Alistair Dutton is the Humanitarian Director at Caritas Internationalis. He has been involved in the Sphere project and the revision of its handbook for several years.
Could you briefly describe the objective of the Sphere project?
The Sphere project specifies minimum standards that people can expect from humanitarian organisations responding to emergencies. In practical terms, it answers the question: What do people need in times of emergency to live a life of dignity? The Sphere project arose in the 1990s after the genocide in Rwanda and the war in Congo, two emergencies where levels of provision differed widely among agencies. So several NGOs, among them Caritas, joined to define common standards.
Take shelter as an example: The Sphere standard for the minimum size of a family tent is around 20 m2, but some NGOs have provided people with tents as small as 2m2. The idea of Sphere is to say that less than these minimum standards is unacceptable, even in times of emergencies.
Of course, the standards need to be considered in a country’s local context. The Sphere standard for the average water supply needed per person is 15 litres a day, but in Eastern Chad, where people are used to having 3 litres per day and where the available water is very limited, it is unrealistic to provide people with 15 litres. The Sphere handbook provides universal standards to specify the minimum that people should receive but this needs to be contextualised.
Why was a new edition of the handbook needed?
This is already the 3rd edition of the Sphere handbook, because we are committed to continuously improving the services our organisations provide and to review the work we do. The updates in the book reflect the improvements that have been suggested. There is a whole new chapter about protection for example, a topic that had previously not been addressed sufficiently. Making sure people are safe is a crucial aspect of our emergency work. Before, the Sphere standards were more focused on material aspects of the aid like the quality and quantity of shelter and goods provided.
A number of emerging issues such as cash transfers, civil-military relations and early recovery of services and livelihoods are now included in the Handbook. The impact of climate change, disaster risk reduction and psycho-social issues as well as education in emergencies also receive more attention.
How and why is Caritas involved in this project?
Caritas was a founding member of the Sphere project and has always been a member of the Sphere board. Caritas helped draft the original standards and has been involved in every revision of the standards. The Sphere handbook is a normative document for all the member organisations of the Caritas confederation and we at Caritas Internationalis insist that all the Caritas members apply those standards.
Now with the new Sphere handbook, our next challenge will be to make sure that people within all the Caritas member organisations are trained and aware of the new standards.