By William Anderson, Executive Director, Sphere
Today, 16 January, marks my first year leading Sphere, and so it’s a good moment to share some reflections of the last twelve months and considerations looking forward to the year ahead.
I have two overriding and conflicting observations since joining Sphere: The Handbook we all know and love is as important as ever, and will be even more so in the coming year, yet the awareness and understanding of the Handbook and humanitarian standards in general appears to have waned in the last five years – particularly in the global North, even though online usage of the Handbook and sales figures of printed books remain encouraging.
Sphere will lean into even more engagement through proactive communication and visibility initiatives.
Thankfully, both factors require the same strategy which will be for the Sphere network to lean into even more engagement through proactive communication and visibility initiatives. Speaking of which, I have been highly impressed with the dedication and passion of the many hundreds of ‘Sphere Champions’ (if you are reading this, you could well be one of them) who bring the Handbook to life and make it so relevant for the many users across the world. Without Focal Points, Members, Trainers and other Champions, Sphere would have nowhere near the reach or relevance required to fulfil its mission: Sphere defines, promotes and applies humanitarian principles and minimum standards to ensure lifesaving, protective and accountable response to crisis.
There are significant and even some yet unimagined possibilities for enabling the Handbook to be even more effective as it embraces transformational digital technology innovation.
Based on our ongoing survey, early results show there is general agreement that we all want the online Handbook to be as accessible, user-friendly and as local as possible. To this end we are engaging with existing and new partners to enable us to take it to the next level. As you no doubt appreciate, while the Minimum Standards themselves are universal and qualitative, the Key Actions and Key Indicators are designed to be adapted to the context. This means, for example, that user interaction with the Handbook in Myanmar will be different to Sudan or Ukraine. There are significant and even some yet unimagined possibilities for enabling the Handbook to be even more effective as it embraces transformational digital technology innovation.
The many crises in the world demonstrate both how important and yet how little attention of State and non-State actors who engage in conflict is given to the Humanitarian Charter.
The above reflections concern the technical standards, so it is important to also consider the Humanitarian Charter. The many crises in the world demonstrate both how important and yet how little attention of State and non-State actors who engage in conflict is given to the Charter, principled humanitarian action and international humanitarian law. The world is feeling a whole lot more fragile now than a couple of years ago when we emerged from the worst of the Covid pandemic, and it is justifiably easier to be less hopeful of the future. Here, again, one strategic approach will tackle two seemingly opposed challenges. Firstly, that principled humanitarian action is considered by many to be operationally and politically nigh on impossible, and secondly that many humanitarians are seemingly not completely confident of exactly how the principles need to be implemented in every given context and how this is to be reported from local to head-office.
Sphere will join with others in enabling the Humanitarian Charter and humanitarian principles to become clearer and more widely understood.
In the first case, the agreement or deal between combatants and humanitarians, that the one won’t interfere in the other’s work by respecting certain ground rules, has been all but thrown out of the window in the last twenty years. Many politicians and belligerents who wage war today rarely consider that conflict should be limited out of a concern for humanity. And in the second case, the understanding that the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality are utilitarian has been superseded by an almost unquestionable aura that they are to be considered absolute values. They are not. Neutrality, for example, is not an ethically sound stance in the face of oppression. As well as that, humanitarians have the primary responsibility to ensure the principles are respected. They do not. It is the military combatants, government soldiers, Non-State Armed Groups, or ‘terrorists’; basically whoever holds the gun or fires the missiles. In the year ahead, Sphere will join with others in enabling the Humanitarian Charter and humanitarian principles to become clearer, more widely understood and ultimately better achieve their aim of limiting mortality and human suffering. It is hard to write this knowing that, to give one horrific number in one specific location, more than 10,000 children were killed by bombs dropped on Gaza in a three-month period from 8th October 2023. Where is the hope for the families of these children left behind?
We need to strive harder to increase our collective knowledge and more widely share our experiences – both good and bad.
In this year of elections, ongoing conflicts and widespread worries about increasing climate chaos, pandemic surges, cyber-attacks and disaster events, humanitarians have a choice how we respond. To either wring our hands in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and lament that the sector is not fit for purpose and we will never succeed. Or to flip the issues and our role, knowing that we are not alone, that if not us then who, and that in reality we have no choice but to stand on the shoulders of humanitarians who have gone before. In 2024 we need to strive harder to increase our collective knowledge, more widely share our experiences both good and bad, and take responsibility for knowing when and how to implement the humanitarian imperative as absolute moral action, and when to cease operations the moment humanitarian assistance is no longer the right response.
Alongside engaging in these heavy issues, Sphere will also be supporting CHS Alliance and Groupe-URD with the revised Core Humanitarian Standard, one of the three foundation chapters of the Handbook; revising and releasing more Sphere training materials, both content and languages, and many other planned initiatives which will include, for example, further online Town Halls for Focal Points and Members.
When we work together, we do so not for ourselves, but for those most in need.
So, no matter who is elected to office, and no matter the scale and scope of disasters, I am looking forward to the year ahead with resolution because I know the Sphere network is strong, that the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards are required today even more than ever, and that when we work together we do so not for ourselves but for those most in need. We have no choice.
Find me on LinkedIn and let me know what you think. Do you agree, and what are your concerns for the year ahead?
 This mission statement is taken from Sphere’s new Theory of Change (ToC). Look out for publication of this later in 2024.