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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 15, special issue: The Quality of Aid

Certification: an over-simplified understanding of aid quality?
Hélène Juillard

The humanitarian system is polymorphous, is made up of multiple organisations and is constantly evolving. Due to its high level of diversity, generic concepts like ‘quality’ resonate differently for different aid organizations. The issues at stake for this definition are also different depending on the organisation: is it a question of improving impact, effectiveness, efficiency…? In this complex context, there is a temptation to approach the concept of quality in a normative way. Standards are written, formalized, supposedly known by all and are sometimes even legally enforceable. Current discussions about certification are in keeping with the current trend towards the simplification and standardization of how aid quality is understood.

The last Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid brought together fifteen participants to address the ambitious topic of the quality of humanitarian operations. The two days of debates and discussions did not allow any consensus to emerge between the participants about the definition of a quality humanitarian operation or about the way that the sector should evolve to guarantee better quality humanitarian responses.

The participants were particularly split over two main topics: the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) and the NGO certification process. Though the CHS, which is not tackled here in detail, was launched in Copenhagen last December [1], the certification process is still being studied.

With regard to certification, during the Autumn School the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) [2] presented the final results of the two-year project to review certification mechanisms which began in October 2012. It emerged that the link between certification and improved quality of humanitarian operations has not been firmly established [3] and therefore no one can say with certitude that the certification of NGOs would have an impact (whether positive or negative) on the quality of humanitarian projects.

The potential link between certification and quality is extrapolated from research carried out in other sectors, notably the private business sector. Such an extrapolation is difficult to justify because it does not take into account one of the key characteristics of humanitarian operations: in contrast to the private sector where the person who receives the good or service is also the person who pays for it, in the humanitarian sector there is a three-way relationship between the donor, the organisation which provides the humanitarian service and the aid beneficiary. As the group who receive the humanitarian service are not the ones who pay for the service, the financial lever cannot be used by the aid beneficiaries. The notion of accountability to the beneficiaries of aid was developed because of this specific characteristic. It is one of the key factors of relevant, high quality aid which is in line with humanitarian principles.

The certification process is a control and guarantee mechanism which mainly functions between the humanitarian organisation and the donor. It is difficult to imagine a beneficiary of aid refusing an operation under the pretext that the implementing body is not certified or a right to certification which is legally enforceable by the beneficiaries.

The resources available for the implementation of humanitarian operations are also limited, which forces aid organizations to make difficult decisions in terms of priorities and targeting (both geographical and individual). The resources used to reinforce organizational capacity and train humanitarian actors are even more limited, which can easily be justified by the desire to make sure that the majority of resources are dedicated to humanitarian operations themselves. If we return to the parallel with certification mechanisms in the private sector, certification bodies need to be independent of the humanitarian sector for obvious reasons of conflicts of interest. The proposed NGO certification model therefore appears to suggest that humanitarian funds should be dedicated to training non-humanitarian organizations in a context where resources dedicated to the victims of disasters are limited.

[1] Videos of this launch workshop are available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUwcytcsWlrPM3eoITFN8rw

[2] Created in 1972, the SCHR currently includes nine members (ACT Alliance, CARE, CARITAS, ICRC, the World Lutherian Foundation, IFRC, Save the Children, Oxfam and World Vision) with the objective of improving the accountability and impact of humanitarian operations. For more information: http://schr.info

[3] The full report can be consulted at: http://schr.info/assets/uploads/docs/Summary_of_FINAL_Findings_and_Recommendations.pdf