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Disaster response and Sphere minimum standards

In the late 1990s, the Sphere Project (now known simply as Sphere) set about defining a set of minimum standards for humanitarian response.

The intention was to establish the minimum acceptable measures of aid that should be provided – a baseline. These minimum expected standards cover four key areas of response:

  • Water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion – providing enough safe water for drinking and washing, managing waste and promoting hygiene practices
  • Food security and nutrition – providing enough quality food of the right nutritional and calorific value
  • Shelter, settlement and non-food items – providing shelter, adequate housing, clothing and blankets that provide dignity, security, personal safety and protection from the climate
  • Health action – anticipating and managing illness and disease that often occurs in post-disaster conditions

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Minimum standards are not without critics. Some of their criticisms are outlined below:

  • The generic or prescriptive nature of some standards means practitioners are sometimes reluctant to adapt them to diverse socio-cultural and economic contexts
  • When challenges to application are encountered, it’s not always clear how to balance, prioritise or control adjustments and maintain standards
  • The drive to achieve standards may come to dominate accountability and lead to limited innovation or progress and lack of recognition for less tangible impacts
  • Failure to meet standards may lead to reputational damage and liability
  • Standardisation is based on ‘Western’ benchmarks
  • Training in Sphere standards is more frequent for senior staff

(Mohamed and Ofteringer 2015; Price 2017; Patel and Chadhuri 2019)

Your task

Given your knowledge of the Pakistan floods, what do you think would be the challenges for agencies training to provide aid and meet the minimum standards?


Mohamed, A., and Ofteringer, R. (2015) ‘Rahmatan lil-‘alamin (A mercy to all creation): Islamic Voices in the Debate on Humanitarian Principles’. International Review of the Red Cross [online] 98 (3), 1137-1137. available from https://doi.org/10.1017/S1816383117000753 [28 April 2020]

Patel, R. B., and Chadhuri, J. (2019) ‘Revisiting the Sphere standards: comparing the revised Sphere standards to living standards in three urban informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya’. Journal of International Humanitarian Action [online] 4 (6). available from https://doi.org/10.1186/s41018-019-0054-y [28 April 2020]

Price, D. (2017) Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Beyond the Sphere Minimum Standards? [online] available from https://medium.com/@mantis.banks/complex-humanitarian-emergencies-beyond-the-sphere-minimum-standards-378559a86f77 [28 April 2020]

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University