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Sphere standards: “Radical but inevitable” – An interview with Peter Walker

Peter Walker © The Sphere Project

Peter Walker’s first experience of humanitarian work was in 1979, when he helped raise money in the UK for the relief operation in Cambodia. Walker recalls his feeling of helplessness in the face of the horror of Pol Pot’s genocide of one-fifth of the Cambodian population: “You can’t do anything, but you can do something to help the relief effort. That’s how I got involved in humanitarianism.” Ever since, he has felt “It’s a privilege to do this work. It’s not something to get cynical about nor is it something to do just for money. I can’t imagine having a more rewarding career.”

The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief was published in 1994. What was your role in it?

The Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct is essentially about how humanitarian workers, as guests in somebody else’s country, should behave. I had the good fortune to be involved in drafting it. It was the first time, I think, that the humanitarian community had attempted to lay down some sort of global sense of how it should conduct itself.

Once the Code of Conduct had been produced, the next step was, “well, if this is how we should behave, then what is it that we should be doing?” So in a sense, the Sphere Project standards were an obvious extension. And I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right group of people to initiate it.

Sometimes you are referred to as one of the “fathers” of the Sphere Project…

Well my wife tells me that that’s accurate, that Sphere was our fourth child [laughs]. And that I spent as much time bringing it up as I did our other three children.

Nicolas Stockton, who at the time was working for Oxfam, and I had both been involved in relief efforts during the 80s famines in Sudan and Ethiopia and we’d seen the great and the really bad things that humanitarian agencies were doing.

So we said, “We need to go further than the Code of Conduct. We need to be able to say what people caught up in a crisis have a right to expect from these foreigners who waltz into their country and, for some reason, provide assistance.” We knew it was about what people need to stay alive: food, water, health, shelter.

We then managed to get this amalgam of big NGO networks that is the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response to accept the idea, and voilà, we had a mandate… if we could raise the money to get it going. That’s how it started.

The folk history is that the Sphere Project was a reaction to the evaluation of the humanitarian response to the Rwanda genocide. In fact, the process had started earlier. However, many of the people involved in Sphere were also involved in the evaluation, which opened up the opportunity for Sphere to take it on.

At that time, there was a huge amount of soul-searching about the humanitarian business, not just on the part of aid workers but also on the part of their agencies and donors. Other initiatives saw the light in that context, not only the Sphere Project.

What were the main issues you tried to tackle?

When we pushed Sphere, it was partly reactive. We had seen really bad practice on the ground. Some agencies in some regions were doing things that were technically incompetent, that were actually costing lives and not saving them. That seemed to be morally wrong.

When we started working on Sphere standards, we tried to turn things around. Instead of humanitarianism being about what agencies do, we tried to change the focus to what people caught up in crisis have a right to expect from those who come to assist them. Can they expect competence? Of course! But how do we define that competence? That was the driving force.

It seemed to us at the time that the way to capture that notion of competence, particularly in the aid community, which is an amalgam of highly trained and less trained people, was to lay down some sort of minimal standards. Something that allows people to understand what it is they’re trying to achieve with their work.

The Sphere standards are just a tool. If you use them correctly, they allow you to focus on the victims of crisis – their aspirations, their needs, their rights. That’s the language of Sphere standards – they really allow you to focus on this. So in some ways, they’re incredibly empowering.

However, you can use the standards in another way, ignoring that aspirational aspect and focusing on the technical stuff, this number of calories, this amount of water… But you may have delivered the water in a way that disempowers people.

Sphere is about technical quality and affirming people’s rights. That’s why you have the Humanitarian Charter up front, and the rest flows from that. Is it achieving that? It’s very difficult to judge…

Standards are actually a double-edged sword. If you use standards without much thought, it simply becomes a knee-jerk reaction and you give the same things to everybody. But the essence of any crisis response is context. You have to understand the context and the reality of people on the ground.

