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Setting standards
by Nick Cater

The Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994 showed the waste, inefficiencies and inadequacies of aid agencies competing for space and resources in a disaster..

In 1994 the International Federation developed a code of conduct establishing standards by which to measure its work. Nick Cater takes a look back and considers its impact.

The idea was simple but far reaching: create a code of conduct setting out basic standards for disaster response to which relief agencies could commit themselves to ensure the quality of their work, the professionalism of their staff and the impact of their efforts for those in need.

The timing was prescient, for while the challenges of Rwanda, Kosovo and Afghanistan were yet to come, the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s had begun to open up once-closed countries to humanitarian action, yet make millions more vulnerable, allow conflicts old and new to flourish, and usher in an era of major disasters. The start of the decade also saw disaster spending soar, and controversy over the role of the growing number of aid agencies.

The idea was taken up for development by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), which brings together some of the world's largest humanitarian agencies, including the Federation. Over ten years after the idea was first suggested, the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief now has almost 200 signatory agencies and has inspired global discussion and action by governments, the United Nations (UN), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and all parts of the Movement.

Today, Code of Conduct themes can be seen in dozens of projects and programmes, from worldwide initiatives to raise the quality of humanitarian care - including the detail of how many grammes of food and litres of water a disaster survivor needs to stay alive - to single-crisis local agreements on aid agency roles and responsibilities. While some suggest the original code is outmoded and needs updating, enhancing or replacing, others are using it as a benchmark in evaluating relief programmes from Mozambique to India or are considering ways it could be transformed into an operational tool for better work.

In its ten short points, covering issues such as independence, accountability, political or religious bias, and involving local communities, the Code of Conduct demanded that the priority be the beneficiaries, young and old, sick and hungry, those most vulnerable to natural hazards, conflict and technological catastrophes. Be-yond the ten points were three often-overlooked annexes setting out the kind of commitments from governments, the UN and others - including unfettered access to those in need, respect for the independence and impartiality of humanitarian agencies, and sufficient funding and security - that would, if fulfilled, make any agency's adherence to the Code of Conduct far easier.

The crisis in Kosovo revealed that while some aid agencies were more aware and openly questioning the value of their work, the implementation of humanitarian standards was still not widespread.


Old and new

The Code of Conduct - and what it did not or could not include, from technical guidelines to what happens if it is broken - led directly to two global projects committed to improve agency standards. The Sphere Project incorporated the Code of Conduct into its far broader rights- and legislation-based Humanitarian Charter, while also developing detailed technical standards for food aid, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, and shelter and site selection in disasters. The Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) tackles the vexed question of how relief agencies can make themselves responsible to those they are trying to assist.

Sphere project manager Nan Buzard sees strong links from the Code of Conduct to the Sphere Project: "Sphere sets out people's rights, with minimum technical standards as one expression of those rights; it can be seen as a later, practical realization of some aspects of the Code of Conduct." At HAP, co-director Agnes Callamard says: "The Code of Conduct remains a very important reference point against which agencies can be assessed, and it was a crucial first step towards accountability, towards giving beneficiaries a voice."

While both Sphere and HAP have attracted many agencies across the world to get involved in their work, they have also faced criticism, especially from the "Quality Platform" group of relief organizations. Among those promoting the Quality Platform is the French NGO network Groupe Urgence-Réhabilitation-Développement, whose chairman, François Grünewald, argues that "by no means all humanitarians agree with what Sphere and the HAP represent. Universal benchmarks ignore the fact that each humanitarian emergency is unique, and each calls for different, perhaps original, responses".


Codes of conduct that draw at least some of their language and inspiration from the original are to be found from Ethiopia to Australia and back to Liberia. In Sierra Leone, NGOs decided the Code of Conduct was too generic and wrote a shorter version specifically for their situation of conflict and displacement. Other codes have addressed specific sectors.

For the Movement, the Code of Conduct has an influence on a wide range of policies and plans, from the Federation's long-term Strategy 2010 to the detailed Principles and Rules for Disaster Relief, while the ICRC has made accountability the theme for its forthcoming Wolfsberg meeting of senior humanitarian decision-makers.


The initiatives on standards and accountability have been accompanied by an expansion of monitoring and evaluation to assess impact and whether standards were met. Much of this work is collated by the interagency Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), where John Borton says: "There's been a lot of progress in recent years, though it has been more inspired than systematic; the Code of Conduct, Sphere, HAP and other initiatives are a patchwork but we need a unified approach." He added that a recent Hague conference on "Enhancing the Quality of Humanitarian Assistance" boosted the Code of Conduct by suggesting it should be made more operational.

Borton is among many who feel that as well as obvious omissions, such as gender, a vital gap for the self-policed Code of Conduct was the lack of any monitoring or checks on how closely agencies observed it. While compliance mechanisms, accreditation, regulation or sanctions have all been resisted by relief agencies, some improvements in standards may come through more open monitoring, peer reviewing and publishing evaluations.

The past decade has seen a steep growth in humanitarian capacity and skills within the developing world, including the creation of many local agencies, yet one area in which the Code of Conduct and recent initiatives have been criticized for their limited progress is involving beneficiaries in running relief programmes. A report by Wageningen University's Disaster Studies Unit to the Hague conference states: "There appears to be much less experimentation, implementation and documentation of beneficiary participation than would be expected on the basis of the widely proclaimed importance of this issue."

With the Code of Conduct's tenth anniversary due in 2004, the Federation is now reviewing all initiatives and projects on standards and accountability to assess which are the most useful future tools and how to align them. Eva von Oelreich, head of disaster preparedness and response, says: "The Code of Conduct is an excellent foundation but there's work still to be done. The debate is partly about how to renew it. More importantly we need to use the standards and other tools, grown out of the 1990s and inspired by the Code of Conduct, in a more holistic way. One of the essential tools we are now using is the Better Programming Initiative (BPI), developed to meet specific Red Cross Red Crescent needs to avoid building on tensions in post-conflict situations. An analysis of the post-conflict situation and other crucial factors help to improve the programmes meaningfully and thus support the aim of the Code of Conduct." With HAP, Sphere and other work such as the BPI, "the Code of Conduct has had an enormous legacy and its continuing strength is clear: it is still being built on today".

Nick Cater
Nick Cater is an independent journalist and consultant on aid issues. A former co-editor of the World Disasters Report, he can be contacted at

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