What applying humanitarian principles and standards looks like in real life

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From dilemmas in applying humanitarian principles at field level to organisational obstacles that hinder collective accountability and governmental reluctance to abide by humanitarian standards, a range of concrete challenges were candidly discussed during a side event to the latest Sphere Board meeting.

Rewind to Afghanistan in 2002. A humanitarian team had to deliver relief aid to isolated communities affected by an earthquake in the North of the country. The high altitude where those communities were located meant that trucks would need several days to reach them. But a foreign army offered their helicopters to deliver aid: "We can fly you up there," they said.

The military were a party to the conflict and the helicopters were regularly used for military operations. "We had this dilemma of applying the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, impartiality but also humanity," a former member of the humanitarian team recalls.

Unsurprisingly, the team discussion was animated. "Do we use the military choppers in a zone of conflict and pretend we're neutral? On the other hand, we have no chance of being able to bring the relief goods up to that altitude ourselves. So, what to do?"

The former member of the humanitarian team telling the story to an attentive audience was Ambassador Manuel Bessler, Head of the Humanitarian Aid Department of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Bessler was opening a "Roundtable on humanitarian principles and aid effectiveness" which was held as a side event to the Sphere Project Board meeting in Geneva last November. The roundtable was part of a series of conferences organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on "Principles guiding humanitarian action".

Humanitarian practitioners and representatives of permanent missions to the UN attended the event and actively participated in the debate. A brief summary of some of the exchanges follows.

Humanitarian principles in real life

"The humanitarian principles - humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence - are the cornerstone of humanitarian action," Bessler said in his opening remarks. "And if this stone falls, the whole structure will collapse. In fact, what makes an operation humanitarian is the principled approach."

In addition to those principles, quality standards are just as indispensable to "put the beneficiaries at the centre of humanitarian action," Bessler added. "How can we achieve that if we don't have certain standards for the operations to be measured against?"

However, Bessler challenged the panellists to discuss humanitarian principles and standards, which "are easy to recall in a conference room or in a course," from the viewpoint of their experiences in the field. What does applying them in tough, real-life situations look like?

Often, when facing several competing issues in particularly complex situations, be it in South Sudan or Yemen, applying humanitarian principles is by essence challenging and poses dilemmas, said Sophie Orr, Strategic Adviser to the ICRC Director of Operations.

In such situations, there is a "fine balance" that is sometimes difficult to attain because things "are not always extremely clear". Indeed, principles provide an operational framework that help navigate or overcome the challenges and dilemmas inherent to delivering aid in complex environments.

Terry Morel, Director of the Division of Emergency, Security and Supply at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), agreed with Orr that humanitarians face "lots of ethical and moral dilemmas about what to do and what's the right approach".

"Humanitarian principles can help, but it isn't the principles on their own," Morel said. "It's also about what people themselves affected by disaster or conflict say that helps, and you need to bring those two factors together. The two combined provide you with a ‘moral compass' that helps you navigate your way through."

In Morel's view, applying humanitarian principles and placing people at the centre of our work go hand in hand. "Sometimes you may have to compromise, but if you talk to the people and find out what their perspective is, and then you match that with the principles and a bit of political realism, then, hopefully, you can come up with a practical but sensible way forward."

Orr acknowledged that in an increasingly complex world, humanitarian principles are under pressure. Which requires "constant awareness-raising and dialogue about principles and standards, particularly with those who perhaps don't know them or misunderstand them".

In addition, "organisations using or wishing to use the principles and standards need to ensure that their staff have guidance and are trained to use them consistently. Not using them in the right way can be very detrimental to the reputation of organisations that do properly adhere to them," Orr noted.

Humanitarian standards in practice

Besides humanitarian principles, applying standards may also be challenging.

On the one hand, standards need to be contextualised. "We have our standards, but of course we apply Sphere and other internationally recognised standards," said Barbara Mineo, Humanitarian Director of Oxfam Intermon and a member of the Sphere Board. "Of course we need to adapt their application to each context because these are very different. That is certainly a challenge for the organisation."

