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Problems of quality in humanitarian action: what exactly are we talking about?
Julien Carlier & Véronique de Geoffroy

On 15, 16 and 17 September 2014, at Groupe URD headquarters, the Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid brought together specialists on issues of Quality and Accountability. Much is happening in this area, with two important projects being presented in Copenhagen on 12 December 2014: the Core Humanitarian Standard, which has been developed due to the need for greater coherence between the various standards that exist, and the results of the Certification Project led by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response. The key points of the Autumn School will be published on Groupe URD’s website in October . The aim of this article is not to give a detailed account of the very rich discussions which took place, but rather to talk about a specific issue which was a common theme throughout the discussions: what is the fundamental nature of the problems of quality in the humanitarian system? And to give Groupe URD’s point of view on these questions.

 Different definitions of quality depending on points of view

Agreeing on a definition of quality is not easy in any sector of activity. It is essentially made up of very subjective characteristics and has very different meanings depending on the point of view of the people involved. Attempting to define quality for humanitarian aid, a very complex and multi-party sector, is extremely difficult. At one end of the chain, the people affected by disasters mainly need to have access to assistance which is adapted to their situation and their priorities and which is delivered in a timely manner. At the other end of the chain, donors of course want to satisfy these basic needs, but they also have a lot of other pre-occupations such as obeying the policy directives of their governments, ensuring that their operational partners respect administrative and financial regulations, and checking their activities in the field. These additional imperatives come from the donor’s role in managing public funds and the strong legal constraint in relation to public opinion which comes from having to justify how funds have been spent and what effect this has had.

Each stakeholder in the aid system – affected communities and people, local and national authorities, individual donors, operators, etc. – therefore has their own idea of what a good quality humanitarian operation should be. These different perspectives are also present within humanitarian organizations who have an obligation both to satisfy the demands of those who fund them and to respond to the needs of disaster-affected people. Tension is common within organizations between, on the one hand, the management who want to consolidate the structure by satisfying and reassuring the funding agencies, individual donors and the media, and on the other hand, the operational staff who are in contact with the affected people, who are more concerned about the quality and relevance of the operations in the field.

One specific characteristic of the sector comes from the fact that the international aid system is not structured in a way that gives the “beneficiaries” control over the organizations who provide them with assistance. This is a fundamental difference with the private sector where quality management principles were developed. In the private sector “the customer is king”: he can choose his supplier and then boycott him or damage his reputation if he is not satisfied with the service that has been provided. Customer satisfaction is central to private sector quality approaches. Though it is important to be careful about comparisons between the private sector and the humanitarian sector due to the differences in their ethical foundations, it is nevertheless true that aid “beneficiaries” currently do not have a great deal of power over the aid system.