Opinion and debate: The painfully obvious Core Humanitarian Standards highlight a humanitarian system that’s out of touch

30 Oct 2014
Opinion and debate
Related Countries

Sandrine Tiller and Arjan Hehenkamp
@sandrinetiller - Humanitarian Advisor, MSF UAE
Twitter: @Arjan_Hehenkamp - MSF Director

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When Pippa Middleton’s published her book on entertaining friends and family, it contained gems like: “Make a checklist—it’s otherwise too easy to forget essentials, and it’s useful to have when you arrive home to make sure nothing is missing” and “A really late start warrants brunch, in lieu of lunch.” This kind of painfully obvious advice was mercilessly lampooned on the internet as being plain common sense, sold to a gullible and unquestioning public.[1]

It was Pippa’s advice that came to mind when we read the latest incarnation of the Core Humanitarian Standards. With classics like: “Communities and people affected by crisis receive coordinated, complementary assistance” and “Staff are treated fairly and equitably, and are supported to do their job effectively,” it makes us wonder, with all the major crises happening around the world, is this all we can commit to?

At the end of this year, the humanitarian community will get together in Copenhagen to be presented with two new pieces of humanitarian ‘voluntary legislation’: Certification (see here for a comment on this) and the Core Humanitarian Standards. These were revised in order to bring together the Sphere, HAP and People in Aid standards in one place.

They are the result of a lengthy consultation process which brought with it lots of process, but little real debate about why the humanitarian system is falling short of meeting the already existing standards.

Abstract and technocratic

So what will NGOs have agreed to? Nine commitments, all of them bland and generic, for example: “Communities and people affected by crisis have access to the humanitarian assistance they need at the right time.”

What was wrong with the old SPHERE Core standards anyway? Why change “People’s capacity and strategies to survive with dignity are integral to the design and approach of humanitarian response” to “Communities and people affected by crisis receive assistance appropriate and relevant to their needs”?

These new standards seem like lesser versions of their former selves, abstract and technocratic.

Be truthful, humble and open

If they’d wanted to really make significant changes, humanitarian NGOs should be aiming higher. They could be signing up to commitments that could be much more challenging.

For example, “Be truthful about what you can do, and humble about the effect aid can have” or “Be more self critical and open about failures.” Implementing these two commitments would do a lot of good for the sector which is dangerously afraid of open debate for fear it compromises funding.

And while we’re composing a wishlist, let’s have more emergency operations reaching the existing technical standards such as the one on water, which stipulates that people should have safe and equitable access to a sufficient quantity of water (15 litres per person per day), for drinking, cooking and personal and domestic hygiene.

This summer, South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopian camps were receiving far less than that. In one of the camps, eight litres a day was the norm for weeks.

Earlier this year in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, internally displaced people lived for months in squalid conditions with too few latrines amongst them (there was one for each 166 users, instead of one for each 20 users.) The humanitarian system is clearly not reaching the standards that have already been agreed.

More action

Instead of aiming for ever higher standards, we seem to be going towards a consensus-based ‘lowest common denominator.’ The new standards could have been written for any type of organisation, they just outline what is good practice.

We desperately need a humanitarian aid system that delivers on its promises and provides quality assistance – so we need standards, and we need good ones. Let’s spend more time in the field improving the response and less time debating these painfully obvious points.

[1] With thanks to Buzzfeed’s “Pippa Middleton’s 19 Most Painfully Obvious Pieces Of Advice” accessed on 14 October, 2014.

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