CHS Learning Event Shares Case Studies and Ideas for Rethinking Humanitarian Response

7 November 2016

Over 160 humanitarian and development actors shared case studies and discussed ways to rethink humanitarian response at a learning event on the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) in Geneva on Friday 4 November.

Over 160 humanitarian and development actors shared case studies and discussed ways to rethink humanitarian response at a learning event on the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) in Geneva on Friday 4 November. The learning event, whose interactivity was enhanced by using the Slido platform was the second day of the first CHS Alliance General Assembly (GA) where CHS Alliance members elected a new board.

Background to the CHS

The CHS which is based on humanitarian principles and good practice, has, two years after its launch, gained significant recognition in the sector. Its nine commitments provide organisations with a framework to design and implement strategic objectives, systems, processes and operational programmes. Most importantly, the CHS helps to put people back at the centre of what aid agencies do by requiring their voice to count at every stage of humanitarian and development work.

Download the presentations here

Keynote, opening plenary

The CHS learning event opened with a keynote speech from Loretta Hieber Girardet, Chief, Inter-Cluster Coordination Section, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Geneva. Loretta, who has been involved with the CHS since 2014 congratulated CHS stakeholders for producing a tool that “every day galvanises more support and recognition worldwide.” For her, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) sought to place communities and people affected by crisis at the centre of humanitarian action and in this sense, it shared the same objectives as the Core Humanitarian Standard.

Loretta mentioned three key policy shifts that the WHS put on the agenda. The first one was a resounding call for international humanitarian actors to “reinforce and not replace local and national actors”.  The message was clear: international humanitarians need to systematically ask themselves how they can add value to what people and communities are already doing to ensure resilience and self-reliance in humanitarian contexts. She added that “we urgently need to change the way we do business. There needs to be a transition to more nationally-led responses involving greater participation by local actors. We need to allocate far greater financial resources to local and national responders.” She added that we ought to “move from standardization to contextualisation when it comes to coordination architecture. We shouldn’t activate an internationally-led response as a default reaction to a crisis. We should first require a mapping of existing capacities and gaps and build on what is in place already.” Local actors need to be part of the decision-making and need to have a real voice, she advocated.

For Loretta, a second clear message from the summit is that if we want to meet needs and be accountable, we have to learn to listen and put into practice the ideas people have to contribute to humanitarian responses. In the ‘grand bargain’, this is known as the ‘participation revolution’. “If it takes a revolution, then let’s have a revolution” she encouraged us, though she wondered “why we need to have a revolution to achieve something that should by now stand at front and center of all of our humanitarian work: listening to the local populations.”

The third message, echoing what people all over the world say when asked what their priority needs are links to the use of cash in humanitarian response. Lori explained that in the Philippines, after Haiyan struck, “people didn’t ask for tents for shelter or even food. They wanted to replace – as quickly as possible – their lost incomes so they could repair their boats and nets.” The message she heard from the villagers was blunt she said: “they wanted to be economically empowered and to get back to work. They wanted to get back to normal.” Cash is not the destination, according to Loretta, but it is definitely part of the journey towards more accountable humanitarian assistance.

Finally, Loretta called event participants to action, saying that “For too long, empty pledges and fine words have died in our mouths – now is the time to turn promises into action for this generation.” Labeling the CHS a “visionary standard”, she shared her conviction that “systematic implementation of the CHS can play a critical role in achieving the vision articulated at the WHS and thus turn promises into action for this generation.” While the CHS can increasingly become the common thread that binds us all together, we need to pick up the pace said Loretta.

“Let’s be ambitious, let’s have a revolution. After all, a goal is but a dream with a deadline.” Getting every one of the 25 or so humanitarian response plans produced annually to include within the next two years, operationalisation of the CHS is the challenge Loretta left us with, setting an ambitious target and a deadline to deliver collectively. This is certainly one way we can really put people at the centre of humanitarian response.

