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A minimum of respect

By Carole Vann

A group of organizations, working jointly on a project called “Sphere”, have published a charter defining the rights of victims of conflict or disasters and the minimum levels of service they can demand from the humanitarian community. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been in the forefront of this initiative to ensure the dignity of vulnerable people.

The 1994 war in Rwanda and subsequent refugee crisis in the region revealed all too clearly the limitations of humanitarian aid. To add to the chaos of millions of people fleeing the violence, masses of aid organizations, many lacking experience in this type of complex emergency, rushed in without properly assessing the situation or asking the victims what kind of support they needed. Discussions on technical aspects and coordination were long and complex, with many groups promoting their criteria for assistance. For, in the confusion of war and population movements, every single detail had to be negotiated: how many toilets to install in the camps, how far apart, what to distribute, how much, by whom.



An international charter

In view of this reality, a committee
of eight humanitarian organizations launched the idea of an international charter which would ensure victims of war and natural disasters “minimum standards”. Headed by the Inter-national Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the committee comprises some of the biggest NGOs in the field: Care International, Caritas International, International Save the Children Alliance, Lutheran World Federation, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam International and the World Council of Churches.

Hundreds of NGOs throughout the world were invited to take part in workshops. A dozen donor countries and UN agencies as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also showed a keen interest in this initiative. “We tried to cover as wide a range as possible, calling upon academics and field representatives. We furthermore gave the NGOs from the south a major role. A large number of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies took part in the project”, Joel McClellan, Executive Secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, explained.

After a year of consultation, the Sphere Project has produced a report outlining the minimum standards humanitarian organizations should comply with. The report covers two important areas: ethical matters and practical issues. The first part establishes a humanitarian charter based upon aspects of international law and the Movement’s Code of Conduct. This charter reaffirms, among other things, the difference between combatants and civilians, the right to non refoulement and respect for the beneficiaries’ moral and corporal integrity. “The Sphere Project highlights the partnership relationship between the humanitarian organizations and the beneficiaries,” Susan Purdin, Project Manager, points out. “These people can claim certain rights and have their say in how aid is provided and its quality.”

The second part of the report examines and defines the practical implications of the ethical charter. It establishes the basic needs which must be met to guarantee the victims’ dignity. These needs are covered under five major areas: water supply and sanitation; food aid; health care; nutrition programmes; and shelter.

The report states, for example, that one toilet is necessary for twenty people of the same sex. The report furthermore stipulates that the latrines must not be more than 50 metres away or more than one minute by foot from the dwellings. There must be one at all public places such as markets and health distribution centres. “These public toilets must be properly maintained. There must be water and the users must be able to wash their hands on their way out,” it states.

The same type of detail is given on the use of running water: 15 litres per person per day, one water distribution point for 250 persons situated no farther than 500 metres from their dwelling. The same is true for clothing, blankets and cooking utensils. Shelters must be situated at least 50 kilometres from military targets. World Health Organization (WHO) standards have been adopted for health and for nutrition programmes.

Professionalizing humanitarianism

“The Sphere Project is not going to revolutionize the humanitarian world,” Peter Walker, director of the Federation’s Disaster Policy Department, recognizes. We hope however to change the way certain NGOs work and to encourage them to shy away from any kind of paternalistic assistance. They should no longer consider themselves to be a postal service responsible for delivering humanitarian assistance, but should work on the basis of reciprocity with the beneficiaries.” In other words, humanitarian work must become professional and NGOs have to be able to ensure a minimum of service for the victims.

The next step for the Sphere Project is to promote the contents of the report in as many countries as possible. Seminars are planned with a wide variety of NGOs and UN agencies. “We are also counting on dissemination of this information on the internet, an essential tool for the NGOs in the southern countries,” Peter Walker points out.

Implementation in the field comes next. “We are thinking about how to ensure respect for these minimum standards. Beneficiaries must be made aware of their rights and organizations must be encouraged to work openly,” Susan Purdin explains. “The pressure of other NGOs and donors should play a role.”

The third aspect — defining a monitoring system — is the most difficult. Who will do it and how? “A system of mediators and independent consultants to whom complaints could be reported and who would at different stages contact the NGOs concerned might be developed,” suggests Peter Walker.


Questions and challenges

“A welcome initiative,” is how it is described by Hassan Ba, secretary general of a Swiss-based NGO named Synergy Africa. Mr Ba, from Senegal, has worked for most of his life in the humanitarian and human rights field. But he is concerned that this project will add yet another level of bureaucracy between donors and victims under the pretext that it was established in Geneva or London. “If this initiative aims to separate the good from the bad, bravo. But if professionalism means a form of humanitarian Darwinism, whereby the survival of the strongest is assured to the detriment of the smaller NGOs, this is unacceptable.”

The Sphere report underscores the growing importance of humanitarian action and the corresponding need to “put our house in order”. The criteria outlined for even the most basic of service will hopefully ensure the dignity of all. What happens, though, when beneficiaries — entitled to at least a minimum level of service —may well hold out high hopes in situations where the barest minimum is out of the question? And what can be done when a conflict is not in the headlines or donors are indifferent to the victims and there is no funding to pay even for the most basic level of assistance? There are also extreme cases, such as Burundi and Chechnya where insecurity prevents humanitarian organizations from operating. Discussions and reflection on these issues are not found in this report, but remain the most urgent concerns of the humanitarian community.

Carole Vann
Carole Vann is a journalist working with the news agency InfoSud based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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