Humanitarian aid now has its quality standard: progress and issues at stake for field actors

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Magali Mourlon

Much has been written in recent years about improving the quality of humanitarian aid, and this continues to cause heated debates in our sector. There has been a significant increase in humanitarian needs and this has put greater pressure on the sector. On the one hand, donors are demanding greater effectiveness, and on the other, beneficiaries and local authorities in the field are rightly asking to be placed at the centre of the system and to be involved in the decision making process for aid allocation. The concept of quality, which is closely related to issues of accountability, transparency and efficiency, is fundamental to cope with these increasing needs in increasingly complex situations.

But what exactly are we talking about? Is there at least some agreement between beneficiaries, humanitarian workers, governments, donors and researchers about what quality means in relation to humanitarian aid? One of the main conclusions of Groupe URD’s last Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid [1] was that the sector is unable to establish a single response to this question. How can progress be made if the community as a whole is not talking about the same thing?

At the launch of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) in Copenhagen, everyone (or at least all the representatives at the conference) seemed to agree about the nine commitments included in the Standard. The document was developed via numerous consultations with organizations from the sector. It is a return to a single standard, as some organizations had requested. It is true that in the last ten or fifteen years there have been more and more Quality and Accountability initiatives; initially with the Sphere manual, then the Quality COMPAS, HAP International and its certification system, the Good Enough Guide, the ideas of People in Aid for better management of Human Resources, etc. All these tools developed by the sector met different demands, but some actors and NGOs had difficulty juggling between them. There had also been pressure from donors for whom funding the development of so many initiatives was becoming too expensive…

The CHS comes in a single document, a short booklet of around twenty pages, based on nine fundamental principles. But will this tool be enough for the sector to improve its response to crisis situations?

But first of all, let us go back to the question of what quality means (or does not mean) in terms of humanitarian aid.

The Larousse dictionary defines quality as “The characteristics and properties which contribute to making something correspond (or not) to its nature, and what we expect it to be. (…) That which makes something better than average”. We can see from this that quality implies the idea of something “better than average”, and which satisfies demands.

As such, it is obvious that quality is difficult to define in the humanitarian sector. Indeed, by what means, and on what basis could quality be measured? The situation before the crisis? Is there universal data which could justify minimum standards which are valid for every response?
When we talk about meeting demands, what demands are we talking about? For humanitarian actors and NGOs in particular, demands can come from two or even three sources. There are the demands of the beneficiaries - the affected population - who are effectively our “clients”. But there are also those of host governments, local authorities and the other actors involved in the coordination of humanitarian aid. These bodies see needs and the humanitarian response from another angle, which is often complementary, but sometimes contradictory… Finally, there is the view of funding agencies, donors and all those who make the response possible: our fellow citizens, our governments or our institutions – here again, their demands can vary. Some donors are very enthusiastic about the general adoption of the CHS (this is the case for example of DANIDA who already requires its partner NGOs to be certified on the basis of the CHS; but others, like DG ECHO [2], appear to be interested in the debate and the issue of quality in general, without asking the organizations that they fund to subscribe to one or other initiative. They already have numerous criteria for selecting (or pre-selecting) partners which, in their view, guarantee quality (this is the case for Framework Partnership Agreements where ECHO asks its partners about their adherence to the Sphere standards). However, it is obvious that being able to show evidence of further commitment to quality in a funding request is looked upon positively by donors.

So, how can these different points of view be reconciled? Does the CHS provide any answers?
According to the CHS, quality is defined by a number of commitments vis-à-vis communities and people affected by a crisis which state what they can expect from organizations and individuals who deliver humanitarian aid. Thus, communities are at the centre of the CHS’s rationale for improving the quality of humanitarian aid.

The major innovation brought by this standard is that it tries to reconcile two approaches which, until now, had been unconnected. On the one hand, the sector has tried to improve the service it provides by focusing on the quality of its results (by following the classic approach to project management); on the other hand, certain initiatives focused on the organization, its processes and internal functioning, which is an approach similar to other standards adopted in the private sector (such as the ISO standard).

For each quality criterion, the CHS proposes key actions which are applied in the field and organisational responsibilities which are defined as prerequisites of humanitarian action. This approach brings a more global dimension and represents a way of making humanitarian action more coherent between “HQ” policies and project management. The CHS therefore merges several initiatives by addressing the administrative dimensions and support function of a humanitarian organisation (governance, human resources, etc.) and its field approaches, notably with regard to the participation of local people and the notion of accountability.

However, certain questions remain. First of all, there is the question of the limits of the CHS: is it a purely humanitarian standard or does it also apply to development aid? Though humanitarian principles have an important place in it, the proposed standards could easily be applied to the development sector. Is there not a danger of causing confusion between humanitarian and development aid and increasing the risk of manipulation of humanitarian aid? As such, this would be an additional and fundamental reason for the continued existence of the Sphere handbook, which provides operational standards, and is therefore much more specific to humanitarian aid.