Panel members then shared different perspectives on the CHS:

  • Richard Cobb, Senior Humanitarian Evidence, Effectiveness and Accountability Advisor, Save the Children: “We need to make the CHS more understandable to the people we work with such as children as it is often inaccessible to them.”
  • Christine Knudsen, Director, Sphere Project: “The CHS doesn’t stand on its own. It’s a foundation and tool upon which to build. Most of the time we measure quantity and we should be measuring quality. The revision of the Sphere Handbook starting in January 2017 will be an opportunity to make the CHS known across the sector.”
  • Qassem Al Saad, Chairman, Naba’a Developmental Action Without Borders: “The CHS and the CHS Alliance are needed to play an equaliser role between international and local organisations. National organisations need to learn how to say no to international donors and NGOS.”

Participants then broke into two streams of eight workshops in which speakers shared case studies on different themes related to the CHS. Learning event participants engaged with speakers and each another using the interactive platform Slido to ask questions and vote on proposals for change put together in each workshop.

Workshop 1: Does the CHS work for both national and international actors?

In this workshop, moderated by Robert Sweatman, Head of Performance and Accountability at the British Red Cross:

  • Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, Executive Director, COAST Trust, suggested the CHS gives national actors the opportunity to prove the quality of their programmes to donors. He suggested donors should do assessments on an organisation’s roll-out of the CHS prior to funding.
  • Shveta Shah, Disaster and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Portfolio Manager, Start Network, said collaboration is key when it comes to the CHS but this is challenging as we work in overwhelming, complex emergencies and in an overwhelming, complex system.
  • Anne Street, Head of Humanitarian Policy, CAFOD, argued that Charter4Change and the CHS should be used as a common cause to support the delivery of more people-centred and locally appropriate response.

Workshop 2: The role of the CHS in coordination and the cluster system

In this workshop, moderated by Kate Halff, Executive Secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response:

  • Astrid de Valon, IASC task team on Accountability to Affected Populations and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, explained the specificities of accountability at the collective level, and some of the ways different projects are working to make the collective more accountable, including by using the CHS.
  • Philip Tamminga, UNICEF, highlighted the fact that currently and unlike with the CHS diagram, it’s the Emergency Response Coordinator rather than affected populations who is at the centre of the cluster system. This is something that UNICEF is trying to address through an OFDA funded project.
  • Gergey Pasztor, Technical Advisor for Protection Mainstreaming at the International Rescue Committee, talked about the overlap between cross cutting agendas, in particular protection mainstreaming. He also suggested introducing a “CHS-Ready” or “CHS compatible” label for organisations as a way to bring clarity on synergies between the various agendas to aid workers.

Workshop 3: The CHS Verification Scheme, a credible commitment to quality?

In this workshop, moderated by Takeshi Komino, Deputy Director at CWS Asia:

  • Dr. Prabin Manandhar, Country Director, LWF Nepal, shared the country office’s self-assessment process, noting that while scores were important, continuous learning was more important.
  • Dr. Petra Feil, Global QAA and PMER Coordinator for LWF gave an insight into LWF’s rationale for their ambitious plan to conduct self-assessments in 16 of the countries in which they operate.
  • Fabian Böckler, Plan International Germany, shared the organisation’s process of independent benchmarking against the CHS, and some of the unexpected lessons they learned.

Workshop 4: Learning by asking the right questions

In this workshop, moderated by Vivien Walden, team leader for the MEAL team at Oxfam International Global Humanitarian Team:

  • Véronique de Geoffroy, Director of Operations,Groupe URD highlighted that implementation of the CHS means acknowledging you don’t know everything and willingness to ask questions to find out.
  • Edith Favoreu, Deputy Director, CERAH, explained how the organisation uses the CHS to support its goal to develop critical thinking and analysis to to improve the quality of humanitarian response for its students.
  • Atish Gonsalves, Global Learning Director, Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA), shared how the HLA aims to democratise access to learning and knowledge. He suggested that ‘capacity sharing’ is a better term than capacity building as everyone has knowledge and skills to share.

Workshop 5: Poor staff management, poor quality

In this workshop, moderated by Joan Coyle, Global HR Director for International Programmes at Save the Children International:

  • Dr. Mahmoud Almadhoun, Human Resources AND Operations Director, Islamic Relief Germany, argued that we need to add a “development” element to the CHS to help better identify and develop relevant staff competencies.
  • Ben Emmens, Director, The Conscious Project said that in humanitarian contexts, it’s easy to prove that poor people management leads to poor quality programmes but it’s hard to prove that great people management leads to great quality. Let’s ensure we focus on doing the right things, as well as doing things right, he concluded.
  • Sayeda Tahya Hossain, Chief People Officer at BRAC explained how her organisation was working to encourage its staff to integrate its core values in their work, using innovation as an example.
  • Catherine Skehan, Accountability and Participation Advisor, CAFOD, reflecting on the roll out of the CHS within CAFOD explained that we need to reflect the values of accountability internally so they become second nature in programme delivery.
  • René Bujard, Global HR Director at Oxfam International reminded participants about the importance and benefits of diversity in staffing.

