On 27 April, PHAP hosted an online briefing session presenting the first draft of the new version of the Sphere Handbook as part of PHAP’s partnership with Sphere for the revision process. The event provided participants with an overview of the main proposed changes to the standards in terms of structure and content on each chapter.
The webinar featured presentations from the lead chapter authors and the Sphere secretariat, and was followed by an opportunity from the audience to ask questions. Apart from answering questions live during the event (which you can listen to in the event recording), the chapter authors have also answered follow-up questions from the event participants, which you can now find on this page.
Please note that PHAP is also organizing the online consultations for the first revision, which are open until 31 May. Practitioners are encouraged to provide their input on a survey on specific technical issues identified by the lead chapter authors as well as their overall input on the first draft texts through the online feedback form.
“According to the survey undertook by Sphere last year on the use of the standards, the proportion of UN staff using the Sphere Handbook is very low compared to the high number of survey respondents coming from NGOs, national aid providers, etc. Why do you think that is the case? Have you done anything in order to address this?”
- Former coordinator for IFRC, Colombia
We are in regular contact with UN agencies. All agencies working in a sector covered by Sphere are actively contributing to Sphere revision processes (past and present), and they reference Sphere in their policies and guidelines, which is how Sphere has been institutionalized within their systems. This is a huge progress from earlier years.
If you take a look at the WASH standards used by UNHCR and UNICEF (the two biggest UN WASH agencies) you can see Sphere in them. For example, UNICEF’s Core Commitments for Children in Humanitarian Action (their own humanitarian standard), mirror the structure – an overall commitment (equivalent to the Sphere standard), with a set of programme actions (key actions) and a benchmark (key indicators). For WASH, the two sets of standards are compatible, although the UNICEF set doesn’t cover the same breadth of sub-domains as the Sphere set.
"If at all, how was the private sector involved in the survey done last year on the use of the Sphere standards?"
- Consultant, UN system, Switzerland
The survey went to the subscribers of the Sphere Newsletter and to other parties having expressed interest in Sphere, and was promoted on social media channels. It did not target any particular user group.
"Through ‘The New Way of Working’ OCHA is encouraging a closer connection between humanitarian and development assistance – how do the new standards address this new approach?"
- Development manager, INGO, Nepal
Sphere addresses the humanitarian-development gap by including in the 2018 Handbook several issues directly linked to this gap: protracted settings, multi-sectoral and community-based approaches, working with cash as a response modality, urban-specific response considerations, disaster risk reduction (DRR), environment and climate change adaptation. While it is impossible to address each of these issues in great detail, Sphere as an entry point to humanitarian response will contribute to highlighting possibilities to close the gap. The important role played by donors is currently not addressed but may find its way into the guidance text for Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Commitment 9 (managing resources responsibly).
The Sphere standards themselves are actually applicable in any situation – eg. All people have unrestricted, equitable and affordable access to a sufficient quantity of water to fulfil their drinking, cooking, personal and domestic hygiene needs. Supply points are sufficiently close to users (water supply standard 1). Development context standards aren’t so different. You can see the similarities in the words chosen between the Sphere standards and the SDGs – they’re closer than the previous MDGs – eg. By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. Where the differences come about is in the contextualisation – for example, what “affordable” means in a humanitarian situation is likely to be somewhat different to what it means in a regular context. And as Aninia says, even in context there’s a lot of similarities – in modalities, in actors, in the communities themselves. We also know that the Sphere standards are being used beyond their originally planned timeframe, in preparedness and early recovery for example. This is where the interaction will take place.
"Given the fact that some standards or actions are cross-cutting, e.g. cash and NFIs, what are your plans for publishing the revision, and making it fully and easily searchable in this regard?"
- CEO, private sector
Sphere will be working with an online content architect (to be recruited shortly) to determine exactly how the different pieces of information will relate to each other, and be accessible and searchable. This is a big task ahead, and one of crucial importance. The amount of content covered by Sphere keeps growing both in terms of amount and complexity. Facilitating access to it is very important.
“Does the revised edition contain any general changes in the assumptions about what constitutes individual and social well-being of the affected people? (i.e. are there any ideational changes?)”
- Anthropologist, Germany
It is too early to point to any specific text on individual and social well-being. Please send any suggestions you may have to firstname.lastname@example.org
“At present, I work for a NGO called Human Rights at Sea. We have observed an increase in humanitarian operations at sea, globally. To date, there is no explicit mention of the specificities of such operations in the SPHERE handbook, are you planning on covering these in the new edition?”
