Standing in a room full of rain-soaked volunteers just back from delivering food to people hit by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, Erik Johnson remembers trying to train them in the various standards that apply to aid work, "and just watching their eyes glaze over as we threw one acronym at them after another".
This was a moment of realization for the board chair of the Sphere Project, which produces and promotes a popular humanitarian handbook. Five years and a considerable amount of consultation later, Sphere and two other key international organizations concerned with the quality of emergency response are beginning work on a new common core standard that aims to unify and simplify the maze of existing guidelines.
"The idea is actually really straightforward - simple tools are easier to use, and if they are easier to use, they are more likely to be used, and if they are likely to be used, our belief is that they will make a difference in response," said Johnson, who is also head of humanitarian response at DanChurchAid, a Danish aid group.
The need for standards in aid operations was widely recognized after the brutal conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia, and Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s. An international evaluation said around 80,000 deaths, mainly from cholera and dysentery, in camps for those fleeing the Rwandan genocide could have been avoided if the humanitarian response had been more effective.
Efforts were launched to stop such mistakes happening again by identifying basic principles and minimum standards aid workers should adopt when delivering relief, including food, clean water, shelter, and health care, and trying to protect people from violence and other dangers.
"Since then, we have come a long way but we are still not performing well enough," Johnson said, noting that the aid sector has expanded and become more professional in the intervening years.
With more agencies on the ground – a growing number of them based in conflict and disaster-hit countries themselves – common problems have centered on poor coordination and duplication between aid efforts, as occurred with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example.
There is also a much bigger focus on involving affected people in emergency response: understanding their needs, providing them with information, listening to and acting on their complaints, and helping them avoid crises in the future. But this isn't happening to the extent it should, Johnson said.
Matthew Carter, CAFOD's humanitarian director and a board member of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), which is involved in the project, said he hopes the new standard will make clearer how aid agencies are supposed to operate across the board. This, in turn, should improve the experience of communities receiving assistance and enable them to demand a better service.
"I think the big change is that there's a commitment from the aid sector to buy into this," he said. "While recognizing our diversity, we have to do this together to improve the system and delivery of [humanitarian assistance]."
Carter said the common core standard will be built around the essential humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence, and will also have more detailed technical guidelines for different areas of aid response, such as water provision and child protection, attached to it.
Unexpectedly, talking with hundreds of aid workers revealed that they didn't think there were too many standards out there. Rather they said the different codes of conduct should be harmonized and made easier to use, Carter added.
"Instead of the field workers we've all seen turning up with a suitcase full of guidelines, or lack of such a suitcase, there will be one standard that everyone will work to," he said. "It's already looking quite clear where there is going to be instant agreement, where there's overlap, and how we go about developing it."
The nitty-gritty of hammering out the standard starts this week, with the directors of HAP, Sphere, and People in Aid charged with producing a usable version by the beginning of next year. It will be tested in the field, and aid workers around the world will have the opportunity to provide feedback and shape the final product, which will evolve in line with new realities.
Sphere Project manager John Damerell told Thomson Reuters Foundation the aim is to draw on existing guidelines, which are already familiar to many aid workers, bring them under one umbrella and present them in plainer, consistent language. "We are not starting from zero," he emphasized.
The common core standard will remain a voluntary instrument – like the current Sphere humanitarian charter – but aid groups will be able to verify their implementation of it, if they wish, and will be offered guidance on how to do this.
One big issue the three bodies working on the standard are grappling with is how to include smaller, local organizations in developing countries, as well as the national staff of bigger networks, in both crafting and using it. There will be a need for more training and new ways of communicating – helped by the spread of mobile phones, the internet, and social media to most corners of the globe.
"What we really need to be sure we don't create is just another northern-centric set of standards that have little relation to the south – we are global citizens, and we are all responsible for providing aid," HAP board member Carter said.
While methods of delivering the standard have yet to be decided, better use will likely be made of electronic media, with an online one-stop-shop for aid workers wanting to get up to speed fast. Training efforts may be consolidated, with experts sent out into emergency situations to help apply the standard in practice.
Its success will ultimately be judged on whether communities caught up in conflicts and natural disasters feel satisfied with the aid they receive, Sphere's Johnson said.
"They will see – I would hope – fewer white Land Cruisers filled with foreigners struggling to keep up and not always making good on their promises, and they will actually see more locally driven and owned responses, more meaningful participation from their side ... and hopefully more consistent quality in the aid response we are delivering," he said.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.