Whether they are local or international, humanitarian organisations are subject to a large number of constraints, including administrative constraints, because donors, local governments and the United Nations have imposed an increasing number of procedures and rules. In addition, the number of obligatory audits has gone up continuously with a view to increasing transparency, effectiveness, coordination and relevance. And finally, funding application forms have become more complex, increasing the administrative load on organizations to such an extent that it creates a form of internal bureaucracy. Can all this really contribute to improving the quality of humanitarian aid? Will the CHS create additional constraints for organizations and their staff or will it, on the contrary, lead to simplification and alignment with the system in place? VOICE’s experience in facilitating the FPA Watch Group [3] shows the difficulties that can emerge when trying to simplify the administrative prerequisites of a donor vis-à-vis its partners. Since the adoption of the first Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA) in 1993, four new FPAs have been negotiated between ECHO and its partners (1999, 2004, 2008 and 2013). For each of these, the FPA Watch Group tried to simplify ECHO’s demands, but external constraints and pressure often proved to be too great. The inclusion of the logical framework, of a results-based approach, of the notion of “value for money” and the demand for greater transparency on purchasing procedures and the appointment of human resources added as many questions in funding application forms and extra annexes to be supplied up to the final report. The FPA Watch Group therefore endeavours to jointly develop guidelines for the implementation of the FPA because, no matter what the standard, it has little value if it remains purely voluntary and it is fundamental that the different parties agree about its interpretation and that they are therefore able to check whether its application is in keeping with the initial commitment.

Another question without an answer for the time being is that of certification. Indeed, a number of large NGOs want to use the CHS as a certification tool. As with the ISO standard, the idea would be to put the CHS in place within the organisation and ask an external and independent body to conduct an audit which would certify that the organisation complied with the standard. Consequently, there are numerous potential risks: over and above the cost that this implies, would certification of this kind not be in contradiction with the initial idea of developing the CHS? Is it possible to certify an organisation when we know that each project is implemented differently in order to adapt to different contexts? If certification is used to distinguish organizations from each other, is there not a risk that the CHS will lose its essence and become a tool for sanctioning rather than a tool for learning and improvement?

In addition, needs are constantly growing and, unfortunately, there is a risk that this trend will continue in the years ahead. What is more, it is not likely that financial resources will increase proportionately. New organizations want to join the global effort, and others who are already present work in parallel with their own tools and objectives, which are seen as being too different by traditional actors. It would be preferable if any initiative which aimed to improve the quality of humanitarian aid included – rather than excluded – these actors, for the good of the affected population.

The futurist vision of beneficiary populations selecting the NGO or the actor who would provide them with assistance is based on the idea that competition between organizations contributes to improving the quality of aid. This appears both unrealistic and inappropriate for the aid sector. Rather than encouraging this kind of competition in the field, all efforts should be made to ensure the best possible coverage of needs, which, in all likelihood, will always be greater than the aid that is available.

Though some feel it is too obvious [4], the CHS could help to find a common language for all organizations, and, at the very least, ensure that assistance is more appropriate and in keeping with the needs of the affected population. In order to do this, it is crucial that the CHS and the humanitarian principles on which it is based should be promoted as widely as possible. The aim should be to convince a maximum number of humanitarian aid organizations, and particularly those who were not present in Copenhagen and those who were not very involved, if at all, in the consultation process.

This is related to another limit of the CHS: the humanitarian system can only improve as a whole if all the major actors work towards this goal. In Copenhagen there was a strong signal of support for the standard from OCHA, but no guarantee that the United Nations would integrate its commitments into its own functioning. If this were the case, all the goodwill and effort of the member organizations would gain very little visibility, even with regard to crisis-affected people, as the United Nations plays a significant role in the majority of responses.

VOICE [5] will continue to share information, as we have always done, so that the CHS is more widely known. It is a plural network (with a variety of opinions, including about the CHS and its development) and it is not our role to give priority to one initiative over another, but one of our objectives is to contribute to the professionalization of NGOs. In order to do this, we will continue to promote the different approaches which are available to NGOs, and particularly we will make sure as much as possible that our members, and humanitarian NGOs in general, who provide more than half of the aid in the field, are always consulted in the development of such an initiative. We remain convinced that a diversity of NGOs and approaches is necessary and beneficial. We therefore feel that it is preferable that our members are able to choose whether or not to apply one quality approach rather than another (or their own…).

In conclusion, as was repeated in Copenhagen, a first important step has been taken with the launch of the CHS, but there is still a long way to go. It is necessary now to develop practical implementation tools, to reflect together about the interpretation of the standard in order to support the organizations and individuals who want to adopt it, and to communicate with affected communities about its existence so that this initiative really achieves its initial objective in terms of quality and accountability. And lastly, we will have to convince the United Nations to fall into line and to include this new context into their Transformative Agenda while, in parallel, conducting major dissemination work vis-à-vis all other actors who provide humanitarian assistance, including “non-traditional” actors, and affected populations in order to share the values and principles included in the CHS with the greatest number.