- Advisor, INGO, UK
No, there are no plans to cover humanitarian operations at sea. All suggestions are welcome at email@example.com
“Age and Disability Capacity Programme (ADCAP) created a pilot version for Age and Disability inclusion standards: A provoking question - shouldn’t these be incorporated into the 2018 Sphere Handbook if the new version aims to be more inclusive?”
- Response and capacity-building manager, INGO, Indonesia
Older People, Children, Gender, Persons with Disabilities are all strong cross-cutting themes in the current (2011) and next Sphere Handbook. The ADCAP minimum standards provide an additional focus specifically on the need to include potentially marginalized groups. The ADCAP standards structure reflects both the CHS and the Sphere Handbook structure and is therefore fully compatible with Sphere. The same compatibility is envisaged for the next editions of both ADCAP minimum standards and the Sphere Handbook.
This approach of highlighting specific themes in a separate but closely related manner is really useful and encouraged for other thematic areas as well.
“How is Core Standard "Assessment" being substituted since it is not centrally mentioned in CHS?”
- Response and capacity-building manager, INGO, Indonesia
Assessment-related guidance is covered under commitment 1, 3, 4, 6, and 9. Please refer to key actions and their related guidance notes under those commitments.
“How will the current due diligence requirements for donor funding be addressed to create a more empowering and realistic process for local and national NGOs?”
- Freelance consultant, UK
This is the core purpose of the existence of CHS and its various commitments. It is important to note that “organizational responsibilities” set within each commitment will ask for a systematic approach to upholding accountability to people affected by disasters. However, it is also important to note that guidance notes and indicators will also be subject to review during this revision process, so any feedback for improvement is more than welcome!
"In food security, you have moved cash into food assistance – could cash be used to buy non-food items (now called household items)?"
- Program administrator, local NGO, Malaysia
Cash is beyond food assistance and we should promote and work for multi-purpose, multi-sector cash-based interventions.
In fact, cash will be much more cross-cutting, that is one of the reasons why we took the cash/vouchers standard out of food security - to make sure cash is considered more broadly (under most sections).
My response is very similar to Aninia’s. Actually this is also the reason why we want to change the name to household items because we do not want people to think that all NFIs are addressed under the shelter chapter.
“In the Shelter chapter, why have non-food items (NFIs) been renamed as household items when not all NFIs are household items? For instance, are hygiene kits and dignity kits for women now under household items or somewhere else? I understand you could go two ways with this - put ‘stuff’ into a subsection on each chapter, or have one chapter on ‘stuff’ (NFIs). That is, wouldn’t one chapter on NFIs be the best option?”
- Senior program officer, INGO, United States
The idea is to keep shelter-related NFIs, i.e. HHI, in the Shelter chapter, and to include other NFIs in the other relevant chapters. For instance, hygiene kits are covered in WASH.
Just to say that hygiene items is the focus rather than kits – the question we need to be asking ourselves is what are the specific items that people want or need? How will people get their hands on those items? Additionally, we have kept access to hygiene items in WASH in standard 2 of the Hygiene sub-domain. What we need to do is to make sure there is complementarity between the different technical chapters when it comes to “stuff.”
In this revision, we are trying to address all the sector-specific needs under the respective chapter. Having non-shelter related NFIs under the shelter and settlements heading was not the best option, therefore in this version we try to address the household and shelter-specific NFIs under the shelter chapter. To reflect this change, we thought household items would be a better phrasing; just like we do not have a separate chapter on cash anymore, and we are handling this now as a cross-cutting issue in each chapter, in-kind should also be addressed as such.
“Since the Sphere standards are being increasingly based on evidence, how do you gather that evidence regarding WASH in order to inform the standards? Are there any best practices?”
- WASH consultant, UK
We have established a peer Review Group, made up of about 50 WASH professionals from across the globe. Amongst other things, the task of the Review Group is to help us establish the range of thresholds or planning figures for each of the indicators, across the wide range of contexts and phases we work in. Are we finished? No, that is why we are still encouraging WASH practitioners to contribute with their input through the survey and online form.
"Why has the WASH chapter been connected to Nutrition? Where are the best connections between WASH and Nutrition standards and what are the common identified key actions?"
