Panel discussion and “mini-expo” explores complementary standards initiatives in the humanitarian sector

Guidelines, organizational standards, professional certifications: the humanitarian sector has seen considerable development of tools and mechanisms to strengthen the effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian action. To take stock of the current situation, the Geneva Humanitarian Connector – a joint initiative of PHAP and the Swiss Government – hosted an informal panel discussion in May with experts and representatives of different standards initiatives to share experiences and explore how the various types of standards in the humanitarian sector inter-relate.  

The discussion was moderated by Ed Schenkenberg, Executive Director of HERE-Geneva, who turned first to Daniele Gerundino, Director of the ISO Academy at the International Organization for Standardization, to help place these humanitarian standards initiatives in the wider realm of international standards. Gerundino highlighted in particular how standards, unlike binding technical regulations, are fundamentally of a voluntary nature and are created by a community of stakeholders interested in their application. The initial discussion delved deeper into this topic. “A compulsory nature would make it much more difficult for us to all come around the same table”, said Christine Knudsen, Executive Director of Sphere. “It could become exclusionary rather than inclusionary, and that’s not what we want. We want to bring together all the forces and capacities to bear on alleviating suffering.” David Loquercio, Head of Policy at the CHS Alliance, agreed that standards should not be imposed but rather freely available to all those who see value in their adoption, with their overarching purpose being that of harmonizing humanitarian action and better coordinating response to crises. 

Humanitarian standards can also allow organizations to diagnose weaknesses in how they respond to crises. For instance, and as explained by Roger Bracke, Head of IFRC’s Organizational Development department, the Organizational Capacity Assessment and Certification (OCAC) process was introduced in 2010 to provide all Red Cross and Red Crescent societies with a diagnostic tool to highlight shortcomings in their response, as well as to strengthen a shared organizational culture across the 191 different societies. The idea of standards providing tools for organizational improvement was also highlighted by Pierre Hauselmann, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI), who provided examples of how the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) is used in audits to identify management issues preventing organizations from delivering effective aid. “A standard indicates what should be done while leaving the door open to adaptation and contextualization,” he added. 

Another example of the practical use of standards in day-to-day humanitarian work was presented by Pierre Gentile, Head of the ICRC’s Protection of Civilian Population Unit, who has had a leading role in the development of the ICRC’s Professional Standards for Protection Work. The tool, Gentile explained, represents a first-of-its-kind mainstreaming effort in this area. Given the pace of developments, the standard has been updated every three years. “In 2009 there were few standards on protection,” he commented. “Since then, a lot of work has been done, especially in mainstreaming protection.” 

Standards are not only applied to and by organizations, but are also used in various ways by individuals. For example, the recently launched PHAP Credentialing Program provides humanitarian practitioners a way to have their competencies recognized through a rigorous assessment of their skills and knowledge in key areas. This initiative – explained Rozanne Chorlton, a board member of PHAP involved in the development of the program – combines the rigorous development process required by the ISO 17024 standard for personnel certification, with the flexibility and accessibility required in the humanitarian sector. 

Enriched by a lively discussion, the event allowed participants to gain a comprehensive overview of complementary approaches to standards, as a means to strengthen humanitarian action.

At a “mini-expo” and networking event before and after the panel discussion, representatives of standards initiatives and related organizations presented their work in more detail and shared relevant materials with attendees. 

On 27 June, PHAP will convene the next event in this Geneva Humanitarian Connector series, looking at the topic of local leadership in international humanitarian organizations from a human resource management perspective. The event will explore the trend the humanitarian sector of shifting leadership responsibilities from international to national staff and how this impacts global human resources strategies and organizational structures. More information and the registration form are available on the Geneva Humanitarian Connector website.


The Geneva Humanitarian Connector is a networking, information-sharing, and outcome-oriented facilitation platform primarily targeted to the humanitarian community in Geneva. It also promotes the import and export of relevant ideas and perspectives to and from humanitarian Geneva. It may be pictured as the dynamic intersection of individuals, institutions, and high-priority issues in humanitarian Geneva, promoting networking and information exchange among professionals based in and interacting with humanitarian Geneva. The Geneva Humanitarian Connector is an initiative of PHAP in partnership with the Swiss administration, with the active involvement of a wide range of other institutional and individual stakeholders.