A key challenge to accountability has been the rapid growth of the aid sector - official humanitarian assistance is estimated at US$9 billion this year - and the multitude and diversity of actors involved.
Nicholas Stockton, executive director of HAP, said: "The benchmarks in the HAP standard have all been selected for their humanitarian relevance, measurability and affordability - both in terms of implementation and measurement."
These factors make it more comprehensive than previous measures, Stockton added, because it has been "designed specifically for a quality assurance certification scheme, and in this respect, it is genuinely new and different from its 'quality and accountability' cousins, such as Sphere, ALNAP and People in Aid".
Stockton said the next step was to demonstrate the benefits of the standard through the 17 member agencies of the HAP. With a combined humanitarian expenditure of about $1 billion per annum, this represented a significant part of the international aid budget.
According to Jock Baker, quality, accountability and standards coordinator in CARE International's Geneva office, the HAP standard and 'How to' manual, due soon, should "help us to make good progress on implementing meaningful participation of disaster-affected communities". On the downside, "HAP is one of many Quality and Accountability networks of which CARE is a member and it's not always clear how they complement each other . though there are ongoing attempts by the networks to be more cohesive".
Important complaints mechanism
Mary Anderson, president of the Collaborative for Development Action, and an independent adviser to the HAP board, said the standard was intended to fit all sizes and scales of NGOs. The objective was not to create an exclusive club of certified agencies, but an inclusive and voluntary process.
Crucially, the standard incorporates a complaint mechanism. Anderson said: "I do not see it serving as 'another' or 'new' standard. Instead it is a mechanism to monitor and, at best, provide systems for enforcing standards. Others have laid out standards that NGOs should follow - SPHERE, ALNAP, IFRC - but HAP does not. Rather, it puts in place a system whereby agencies agree to be assessed according to whether and how they are living up to - or not - the standards they have signed on to. It provides a system by which agencies can get outside feedback on their attempts to be responsible to recipients."
Indeed, CARE pointed to the beneficiary complaints systems as significantly improving monitoring and evaluation programmes - "potentially providing powerful advocacy platforms, since they tend not to just highlight problems with CARE's assistance projects but everyone else's as well".
While Anderson did not expect agencies to flock to the standard immediately, once the certified list grew longer, it would be harder for agencies to ignore it.
In particular, she believed the new system's methods for allowing people on the receiving end of humanitarian assistance to make their voices heard was unprecedented. "So many people talk about this and so few have actually established ways that this occurs, regularly and as a matter of course. If this one aspect of HAP is really taken on by the participating members, it alone would make an enormous difference in the ways that humanitarianism lives up to its agreed-to standards."
One concern was whether the standards would be championed by donors and built into contracts as a prerequisite to funding.
"We don't want this to be an artificial barrier between resources and a crisis. If you place a standard between the trough and the pigs, the standards are going to be trampled down in order to get at the trough," warned Stockton, citing difficulties with some actors who saw the Red Cross Code of Conduct as a box that had to be ticked in order to secure donor funds.
Both Stockton and Anderson suggested that donors should take account of the standards, but not make funding conditional on their adoption.
Initial reports have been positive. Stockton cited the Danish Refugee Council's food distribution programme in Grozny Chechnya that manages a complaints mechanism in which 8,000 complaints are handled monthly by 30 staff. The approach appears to have built up significant trust with the local population, to the extent that, during the Danish-Muslim cartoon crisis in October 2005, the Refugee Council was able to continue its relief operations without hindrance.
Stockton remains convinced of the benefits that the standard could bring - at relatively low cost. "Had we put a tenth of the funds that have been showered on coordination, into a quality measurable function, then I believe the impact would have been far greater than what we've seen so far," he said.