- WASH consultant, UK
Although all of the WASH standards could and should be applied to nutrition responses, we have decided to include a standard called “WASH + Nutrition” (as well as another called “WASH + Health Responses”). It is based on the experience coming out of the Sahel from 2012 and again from southern Africa in 2014, and from the Horn of Africa, where we saw nutrition sector-led responses facing very high rates of acute malnutrition. As well as they were seeking positive WASH outcomes, WASH actors during these responses wanted to make sure that their actions were supportive of Nutrition outcomes, and certainly not to compromise them. At the time, many of the agencies (and maybe a WASH Cluster or two) developed their own documents - Minimum WASH responses in Nutrition crises or similar - that enabled us to provide a strategic focus that was otherwise missing from these responses. It was useful for prioritizing action, funding and resources. We also know that poor sanitation conditions, in particular, are an underlying factor for malnutrition (especially in children).
WASH and nutrition responses ensure that affected people have access to minimum WASH services during and after treatment at the household level, and in health and nutrition centers. For this reason, we have developed a single standard with the range of corresponding outcome indicators, key actions and indicators. We have to take a look at the Nutrition standards and make sure that there is complementarity between the two chapters.
"Paul, you mentioned a stronger focus on behavior change to improve nutrition standards, isn’t difficult to shift to this approach when the standards are applicable to humanitarian action, which is short term (or has short-term funding)?"
- Country director, INGO, South Sudan
Just to note that Sphere is equally looking at providing guidance for longer and protracted interventions, where we could be having short-term but renewable funding streams, i.e. South Sudan. Additionally, it is important to note that at the programmatic level, we may not necessarily monitor the behavior change when doing behavior change communication (BCC), but we may just concentrate on the communication part. In that case, one would focus more on the immediate outputs which are fairly elaborated in the “what else do I need to know” section of the infant and young child feeding (IYCF) standards. I kindly invite practitioners to have a look at this section, and we would appreciate receiving any additional thoughts on this.
"Last month, I was conducting a humanitarian response in Syria to provide bread leaves for 5000 IDPs. In order to do that and to determine the minimum portion for each beneficiary, with my team, I looked at the Sphere standards for nutrition. Unfortunately, we could not find an indicator to determine the minimum proportion for beneficiaries. Are there any plans on changing that, on being more specific?"
- Cross-border field officer, INGO, Jordan
Bread is in principle not the best recommended nutrition commodity, given its shelf life, nutrient content, and kilocalories. It is also very important to know beforehand the population profiles you were responding to. However, once you have the details of the content you can look at additional resources, for instance, here. Please also remember to have a look at the community-based management of acute malnutrition (CMAM) section of the Sphere standards to see the recommended food-based interventions for a malnourished population. We will be glad to hear your thoughts as well!
"Considering the situation of IDPs in Iraq fleeing from conflict, how do we address the issue of infants whose mothers, due to stress, are unable to breastfeed and look for milk substitutes? Does the revision address this?"
- Program manager, UN system, Iraq
In stressful situations, mothers’ confidence to breastfeeding could be undermined. We should consider protection, promotion and support to exclusive breastfeeding. Where there is mixed feeding/infant formula, we should support them to transition to breastfeeding. Mothers should be reassured of the importance of breastfeeding. Infant formula should be only targeted to infants requiring it, as determined from individual-level assessment by a qualified health or nutrition worker trained in breastfeeding and infant feeding issues and with individual-level follow-up and support. I kindly invite you to have a look at the infant and young child feeding (IYCF) section, and we welcome any additional thoughts you may have.
"In the health chapter, is infection control related to any environmental conditions and protection guidelines?"
- Freelance consultant, UK
Yes, infection control should be linked to both, this could also be encompassed in national guidance as well. It may be the case that it is not possible to include this at length in the standards; however, I think it would be included in “reference documents”. Please let us know if you have any particular guidelines in mind.
"The draft changes and additions related to Health are encouraging, this is needed in both acute emergency settings and for the long-term realities of protracted situations. I would like to hear more if possible on the linkages, if any, between the Sphere Health standards and the World Health Organization’s Emergency Medical Teams (WHO EMTs). This would be crucial given their tools and the need for coordination."
- Humanitarian affairs officer, INGO, Germany
I very much agree on this point. The WHO EMT lead has been consulted already, and as the document and guidance are being updated through the year, they will be developed alongside. This is in part the reason why there is limited reference to it. Hopefully, after July, this will be more explicit. This is similar to the coordination that is happening with Health cluster guidance document that is undergoing revision as well.
You can access the rest of the Q&A as well as further resources on the event page.