to make it happen.
That said, there is much more work to be done before we can really claim the CHS is ready for implementation.
First, I would hope to see a set of supporting communications tools that turn the aims and contents of the CHS into a simple, clear, concise statement or declaration of what affected people, supporters and others can expect from humanitarians.
The second, and to me, most important task will be to translate the CHS commitments into practical guidelines adapted to the complexities of different crisis situations, all the while recognising the rich diversity of approaches used by different organisations.
One critical piece of work will be to develop a common monitoring, reporting and verification framework to track how organisations are applying the CHS and with what outcomes. This should include common indicators to assess and report on what kind of impact the CHS is having on improved quality and effectiveness of humanitarian actions. This is where most norms and standards used in the sector have failed in the past.
Getting this right will help us to continuously improve the standard. And by developing a strong evidence base on how the standard contributes to improved humanitarian action, collectively the sector will have a powerful voice to negotiate and advocate for other actors to fulfil their part of the accountability equation. By the time of the World Humanitarian Summit, I hope we would have some solid arguments on the value of the CHS, backed by evidence from implementation, to present to States, the UN system and other stakeholders.
To clarify, the Certification Review project was never just about certification, but about the relationship between standards, verification mechanisms and certification, and how these contribute to accountability and performance. A couple of key points stand out for me.
First, there is growing pressure for NGOs to demonstrate that they are professional, principled, accountable, and effective. The trend is global, and it’s not going away. The challenge is to make sure those pressures are channelled in a positive manner to support effective humanitarian actions, not impede them.
External verification and certification is one way – not the only way – of providing the kind of rigorous evidence and assurances stakeholders want from us. It’s complementary to other tools like self-assessments, evaluations and peer reviews. The difference is that it is a regular, systematic assessment of the organisation as a whole and it provides an additional layer of assurance that when an organisation claims to follow or apply a standard or good practice, there is objective, independently verified evidence to back this up. Certification is simply a declaration by a credible, independent third party that an organisation has gone through such a process.
Second, there is significant interest in the sector for participating in more rigorous verification mechanisms, including certification. The majority of stakeholders we spoke to saw the CHS, and to a large extent, external verification and certification, as a potential means to self-regulate the sector, based on terms and conditions defined by humanitarians, not others.
Many stakeholders we spoke to, especially smaller and national NGOs, saw certification as a tool to provide assurances to their stakeholders that that are professional and competent. Some saw a common set of standards, combined with a monitoring, reporting and verification framework, as a roadmap to help them build their capacity towards internationally-accepted good practice, and a way to help “level the playing field” by showing that they are equally as capable as larger INGOs.
So it is important to acknowledge there is a demand for certification, and we have to respect the decision of those organisations that want to voluntarily pursue it. That alone justifies continuing to work towards improving our approach to external verification and certification.
That said, there are also significant concerns expressed by some stakeholders that certification might be misused by governments, become an exclusive club for those who already have capacity and resources, or as an impediment to learning. Here, the most striking thing for me from our research is that there is no convincing evidence that external verification and certification would have a net negative effect on the sector. However, if external verification and certification is to add value, it needs to take into careful consideration these concerns.
Designing a model for certification
That brings me to my next point: the design of any external verification and certification system. The one big benefit coming out of this project is that NGOs and other stakeholders have had an opportunity to reflect on what they want from any new approach to certification. There is a surprising level of consensus around this.
Almost everyone we spoke to wanted certification to reinforce humanitarian principles and values and improve capacity, accountability and performance. All wanted this to be based on voluntary participation, so organisations can choose to go for external verification and certification if they think it will be useful for them. They want the focus to be on continuous learning and improvement, not control and compliance.
Most wanted any system to be based on a common, agreed set of standards – in this case the CHS. People wanted it to build on and learn from and validate existing processes, not impose yet another set of requirements on organisations. They emphasised the need for field level verification that incorporates the views of affected people in any assessment of how well an organisation is meeting its commitments. And they want the system to be accessible and affordable for all.
Five key issues
Based on this, I think the project has generated enough information to guide the design of a new approach to external verification and certification that will meet the needs and demands of the sector today and tomorrow. The project findings set out what we think are a realistic, feasible means to achieve this.
But there are significant challenges to make it happen. Like you, I also have a list of five key issues that will underpin the success of this:
1. Sustained leadership support
We need a real leadership commitment from all stakeholders, not just NGOs, over at least the next 5-10 years to make this happen. We simply cannot afford to lose interest and shift our attention to the next “flavour of the month” initiative without giving this enough time to flourish and show impact.
2. Critical mass of participation
When enough NGOs participate in the system, we can begin to achieve economies of scale that will keep costs down. It will also provide a platform to collect evidence on how it is contributing to improved humanitarian action, to negotiate incentives and benefits for participating organisations and influence behaviour of other actors.
3. Integration with existing processes
Any new system needs to recognise and validate the processes already used by organisations to improve quality and accountability, not impose a new set of rigid requirements on them. This includes finding ways to promote mutual recognition for those who already participate in another verification or certification scheme, like members of ACFID or InterAction.
4. Funding and resources
In the long-term, the system should aim for financial self-sufficiency. But seed money will be needed to initially set up the system. The estimated costs are quite reasonable compared to other initiatives, and especially to other sectors. Funding support will also be needed to ensure smaller NGOs are able to participate.
5. Communications and marketing
We need to market this beyond the humanitarian sector, and reach out to a much wider public – including affected populations – so that people understand what the certification “brand” stands for: organisations that are committed to principled, accountable and effective humanitarian action, with the capacity to consistently deliver meaningful results for crisis-affected people, and objective, verified evidence to back this claim up.