2011 Sphere Handbook Offers Expanded Operating Standards for Humanitarian Responders

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April 15, 2011

As part of a global effort to improve the quality of humanitarian response to populations affected by disaster and armed conflict, the 2011 edition of the Sphere Handbook was released on April 14, 2011. The handbook describes the fundamental principles that govern humanitarian action during these times and offers “best practices” for all phases of humanitarian assistance. The 2011 edition includes a special focus on “Protection Principles,” which consider the protection and safety of at risk civilians affected by disaster or armed conflict as an integral part of humanitarian response. Hard copies of the Handbook can be purchased from the Sphere Project Website

According to the Sphere Handbook, “[h]umanitarian action consists of two main pillars:
protection and assistance.”  Protection focuses on the safety, dignity and rights of people affected by natural disaster or armed conflict. The four Protection Principles for aid providers described in the Handbook include:

  • Avoiding exposure of people to further harm as a result of humanitarian actions
  • Ensuring people’s access to impartial assistance, in proportion to need and without discrimination
  • Protecting people from physical and psychological harm arising from violence, degrading treatment or the deliberate spread of fear
  • Providing assistance to people who wish to claim their rights, access available remedies and recover from the effects of abuse.

The Handbook includes a series of Core and Minimum Standards for humanitarian action that are based on best practices from the assistance sector. During all stages of the assistance process, from initial planning stages to the assessment of the aid delivery, Core Standards outline the essential measures to meet the humanitarian objectives and “reduce future risk and vulnerability, enhance capacity and promote early recovery.” Key actions, key indicators and guidance notes on each standard, provide guidance on it can be met. The six Core Standards are:

  • Creation of a people-centered humanitarian response with input from affected population
  • Coordination and collaboration with agencies and governmental authorities engaged in impartial humanitarian action
  • Assessment to under­stand the nature of the disaster, identify who has been affected and how, and assess people’s vulnerability and capacities
  • Design and respond based on an impartial assessment of needs
  • Examine the effective­ness, quality and appropriateness of response.
  • Assessing overall aid worker performance

According to the Handbook, these standards are considered “fundamental to the
rights of people affected by conflict or disaster to assistance that supports life with dignity.” Additional Minimum Standards in the 2011 edition deal with four sets of life-saving areas: water and sanitation, food security, shelter, and health services.
"People in disasters have basic needs like food and water, but aid work is not as simple as service delivery," said Marie Staunton, chief executive of Plan UK. "Humanitarian workers also have a wider responsibility for the human rights of the people they are meant to be helping – such as their right to freedom of movement and their right to a healthy environment. These rights could be limited or violated by the relief they receive, if it is delivered in an inappropriate way." 
Since the first trial edition in 1988, the Sphere Handbook has been translated into more than 40 languages, becoming the most widely known and internationally recognized set of standards for humanitarian response. More than 650 experts from
over 300 organizations in about 20 countries were involved in making the 2011 version.