Strong and Weak Points of the Core Humanitarian Standard : Is it Good Enough?


When I was asked to write a short piece on the strengths and weaknesses of the Core Humanitarian Standard (commonly known as the CHS), we agreed that I would write this based on my own experiences. I suppose that I can claim to be there “at the beginning”.  One of the main problems that humanitarian accountability standards were meant to solve was the lack of agreed standards.  As a member of UNHCR’s first emergency team that landed into Goma in July 1994 when the city swarming with hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees, I witnessed myself the results of a lack of standards, and that crisis ended up being the catalyst for the establishment of accountability networks such as Sphere, ALNAP and HAP. 

After a number of years spent managing programmes in various NGOs and United Nations agencies in the field, an international NGO recruited me in 2005 for my first ever job with the word “Accountability” in its title.   Another word in my title was “Coordinator”, which meant that I bore little responsibility for enforcing compliance (just to make things interesting).   Finally, I am also looking at accountability standards from the perspective of an independent consultant (my current profession) since much of my work involves looking at how agencies are putting their accountability commitments into practice both at a global and at a community level.

My perspective is thus a kind of “interface” between the global perspective of CHS potential in advancing the humanitarian accountability agenda and my observations during numerous reviews and evaluations at a country level where agencies attempt to put accountability commitments into practice.

Challenges to putting humanitarian accountability into practice…

Before listing the strengths and weaknesses of the CHS, it would be helpful to put these in context, since the weaknesses in particular need to be divided into those that are specific to the CHS, and those that are applicable to international humanitarian accountability standards more generally.

While there have been clear improvements in both agency awareness and compliance with accountability standards over the years, anyone who has worked in this field can list any number of challenges in putting standards into practice.  I cite three examples below, which are formulated as questions and based on my own experience to illustrate some of the main challenges; one from the interagency Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) project,(1) a second example from the Disaster Law Project(2)  led by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and finally from the Certification Project of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR).(3)

Who in the agency should know how to put accountability commitments into practice?  One of the initial activities of the ECB project when it was launched in 2005 was to commission out a baseline study as a first step to developing a shared accountability framework(4) that could facilitate collaboration in the ECB Project.   This framework had to be based on existing agency accountability commitments and one of the tasks of the consultants was to gauge the awareness of field staff about the accountability standards that their agencies had signed up to.  Another of their tasks was to look at how successful agencies were at putting these standards into practice.   They found that, although there was reasonable awareness amongst senior management based in the capital cities about accountability commitments, there was much less awareness amongst staff that had the most interactions at a community level.  Senior staff readily acknowledged this gap and there was a consistent demand for “how to” guidance targeted at staff who regularly interacted with communities. They also suggested building a cadre of specialists who could help to put these standards into practice.

How can you do quality assurance with the standards? When the IFRC embarked on a consultation process that eventually resulted in the Model Act on Disaster Relief, (5) there was an initial expectation that humanitarian accountability standards could be incorporated in such a way as to make it easier for governments coordinating relief efforts involving international agencies to do quality assurance.  As can be seen in the final version, the standards are only mentioned in general terms as they weren’t specific enough to be codified in legislation.

If we need to comply with the standards, will donors accept them as part of our compliance requirements and, if not, how can we justify the additional resources needed to comply?   During their field pilots, the SCHR Certification Project received generally positive feedback from programme staff in both international and national NGOs about certifying using the CHS.  However, they were worried that donors and, in some cases, host governments (such as Ethiopia, which has their own certification system) wouldn’t reduce their own compliance requirements so this would end up adding to their workload.   Interviews with programme support staff working in finance, human resources and procurement seemed to confirm this.  They felt that CHS was targeted at programme staff, and for the most part was not particularly relevant to them.  They were much more concerned with what the auditors might say!

So what are the main strengths and weaknesses of CHF?

