Humanitarian principles and standards
Innovation is premised on experimentation, or “the action or process of trying out new ideas, methods, or activities.” And yet, this word—experimentation—is seldom deemed appropriate for or associated with what is currently happening in humanitarian innovation programmes all over the world, from Kathmandu to Amman, and South Central Somalia to San Francisco.
It is vital to keep in mind and manage the experimental nature that characterises humanitarian innovation efforts (Sandvik, Jacobsen and McDonald, 2017).
In order to achieve this, any programme – whether it’s business as usual or the development of a new innovation – must adhere to the principles and standards that govern humanitarian action. This section will outline the core humanitarian principles and standards drawing from The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), Sphere Standards, and ICRC’s Code of Conduct. These are the main ‘rules’ that have been agreed across the humanitarian sector, and that are fundamental to consider when innovating, and experimenting in any humanitarian situation.
The core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality are based on International Humanitarian Law (such as the Fourth Geneva Convention) and underpin the definition of what constitutes a ‘humanitarian’ response (OCHA, 2012).
- Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.
- Neutrality; Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature
- Impartiality: Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no adverse distinction on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinion.
- Independence: Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.
These principles are the foundation for integrated and widely accepted codes of conduct, commitments and core standards, including the ICRC Code of Conduct, the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, and the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) on Quality and Accountability.
ICRC Code of Conduct
The purpose of the Code of Conduct is to outline a set of behavioural standards that humanitarian agencies can sign up to. They are the next step for translating humanitarian principles into humanitarian practice, which the Sphere Standards and CHS further build upon.
If you want to determine whether an organisation you are seeking to partner with is a signatory to the Code of Conduct, a list can be found on the International Federation of the Red Cross website. The Code of Conduct consists of 10 principles of conduct:
- The humanitarian imperative comes first.
- Aid is given regardless of race, creed or nationality of the recipients, and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.
- Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.
- We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy.
- We shall respect culture and custom.
- We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities.
- Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.
- Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.
- We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources
- In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.
Sphere: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response
Sphere is a voluntary initiative that brings a wide range of humanitarian agencies together around a common aim – to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance and the accountability of humanitarian actors to their constituents, donors and crisis-affected populations.
The Sphere Handbook, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, is one of the most widely known and internationally recognised sets of common principles and universal minimum standards in life-saving areas of humanitarian response.
The Humanitarian Charter outlines a set of shared beliefs, the role of humanitarian actors, common principles, rights and duties, and commitments, and provides the ethical and legal foundations for four Protection Principles, six Core Standards and four sets of minimum standards:
- Protection Principle 1: Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions.
- Protection Principle 2: Ensure people’s access to impartial assistance – in proportion to need and without discrimination.
- Protection Principle 3: Protect people from physical and psychological harm arising from violence and coercion.
- Protection Principle 4: Assist people to claim their rights, access available remedies and recover from the effects of violence and other abuses.
- Core Standard 1: People-centred humanitarian response
People’s capacity and strategies to survive with dignity are integral to the design and approach of humanitarian response.
- Core Standard 2: Coordination and collaboration
Humanitarian response is planned and implemented in coordination with the relevant authorities, humanitarian agencies and civil society organisations engaged in impartial humanitarian action, working together for maximum efficiency, coverage and effectiveness.
- Core Standard 3: Assessment
The priority needs of the disaster-affected population are identified through a systematic assessment of the context, risks to ‘life with dignity’, and the capacity of the affected people and relevant authorities to respond.
- Core Standard 4: Design and response
The humanitarian response meets the assessed needs of the disaster-affected population in relation to context, the risks faced and the capacity of the affected people and state to cope and recover.
- Core Standard 5: Performance, transparency and learning
The performance of humanitarian agencies is continually examined and communicated to stakeholders; projects are adapted in response to performance.
- Core Standard 6: Aid worker performance
Humanitarian agencies provide appropriate management, supervisory and psychosocial support, enabling aid workers to have the knowledge, skills, behaviour and attitudes to plan and implement an effective humanitarian response with humanity and respect.
- Minimum Standards in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)
- Minimum Standards in Food Security and Nutrition
- Minimum Standards in Shelter, Settlement and Non-Food Items
- Minimum Standards in Health Action
Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) on Quality and Accountability
The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability builds on the core humanitarian principles, ICRC Code of Conduct, and Sphere Handbook to “seek greater coherence for users of humanitarian standards.”
The CHS applies to organisations and individuals that: (1) deliver direct assistance to communities and people affected by crisis; and those who (2) provide financial, material, or technical support to other organisations but do not directly take part in providing assistance.
It sets out nine commitments that organisations and individuals involved in humanitarian response may use to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance they provide, and which allow crisis-affected populations to hold these organisations to account:
- Communities and people affected by crisis receive assistance appropriate and relevant to their needs.
- Communities and people affected by crisis have access to the humanitarian assistance they need at the right time.
- Communities and people affected by crisis are not negatively affected and are more prepared, resilient and less at-risk as a result of humanitarian action.
- Communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them.
- Communities and people affected by crisis have access to safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints.
- Communities and people affected by crisis receive coordinated, complementary assistance.
- Communities and people affected by crisis can expect delivery of improved assistance as organisations learn from experience and reflection.
- Communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers.
- Communities and people affected by crisis can expect that the organisations assisting them are managing resources effectively, efficiently and ethically.
ATHA (no date) Humanitarian Principles
[Online presentation on the Humanitarian Principles]
ICRC (no date) Code of Conduct
[Ten core principles and three annexes with recommendations to governments of affected states, donor governments and intergovernmental organisations]
ICRC (no date) Basic Rules and Principles of International Humanitarian Law
[A free e-learning course for non-specialist audiences offering an interactive learning experience based on videos, animations, quizzes and audio recordings]
The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response Handbook
[The most widely known and recognised set of common principles and universal minimum standards for humanitarian response]
Humanitarian Leadership Academy (no date) The Sphere Handbook in Action, Kaya
[A free e-learning course aiming to strengthen the effective use of the Sphere Handbook, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response]
The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) on Quality and Accountability
[Nine commitments that organisations and individuals involved in humanitarian response can use to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance they provide]
Humanitarian Leadership Academy (no date) Introduction to the Core Humanitarian Standard
[A free e-learning course aiming to improve understanding and application of the Core Humanitarian Standard]
ICRC (2018) Professional Standards for Protection Work
[A set of minimum but essential standards aimed at ensuring that protection work carried out by human rights and humanitarian actors in armed conflict and other situations of violence is safe and effective]