Workshop 6: Closing the feedback loop

In this workshop, moderated by Victoria Murtagh, Humanitarian Programme Advisor for Christian Aid:

  • Roslyn Hees, Senior Advisor, Transparency International, explained that corruption is the worst form of unaccountable aid – it’s the deliberate misuse of resources. Poor communication with local populations during responses increases opportunities for corruption she said.
  • Erik Johnson, Head of Humanitarian Response, DanChurchAid, and Nick van Praag Director, Ground Truth Solutions, shared a case study on the Listen Learn Act project that creates accountability on the front line of humanitarian assistance by incorporating feedback from disaster-affected people into programming. The pilot project collects data that is then analysed in order to “course correct” and “close the feedback loop”.
  • Victoria Murtagh shared an example of Christian Aid’s community engagement in Nepal following the earthquake there in 2015. Watch the short video of communities’ views on the aid they received following the earthquake here.

Workshop 7: Harmonised standards, harmonised donor compliance requirements

In this workshop, moderated by Heba Aly, Director at IRIN:

  • Melissa Pitotti, Head of Policy, ICVA, shared findings from the Less Paper More Aid initiative, highlighting the burden created by the current system and the potential for savings; one NGO estimated it could save 11,000 hours if its nine main donors agreed a financial reporting template. Melissa also listed concrete changes aid organisations want to see.
  • Julia Streets, Director, Global Public Policy Institute (GGPI) explained in terms of accountability requirements, the system was still leaning heavily towards donors rather than populations affected by crisis. She shared that GPPI has identified 10 core questions that would satisfy 60% to 70% of donor demands. A common reporting format is possible, she said.
  • Andy Wheatley, Humanitarian Advisor at DFID, acknowledged progress made thanks to the CHS but challenged aid organisations to be clearer about their expectations with regards to harmonised reporting, and highlighted the need for progress and change to be evidence-based.
  • David Loquercio, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Learning, CHS Alliance, argued that consensus on the CHS makes it a credible framework to find consensus on harmonised donor reporting. This is an effort that ought to include partner assessment, proposal templates and evaluation frameworks as well.

Workshop 8: Development, disaster preparedness and the CHS

In this workshop, moderated by Bijay Kumar, Executive Director of Action Aid International Kenya:

  • Uwe Korus, Humanitarian Monitoring, Evaluation and Accountability Coordinator at CARE International suggested that it is the values and the organisational culture of an organisation that will help to ensure an approach is consistent between humanitarian and development programmes within an organisation, rather than using a standard such as the CHS.
  • Andrew Collodel, ALERT project manager at HelpAge International, pointed out the critical role of preparedness as a link between relief and development, and presented how the ALERT project built on the CHS to develop a set of key actions to support preparedness.
  • Shama Mall, Deputy Director for Development and Capacity enhancement at CWS Asia, explained how CWS Asia is using the CHS in its development and advocacy programmes, and what they changed to do this.

At the end of the day, the most popular proposal for change were presented during the plenary and participants voted to express support for those they thought were most inspiring and practical on slido. An infographic of slido interaction over the day is available here including a list of all proposals.

The day closed with a keynote speech from Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), who suggested that when it comes to quality and accountability, how we do something is as important as what we do and is key to preserving human dignity. “It’s not only about the number of people in need we help but also about reducing that number of people in need. The starting point is local action,” he said.

The Secretary General also reminded participants that “When it comes to accountability, it’s important for us to deliver on the promises we make and not break them as communities will remember who has stayed through tough times.”

The event was supported by the Birches Group, Cigna, the Canton of Geneva and Western Union Business Solutions.

View video interviews with four participants who share their views on how humanitarian response can be made more effective:

View photos from the learning event here.

View photos from the first day of the General Assembly here.