During 1998, Bangladesh experienced floods that were unprecedented in their scope, duration and the damage they caused. Although seasonal flooding is quite normal in Bangladesh, the unusual combination of excessive run-off from Himalayan snowmelts, heavy rainfall and particularly high tides in the Bay of Bengal conspired to cause abnormally severe flooding. Between late August and the end of September 1998, approximately 100,000 square kilometres (68% of the country) was flooded, with flood conditions lasting an average of 65 days.
Over thirty million people were affected by this disaster, and more than one million people were displaced to government shelters. In response, 163 local, national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) distributed relief items, including food aid, water purification tablets, clothing and medicines, to 2.4 million Bangladeshi families. A recently published study set out to evaluate whether the nutritional interventions during this response met Sphere minimum standards for emergencies.
A sample of fifteen agencies were analysed (two bilateral organisations, one United Nations (UN) body, one government agency, eight international NGOs and three local NGOs). Two questionnaires were administered to each agency. One was qualitative and focused on intervention criteria, rapid needs assessment, acute-phase interventions, transitions and rehabilitative phase interventions, monitoring and evaluation, disaster preparedness activities and donor response. The second was quantitative, and attempted to obtain information on number of beneficiaries, total nutritional and food expenditure, cash grant expenditure, rehabilitation expenditure, disaster preparedness funding, staffing and total disaster response expenditure. The performance of each organisation was evaluated against the 'Minimum Standards in Food Aid and Minimum standards in Nutrition', selected from the 1998 edition of the Sphere manual.
Of those agencies assessed, 83% targeted the most vulnerable groups and three-quarters (75%) of agencies performed some form of ongoing monitoring and evaluation. Methods for identifying vulnerable people varied from the simple to the sophisticated, depending on the agency involved. Half of the agencies assessed nutritional status before providing assistance. However, fewer than half - 42% in each case - collected beneficiary feedback on the intervention, monitored local markets for how the importation of new food sources affected local prices or businesses, or sought local participation in their relief efforts. One-third of agencies had an existing disaster preparedness plan. Only one agency had made an assessment of the impact of their response, despite the fact that many had participated in a 'lessons learned' workshop. It should be noted that conditions identified as pre-requisites by the Sphere project for application of the minimum standards were present in the Bangladeshi context, i.e. sufficient resources, access to affected populations and common goals amongst agencies.
One of the main findings of the study was that lower capacity agencies were less able to meet the Sphere standards, presumably because they lacked appropriately skilled personnel, technical capabilities, operational experience and access to resources. Only the best funded were able to meet the majority of standards assessed. The authors of the study suggest that Sphere, as a potential co-ordinating framework, may be able to help address this issue by enabling agencies to share core competencies. A prerequisite for this approach is interagency planning and donor funding for the co-ordinating mechanism, as well as incentives for agencies to participate. One danger identified by the study authors was that, by insisting on minimum standards, smaller, less funded and lower capacity agencies might be discouraged from participating in disaster response.
Particular challenges facing Sphere implementation, the paper concluded, are those which require ongoing commitment of energy and resources. These include building avenues for local participation, disaster preparedness and mitigation, and developing tools for co-ordination of response and impact assessment. However despite these challenges, the authors argue that Sphere has further value in articulating a breadth and depth of technical standards in a way that is relevant and useful to an extraordinary variety of humanitarian disaster situations, and for a great diversity of agencies, organisations and individuals. By linking them to the humanitarian imperative, Sphere universalises these standards and focuses disaster response on the human dignity of affected populations.
1 O'Donnell M.R, Bacos D, Bennish M.L (2002). Nutritional response to the 1998 Bangladesh flood disaster: Sphere Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. Disasters, Vol 26 (3), pp 229-241