People in crisis – at the heart of the new humanitarian standards

Disasters, Humanitarian

How can humanitarian agencies ensure they are having a positive impact? The new core humanitarian standards should make this easier. In the run-up to World Humanitarian Day, Peta Sandison, Humanitarian Standards Programme and Communications Coordinator, explains what the standards are and what adopting them means for Oxfam.

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) was launched in December 2014. What is it and why has Oxfam adopted it? After all, according to the Joint Standards Initiative that led to its creation, by 2013 the sector already had 119 quality and accountability initiatives.

Harmonised, coherent – with people at its heart

Core Humanitarian Standard

The CHS harmonises – and replaces – three of the biggest humanitarian standards (the Sphere Core Standards, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership Standard and People In Aid’s Code of Good Practice). It makes nine commitments to communities and people affected by crisis, supported by quality criteria and a set of key actions and organisational responsibilities needed to meet each commitment. It is underpinned by a commitment to people’s human rights and guided by the
four humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality.

Communities can hold us to account through these commitments. Humanitarians can find an accessible, simplified reference for good practice in any technical line of work and any context.

What difference will it make to Oxfam and the sector?

Following the Rwanda crisis in 1994, humanitarians recognised the need to articulate and be held to account for best practice. Sphere standards and the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief were born. In the years that followed many more initiatives emerged, all driven by a desire to improve quality and accountability and informed by new thinking and
practice. Whilst positive and necessary, the result is, frankly, a bit overwhelming. The overlap between many initiatives is confusing, time is short to absorb the steady flow of new guidelines: staff struggle to keep up.The CHS has the potential to create a shared understanding of quality and accountability…

The CHS provides a common framework, simplifying the landscape and offering something more accessible. Its focus is the affected people themselves, committing us to enable their participation and influence what we do, provide effective means for people to feedback on our performance so that aid is appropriate, and strengthen people’s capacities and resilience to withstand future crises.

We commit to coordinating with others, using resources wisely and delivering our work through competent staff. The CHS has the potential to create a shared understanding of quality and accountability, thus facilitating comparable performance data for the sector. Donors could use their power to drive downwards accountability.


The CHS cannot of course deliver all the goals of every NGO. Gender equity, for example, is only implicit in the CHS but an explicit priority for Oxfam. We will use the CHS as the bottom line, but enhance it with stronger gender standards as well as expanding its protection guidance.

The inclusion of the neutrality principle has also generated debate. Neutrality means that ‘humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature’. Oxfam is of course totally committed to not taking sides. Humanitarian agencies must protect their access to those affected by demonstrating their neutrality through impartial delivery of assistance and protection. But for Oxfam, as an NGO committed to human rights, this does not
preclude our commitment to advocate for those rights – be it related to gender justice, freedom of expression or against the arms trade fuelling conflict. That may be controversial at times but is an essential element of Oxfam’s work.

The CHS is already gaining momentum. The greater the adoption, the better the benefits for affected people and for the effectiveness of the sector. It brings us back to the heart of humanitarian action – people.

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Photo: Oxfam distributes hygiene kits in Sankhu, Nepal. Credit: Aubrey Wade / Oxfam

Author: Peta Sandison
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.