The Sphere Project: Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response and the Poverty Line.

The Sphere standards and humanitarian efficiency.

The latest edition of the Sphere Handbook was presented on the 23rd of June, and the more I read it and think about it, the more relevant I find this standard.

“The Sphere Handbook is a voluntary code and self-regulatory tool for quality and accountability[…] The Handbook does not offer practical guidance on how to provide certain services […] it explains what needs to be in place in order to ensure a life with dignity for the affected population.”

The standard is based on the experiences in the field of some of the main actors in Humanitarian assistance, and prefers localization above rigid compliance. It sets practical service levels on everything from protection, coördination, water, sanitation and hygiene, food security and nutrition to shelter and health services, but it leaves it open to the actors to decide how to reach these service levels, leaving room for innovation and improvisation. The “do no harm”principle refers explicitly to the strengthening of local institutions.

Although it is a voluntary code, a generally accepted standard is a god-send for evaluators. Suddenly interventions of different organisation can be compared against the same standard. While in the past evaluations were rarely comparing the efficiency and effectivity of different actors, this becomes feasible. Although the Sphere standards are voluntary, they will become the yardstick against which to measure outcomes.

It is difficult to underestimate the potential effect of having a common standard for evaluating outcomes in driving the quality and efficiency of humanitarian interventions. NGOs will be able to prove how much better their cost/benefit ratio is when compared to multilateral agencies. iNGOs will be able to prove the need for international staff to reach the required quality. Where efficiency and quality gains are possible, the policy for outsourcing and in-sourcing will be scrutinized.

The Sphere standard will be a “living” standard, but it should be rigid enough to drive the accountability an innovation processes.

Looking at the past months, I am surprised to find only limited enthusiasm with the results-based crowd for the Sphere standards.

The Sphere standards and the development paradigm

The sphere standards belong squarely in the humanitarian paradigm. Humanitarian assistance is a moral imperative. The aid is aimed at saving lives, alleviate suffering and preserve human dignity. The support should be given in a neutral and impartial way.

Mentioning the Sphere standards in relation to the development paradigm is not considered appropriate. Indeed: development is seldom framed as only a moral imperative. It rests on the crossroads of different values. The definition of development aid is vague and mixes values (gender equality, human rights,…) with economical development (poverty reduction, infrastructure,…) and governance. Often, in the presentation of development cooperation, poverty alleviation is linked to economic results and even to direct interests for the population in the North, such as getting rich by having more markets or the need to limit immigration. By definition, the actual development interventions are not the result of a single moral imperative, but the result of a political compromise between the needs of the population, the needs of the different local institutions and political powers, and the needs of the international actors.

Within the development paradigm, as there is always an interplay of factors, it is difficult to focus the intervention every actor on its comparative advantage. Institution building is particularly difficult, and national governments are supposed to deliver sophisticated services before they even can deliver the basic functions of the state, like security and the rule of law. Foreign donors try their hand at poverty alleviation, institution building, governance and economic growth, sometimes with little to show for.

In some failed states, this means that the only basic services available are those provided by the humanitarian actors, while development assistance focuses on elusive institution building goals. The poorest of the poor, living with less than Sphere standard level services, are out in the cold. However, the moral imperative to help these poor still stands. The moral imperative ruling humanitarian assistance, should protect everybody in a situation that normally leads to humanitarian interventions, even if the state would like to build institutions one day.

The necessity to assure that the poor receive this basic level of services is recognised by Paul Collier in the Bottom Billion, where he advocates for alternative service delivery mechanisms, and the added value for focusing aid on the poor is highlighted by Owen Barder in his presentation to the British House of Lords.

With the Sphere standards, there exists a framework to prioritize assistance according to the needs to the poorest, based on a moral imperative. Once the conditions improve, the more complex development priority setting could take over.

The Sphere standard as an absolute poverty line

The current international poverty line (was it US$1.25 or 2?) is only used as an indicator for poverty. If you are below this line, it doesn’t really help you. Being poor is not leading to any specific action of the international community. On the other hand, there are also the Millennium Development Goals that set benchmarks for overall government action, but little that tells a poor what he could expect as services.

Moving to the Sphere standard for service delivery to the poor, would create instantly a well defined program. It would also solve the moral issue concerning the pockets of poverty in middle income.

Is it necessary to put the Sphere standard on the agenda in Busan? I think so.

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