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Can Sphere be Used in Complex Emergencies?

Summary of published paper1

A U.S Airborne Infantry soldier patrols along Kosovo's border with Macedonia

The Sphere Project (consisting of both the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards for Disaster Response) has made prominent contributions to the debates, thinking and work on the quality of assistance and accountability of aid agencies. However, since its inception in 1997, several agencies expressed concerns regarding Sphere's approach, many of which were confirmed by the Sphere evaluation (2002/3). A recent article restates these concerns, and addresses more fundamental issues regarding Sphere's cornerstone. It questions the validity of Sphere's rights-based approach, which it suggests consists of a tenuous link between the rights of affected populations and standards for technical interventions. Sphere is founded on 'the right to assistance', although this right does not exist in international law. Its elaboration would entail solving several complex legal and political issues, which Sphere fails to address.

The article also questions the validity and usefulness of universal standards for technical performance in helping relief agencies provide adapted assistance to disaster-affected populations, in line with their mandates and principles. It suggests that Sphere's approach and content largely reflect the concerns, priorities and values of technical professionals in northern agencies, leaving limited space to genuine 'participation' by affected populations and partners from the south. The authors assert that the Sphere Project is not 'universal' or 'value neutral' and that if real divergences exist between French and Anglophone perceptions, ask what divergences actually exist between northern agencies and our partners from the south?

Finally, the authors raise questions about Sphere in the context of humanitarian aid increasingly being treated as a component of foreign policy, making it difficult for agencies to defend a humanitarian space. The authors therefore caution against the Minimum Standards being used by non-humanitarian actors to legitimise their actions. For example, an officer from the Coalition in Afghanistan expressed his surprise at NGO reactions against the engagement of the military in humanitarian operations: 'Why are they against us? We also use the Sphere Standards. The article concludes that there is the real danger of misuse when technical standards are clothed in the language of humanitarianism and international law.

Show footnotes

1Dufour.C et al (2004): Rights, Standards and Quality in a Complex Humanitarian Space: Is Sphere the Right Tool? Disasters, 2004, 28 (2), pp 124-141.

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Can Sphere be Used in Complex Emergencies?. Field Exchange 23, November 2004. p8. www.ennonline.net/fex/23/cansphere

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