After some reflection, discussions and reading to get myself up to date on the status of global humanitarian accountability network processes, my main conclusions are:

Main Strengths

  • A significant step forward: CHS does indeed represent a significant step forward in terms of providing greater clarity about what humanitarian accountability should mean in practice.
  • User-friendlier: The format and language is more user-friendly and accessible than previous accountability standards.(6)
  • Consultative process: The prolonged consultation process has been a rallying point for agencies to reflect on their own accountability commitments and practices. The process approach has also helped the CHS standards to be broadly accepted by agencies and networks, including the Sphere Project, who has acknowledged that “The broad and inclusive consultation and harmonisation process that led to the development of the CHS succeeded in effectively reflecting the Sphere Core Standards in the CHS.”(7)
  • Slow down the proliferation of standards: the relatively broad acceptance and accessibility of CHS will likely mitigate, (though probably not stop), the proliferation of standards that we have witnessed over the past decade or so.
  • Good basis to move ahead: the CHS provides a good foundation for further improvement.

Main weaknesses of the CHS

  1. Weaknesses that the CHS shares with other standards include:
  • Not a replacement for existing requirements: in their current form, the standards are not suited to replace donor or national government compliance requirements, so there is a risk that compliance will add to the workload which will make them more difficult to achieve;
  • Lack of “how to” guidance and expertise: While the CHS is clearer about the “what” to do than the standards it will replace, there is insufficient guidance and expertise about “how to” put them into practice…particularly at the level of disaster-affected communities;
  • Not yet locally-led: On a similar note, although the development of CHS included some consultations at country level, like other standards agency staff at a global level have led their development.
  1. Weaknesses specific to CHS include:
  • Link between CHS and Certification: since HAP International and People in Aid led the development of the CHS, this was viewed by many as a way of pushing the certification agenda of these two networks. The decision by the Sphere Board to pull back from their involvement in the CHS process in 2013 reinforced this perception.  Although Sphere has since renewed their involvement with CHS,(8) the “cloud of fear” that haunts many about certification of humanitarian agencies is likely to continue to influence debates about the CHS for some time to come.
  • Still one of many standards: CHS may be more “core” than some other standards, but it is still only one of many that agencies working at a community level are supposed to comply with. Their first allegiances are likely to continue to be to their donors, their senior management and, in many situations, to increasingly assertive national governments.    The “H” in CHS means that there will be a continuing confusion about how much these standards apply outside relief contexts.

So is the CHS Good Enough?

Adapting the definition from the ECB Project’s Good Enough Guide,(9) the CHS does indeed qualify as “good enough”, in the sense that it does provides a good foundation for continuous improvement of accountability to disaster-affected communities.  But, (and this is a BIG “but”) it will be necessary for the humanitarian system to transform itself in in such a way so that national level actors are genuinely in the driving seat, with the current “drivers” at a global level slipping into a more constructive facilitation role.  The value of such a locally-led approach has already been demonstrated by the START Network, Groupe URD, the ECB Project and others.  Moving forward with national actors in the lead, with support from a regional and global level, would help to ensure that the CHS is internalised and that “how to” guidance is developed mainly by those who should actually be using it.


[1] Baker, Jock (2014) Humanitarian capacity-building and collaboration: lessons from the Emergency Capacity Building Project.  ODI-HPN Network Paper No. 78 

[2] IFRC Disaster law

[3] SCHR Certification project. In addition to an advisory role, I also let the pilot in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

[4] This common framework eventually took on the form of the “Key Elements of Accountability”

[5] The « Model Act for the Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance » is intended to assist states to strengthen their legal preparedness for international disaster cooperation.

[6] The agreement by the Sphere Board to use the CHS in the next version of Sphere Handbook instead of Common Standards seems to be an acknowledgement of this

[7] Sphere Project (2014) The Core Humanitarian Standard and the Sphere Core Standards Analysis and Comparison Interim Guidance, March 2015 (version 2) page 10 

[8] Sphere renews its involvement in the Core Humanitarian Standard -Interview with Unni Krishnan

[9] ECB Project (2007) Good Enough Guide: Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies.  Practical Action. 

Jock Baker

Jock Baker

.Jock Baker is currently an independent consultant after a long career with a number of United Nations agencies and international NGOs in mainly field-based assignments in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe. Up until 2012 he was CARE International’s Programme Quality and Accountability Coordinator, where he regularly engaged with quality and accountability networks. He was also one of CARE’s primary focal points for the interagency Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project.