27th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Fine tuning the response

The increasing complexity of disasters means that no single organization is able to meet the diversity of needs and the ever greater demand for skills. The proliferation of human rights and humanitarian agencies in the field can therefore only be hailed as a positive development. There is a danger, however, that it could lead to confusion, duplication, competition and misunderstanding. Under the constant media microscope, there is enormous pressure on humanitarian agencies to be seen to be doing something. This can unfortunately mean doing the wrong thing or, possibly, the right thing at the wrong time.

The Sphere Project: standards have now been established by which the quality of humanitarian aid can be measured.

Raising standards

Some hard lessons have been learned from certain complex emergencies such as the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994, where the response was assessed as being inadequately organized and coordinated.

In order to avoid such incidents and to ensure a consistent quality of work regardless of the agency concerned, the Sphere Project has been launched by a group of like-minded organizations. The aim of the Project is to devise a set of common standards governing the provision of humanitarian aid, so as to minimize undesired effects, improve the professionalism of the response and make humanitarian action more accountable to its stakeholders, i.e. beneficiaries and donors.

Following an unprecedented degree of collaboration involving over 700 individuals from 228 organizations (including NGOs, the Movement, academic institutions, the UN and government agencies), the preliminary edition of the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response was completed and distributed to NGOs, international and government agencies and other humanitarian groups in December 1998.

The first part of the publication sets out, in the form of a charter, the basic rights of all who have a legitimate claim to receive humanitarian assistance at times of disaster. The second part establishes the basic standards that must be met to guarantee victims' dignity. These standards and the technical indicators for measuring them are dealt with under five headings: water and sanitation, nutrition, shelter and site planning, food aid and health services.

The Sphere Project also offers agencies a means by which to define the scope of their assistance and firmly assign the primary responsibility for preventing and mitigating conflict and disaster to political players.

Complementary action

When a crisis erupts, more time and effort are also now spent on consultation and coordination between the different agencies. Greater emphasis is placed on training, on the mutual understanding of roles, working methods and mandates, and on joint operations.

The Movement has been at pains to put its own house in order. The Seville Agreement, approved by the Council of Delegates in 1997, is part of this initiative. It establishes a framework of cooperation and defines the tasks and responsibilities of the ICRC, the Federation and the National Societies in emergencies of different types, so as to ensure a more complete response to need.

Since the Agreement was adopted, the Movement has had several opportunities to put it to the test. In Afghanistan, the ICRC, the Federation and the Afghan Red Crescent worked closely together to bring relief to the victims of two successive earthquakes that struck a remote region made even less accessible by an ongoing conflict. In the case of the Movement's joint operation for the victims of the recent Balkan crisis, an integrated appeal allowed operations conducted by the Federation and the ICRC to be better coordinated and more effective in meeting needs through National Societies on the ground.

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A formidable challenge

Putting ideas into practice

A conference with a difference

Even wars have limits

No good or bad victims

Weapons: the humanitarian perspective

Disasters have no limits

Fine tuning the response

The worldwide health crisis

A role to develop

Shared principles