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Sphere standards in national humanitarian response: Engaging with National Disaster Management Authorities

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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National disaster management policies and guidelines benefit from building on and incorporating references to international humanitarian standards. But what does it take to link both and how can humanitarian professionals engage with National Disaster Management Authorities to achieve that goal?

The Sphere standards in national humanitarian response discussion paper sets out to understand and describe opportunities for adapting international humanitarian standards to a regional, national or local level in preparing for, or responding to a disaster. The paper, which includes case studies and recommendations for humanitarian professionals, is available in English, French and Spanish (an Arabic-language version is coming up).

As governments are at the front line for planning, delivering and managing humanitarian assistance, they usually set up specialised agencies (or National Disaster Management Authorities, NDMAs) responsible for coordinating response to disasters and for capacity-building in disaster resilience. When humanitarian standards are not well known to NDMA officials, Sphere relies on country focal points to encourage their adoption in the national context. As a result of this strategy, some NDMAs around the world have adopted policies and guidelines that explicitly refer to international humanitarian standards such as Sphere (a list of 13 countries that have done so is included in the guide).

One of the benefits of such an approach is that Sphere standards bring clarity about the expected quality of humanitarian response, thus strengthening preparedness before an emergency. They also improve coordination, since typically, governments do not respond to disasters in isolation but in collaboration with a range of different national and international humanitarian actors.

Contextualising international standards to local contexts

While Sphere - and other standards modelled on Sphere - are universal, they are also qualitative in nature. Indicators are open to local contextualisation to ensure that they are culturally appropriate and realistic. National contextualisation can substantially increase the sense of ownership of the standards.

But contextualising standards can be challenging and time consuming. That's why contextualisation often takes place on a case-by-case basis during an emergency response. However, a national exercise to adapt and contextualise standards can best take place ahead of an emergency in a participatory and thorough manner.

The Sphere standards in national humanitarian response discussion paper includes a range of recommendations for humanitarian professionals who advocate with and support NDMAs to adopt standards at national level. It includes five brief case studies (Argentina, Chile, China, Ecuador, Japan) illustrating different ways to tackle challenges and take advantage of opportunities. The content of the discussion paper is based on exchanges with several Sphere focal points and trainers, representatives from NDMAs and individual experts with extensive experience in the application of Sphere standards in a range of disaster- and conflict-related situations.

With this discussion paper, the Sphere secretariat would like to encourage contributions from anyone involved or interested in reaching out to NDMAs. It also welcomes additional examples of governments working with humanitarian standards as well as case studies that may raise issues not addressed in the paper.

The primary audience targeted by the paper are humanitarian professionals and Sphere focal points working with government agencies. It is hoped that government officials with disaster management responsibilities will also find it useful. The paper seeks to lay the groundwork for a constructive dialogue in support of the contextualisation and adoption of international standards in national contexts.