On the other hand, there may also be funding constraints. "Costs vary depending on the context. It may be less expensive to deliver on standards in a refugee camp in the North of Cameroon, for instance, than in another region, for example Jordan," Morel explained.

In addition to that, "Sometimes we may lack a direct way of looking at whether the standards are being used," said Vikrant Mahajan, CEO of Sphere India and another member of the Sphere Board.

"So in India, we developed what we call a ‘Rights in crisis' analysis method. In the context of a given disaster, we come together as an interagency panel and decide on some standards relevant to that context. Then we ask our member agencies who are responding to the disaster to report on those standards."

"We collect the information and go back to the authorities, our members and the donors to discuss the difference between what the minimum standards need to be and what they actually are. Through this joint learning exercise, we advocate to fill the gap."

Mineo agreed with the learning dimension highlighted by Mahajan. "Standards allow us to measure the quality of the programme, learn from our failures and thus be able to correct or reorient our work."

Europe's foot-dragging

The current refugee and migrant crisis in Europe represents another type of challenge to the application of humanitarian standards. "In Europe, the challenge we face," Morel said, is "getting government authorities to consider basic standards in some cases."

"We have looked at transit centres in Europe and compared them against our UNHCR standards and found that they don't meet them," Morel said. "There are no proper shelters to speak of," she explained, "but rather reception sites, assembly sites without real accommodation; and those sites do not meet our standards, for instance for water supply, hygiene and sanitation."

"It's been quite hard to get authorities to take on their responsibilities," said Morel, acknowledging the complexity of what is a highly politicized situation. "It's difficult, because governments actually may not want people to stay for longer than a few hours."

In view of this situation, humanitarians have an advocacy role to play. "We need to help; we need to keep trying to convince authorities to uphold basic standards. We can't allow this to happen. Europe has to uphold basic humanitarian standards that people have a right to expect."

Accountability, a tough nut to crack

If people affected by disaster or conflict are to be at the centre of humanitarian action, accountability towards them is obviously crucial.

According to Orr, "organisations are much more aware of accountability today". Therefore, they "are grappling with tools to ensure accountability not just to the people whom they assist or protect but also to local authorities and donors."

Among those tools, organisations "develop mechanisms to receive feedback from beneficiaries as well as complaints mechanisms," said Mineo.

However, correcting the course in view of the feedback received "isn't always easy," Mineo acknowledged, although it can be done. "It depends on the capacity that you have in place, the resources and your ability to be flexible and to adapt to a context that continually changes."

For Morel, "to be held accountable is still a question mark. It's very challenging within the larger humanitarian cluster system because it's a collective accountability. How do you clarify who's accountable for what to whom?"

"I'm not sure how good and frank we are at challenging ourselves on this crucial issue within humanitarian country teams. This kind of collective accountability and peer mechanism does require a lot more honesty. We're always so polite to each other."

Morel thinks there is room for improvement. Starting with the issue of competition between agencies. "Do we all need to stay and deliver and hold hands together and compete for the funding and have a seat at the table? Is that being accountable? I don't think so."

Sphere India regularly facilitates accountability tools to its consortium members. "In my experience, we have good frameworks," Mahajan said. "Humanitarian principles and standards are means to achieve accountability."

But for accountability to materialise, "a clear understanding needs to exist in the field, at the operational level". Mahajan believes it is "where the interaction with the community takes place that investment in capacity-building needs to happen".

"If we do that," he adds, "we can think of accountability as a work in progress."

Oh, and in case you were wondering: did that humanitarian team use the military helicopters in Afghanistan in 2002? "Yes, we used the chopper," said Bessler in closing the round table. And added: "I very much think the principles are not a goal in themselves, but a tool meant to help us meet the needs of people affected by disaster or conflict."

"I felt terrible flying in that military helicopter. But when I got off it and saw the people to whom we were bringing food and other supplies, I thought we had made the right decision."