Experts are warning that aid agencies risk violating, rather than protecting, the rights of people in disaster zones.
Global children’s charity, Plan UK, is hosting the launch of new standards for the humanitarian sector this Thursday (14), to improve its response to catastrophes like earthquakes and armed conflict.
The latest Sphere Handbook – widely considered the blueprint for aid work – includes a fresh chapter on “protection principles”, which urges organisations to consider the wider impact of their actions.
“People in disasters have basic needs like food and water, but aid work is not as simple as service delivery,” says Marie Staunton, Chief Executive of Plan UK.
“Humanitarian workers also have a wider responsibility for the human rights of the people they are meant to be helping – such as their right to freedom of movement and their right to a healthy environment.”
“These rights could be limited or violated by the relief they receive, if it is delivered in an inappropriate way,” she explains.
“The most vulnerable, like women and girls, are especially at risk.”
The Sphere handbook – Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response – invites aid workers to think through the difficult ethical questions they face.
“In the Ivory Coast the UN has appeared to take sides in the conflict,“ says Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, Executive Director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and a member of the Sphere board.
“Local NGOs that were supposed to distribute aid to areas held by Gbagbo’s forces on behalf of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, were forced to return the aid to the organization.”
“Now too few impartial and independent humanitarian agencies are present on the ground in Ivory Coast,” he adds.
“Too many aid agencies that were in development mode withdrew their international staff and did not replace them with emergency teams. The Sphere handbook, with its stress on the rights of people caught up in conflict and disasters, calls for aid workers to analyse these complicated issues more closely.”
650 experts in more than 300 organisations in 20 countries fed into the new Sphere Handbook, which is now in its third edition.
The publication sets up shared principles and a set of minimum of universal standards in key areas of relief work.
The new guidelines encourage aid agencies to work with local people and address emerging issues such as climate change.
Sphere aims to increase the quality of aid that people affected by natural disasters and armed conflict receive, while also promoting the accountability of the humanitarian sector.
“The Sphere standards are the benchmark for ensuring humane and fair humanitarian assistance to people in need around the world,“ says Baroness Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
“I hope that all organisations that provide humanitarian aid will become familiar with the standards and use them. This will improve the quality of humanitarian assistance to survivors of disasters and conflicts.”
The Sphere project was founded by a group of humanitarian organisations, alongside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
It is a unique voluntary initiative – including some of the biggest and oldest humanitarian organisations and agencies in the sector.
“Saving lives and protecting rights should go hand in hand,” says Dr Unni Krishnan, Disaster Response Policy Coordinator for Plan International, and a member of the Sphere board.
“The new version of the sphere handbook will be a catalyst to advance appropriate humanitarian action, especially the protection of vulnerable people.
Plan UK will be hosting a panel discussion in central London Thursday (14), featuring leading voices from aid world, to mark the launch of the Sphere Handbook in the UK.
The English language version of the guidelines is being released in a dozen countries around the world.
For more information on Plan’s work visit www.plan-uk.org