For Sphere, this notion of “You have to adapt to the context,” means that humanitarian workers have to understand the difference between standards and indicators. The standards are quite generic. For instance, you need to achieve a sufficient and equitable quantity of water – that’s the standard. The standard is not 15 liters of water per day – that’s a suggested indicator.

I sometimes worry that in developing the standards, we didn’t do enough to push this notion that one must understand context. I suppose I’d emphasize that more if I had a second time around. But hindsight is always great…

People who’ve been doing humanitarian work for years may think “I don’t need standards. I know what I’m doing.” And they’re sort of right. If they’ve managed to carry on in this business, then they are probably already working to standards.

Standards are more crucial for people who are coming in. You don’t want them to practice and get better by making mistakes on a vulnerable population.

My own feeling is that they do work across the board. A small agency doesn’t run an entire refugee camp or deliver food to a very large area, but often plays a role in a larger operation. However, it’s still the same aspirational standards it should be working to. The people it’s seeking to assist still have the same rights.

In some ways, for me, the Humanitarian Charter is the most important part of the Sphere Handbook.

What we were trying to grasp at was: “What are we doing this for? Is it just because we want to feel good about being competent and professional?” Well, no! It’s because we sincerely believe that the people we are assisting actually have a right! They have a right to life with dignity. That’s why we do this work.

The Charter shows that the standards don’t just come out of thin air. They’re not just something that humanitarian agencies have invented. They’re actually an expression of people’s rights that states have signed up to over the last 50-60 years. That’s why pitching Sphere as a rights-based vehicle became very important.

The very first edition of the Handbook was actually a ring-bound version that only a few people have on their shelves – it’s a museum piece. That version was very much a trial. It came out and there was a broad range of critiques. A lot of agencies said this was exactly what they needed.

Others – I remember my colleagues at Groupe URD and Doctors Without Borders – argued on the one hand that the Handbook didn’t emphasize enough that every crisis is different and therefore context is really important. And on the other hand, that at heart, humanitarianism is not a business of supply but is actually deeply political. And that if one is not careful, standards turn it into just a technocratic business.

I think that’s a really strong argument. We need to balance technical standards with a sense of competence in interpreting them in the field. I’m very grateful that those arguments were made, because they allowed the standards and the way humanitarian workers are trained to become much more professional and responsible.

Can you assess the impact of the quality and accountability initiatives?

You can’t look at the humanitarian system and say: that big change happened because of the Sphere Project or any other initiative. But you can say: all of the quality and accountability work has caused people to do things slightly differently.

If you look at the debate about what it means to be accountable, I think it’s deeper and more nuanced than it was. People recognize that it’s not just about agencies allowing individual beneficiaries to have a voice. That’s important, but it’s more than that. It’s about your professional ability to provide a credible service to people. It’s also about your responsibility to the population in which beneficiaries live.

And you know that as an institution you have to balance that with responsibility to your donors, with the notion of keeping your workforce sane and confident.

For me, in the number of languages in which the Sphere Handbook is available is utterly amazing. That people in so many countries want to be able to read the Handbook. I think that is a tremendous achievement.

I’m just blown away by the amount of training that is available, the range of material, the spontaneous uptake of it. Training is becoming increasingly professional and sophisticated. It’s just so much better than it was in the past.

And in some ways, one of the achievements of Sphere is that it has become sort of normal – it’s no longer contentious. Many agencies today simply expect you to understand Sphere standards and to be able to work to those standards.

When Sphere started, the people involved were all relatively young and came out of a very action-oriented background. They were somewhat anti-establishment, they were mavericks. We thought that in developing these standards, we were at the forefront of defending people’s rights. And in some ways, that’s correct.

But what was happening at a larger level in humanitarian agencies at that time? As organizations and systems grow, they need to put in place standards and regulations if they’re going to survive. This is what systems and people in them do: they feel the need to put shape onto things as they grow.

So when you look back 15 years later, you see things a little differently. It was the right time and it was the right thing to do. And although in some ways we felt we were quite radical, we were just fulfilling our social destiny, if you like. So I suppose when I look back, I’d say: radical but inevitable.