Aid Worker Diaries – The Sphere Project – Holding Ourselves Accountable

By Linda Poteat

This week, the humanitarian community is celebrating the launch of the revised Sphere Handbook – 2011 edition. For those of us who have been delivering humanitarian assistance for years, it is one in a series of momentous events in humanitarian innovation that seem to have started in the 1990s and have picked up momentum since then.

The 1990s were a time of great change in humanitarian assistance, mostly coming out of difficult lessons identified during and after key responses. The humanitarian community acknowledged that it was not providing consistent quality of services to the people that it served, nor did the majority of agencies approach the delivery of humanitarian assistance from the same perspective.

The Red Cross/Red Crescent movement and a number of key NGOs developed a Code of Conduct in Disaster Relief in 1994, but many of us in the field didn’t know much about it at the time. I first learned about the Code in 1998 – when I saw it in the pilot Sphere Handbook. The community also knew that it needed to make a major shift to ensure that field workers were better prepared to respond to a major disaster, so that the people we serve would receive better support.

There are many examples of responses in the late 1980s and early 1990s where we could have done a much better job, but the response of our community to the Rwanda crisis was a stark example of failure to provide good quality services across the board. As a community, folks acknowledged we needed to do something urgently to improve our service delivery to vulnerable populations and thus the Sphere Project was conceived.

People always casually joke about the NGO community and say that NGO coordination is like herding cats. I really don’t like that analogy, but I do think that I am in a position to attest to the fact that it is difficult to move forward quickly in a community that is consensus-driven. However, once this community decides that something needs to be done; there is a force of thousands behind it.

As a new aid worker in the late 1990s, I thought the Sphere Project was awesome. I’m a huge music fan and for me, Sphere was like having all your favorite bands do a compilation album, but one that teaches you how to play music too. I remember reading the list of technical experts who contributed to the various chapters and thinking about all the years of experience and learning that were combined into that one amazing resource. And though we don’t list the contributors to the 2011 edition the way we did in earlier editions, many of those folks were a part of this revision as well – how cool is that? And these are the people who have led the sectoral responses in the major disasters of the past decade, including the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004-2005, the Pakistan Earthquake in 2005, and Cyclone Nargis in 2008, so we know that the revisions have incorporated lessons identified across these responses.

The Sphere Project was also embraced by the donors – here in the US, both OFDA and PRM have supported Sphere since its inception and have generously continued to fund the subsequent revision processes, as they too value the integration of new learning into this comprehensive resource document. This virtuous circle of continuous quality improvement helps to ensure that their implementing partners in particular – and the humanitarian community in general – provide better services to vulnerable people – and thus make more efficient and effective use of limited taxpayer dollars.

So have we solved the key problems in humanitarian response in this new revision of the Sphere Handbook? Not yet. We as a community are still struggling with how we will address the increasingly urban nature of our responses, and that will need to be addressed more explicitly in future editions of the Handbook. Many of the
cross-cutting issues such as protection, disabilities, gender, etc still could be better integrated into the sectoral chapters. But is the Handbook better than it was in 1998? Are more people using it around the world every year? Is it available in dozens of languages to make it more accessible to a wide and diverse humanitarian community? Yes, yes and yes.

This amazing tool helps us to do our work better – for people who during a particular point in their lives need outside support. And most importantly, it reminds us to work with these folks in a way that promotes their right to life with dignity.

Linda Poteat is the director of disaster reponse at InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations doing humanitarian and relief work abroad.