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Future-proofing the new Sphere Handbook: What does delivering on standards through cash and markets mean?

Cash-based assistance has emerged an evidence-based means of meeting humanitarian needs within and across sectors of humanitarian response, since the Sphere Handbook 2011 edition was published. Here is how the upcoming edition of the Handbook will incorporate the subject.

By Isabelle Pelly (*)

The Sphere Handbook is one of the most widely known and internationally recognized sets of common principles and universal minimum standards for the delivery of quality humanitarian response. Keeping these standards up-to-date so they reflect current best practice across the sector is crucial. With the changing nature of humanitarian crises and a growing evidence base on different approaches, the Sphere standards are bound to evolve.


Formerly a refugee in a neighbouring country, Koui Messié Kagnegne Bernadette has returned to her village in Western Ivory Coast, where she sells fish at the local market. Her customers pay her with vouchers from a humanitarian cash-based programme that injects money into the local economy. Photo © Saïd Mbombo Penda/EC/ECHO

Since the publication of the Handbook’s latest edition in 2011, cash-based assistance (CBA) has emerged as an increasingly effective and efficient way of meeting humanitarian needs. As a result, its use has grown from 1% of humanitarian assistance in 2011 to at least 7% now.

CBA has proved appropriate in diverse contexts, from protracted displacement emergencies like that in Uganda to challenging urban conflict environments such as in Mosul, Iraq. Major trends in CBA include the advent of multipurpose cash grants and wide-spread opportunities to link humanitarian CBA and cash-based social safety nets.

What does cash-based assistance mean for humanitarian practitioners?

Cash-based assistance provides an opportunity for humanitarians to view markets as an entry point for assistance, and therefore place affected populations and their local economies at the centre of recovery.

This shift in delivering assistance through markets is transformative for all humanitarian practitioners, whether you work within one technical sector, across sectors or functions. It offers a unique opportunity for programme and logistics staff to think holistically about market analysis and supply chains.

So, whether you’re an experienced technical sector expert looking for ways to systematically consider CBA across standards, or have no experience in using CBA and need to understand what it means for your sector or your role as a logistician, this revision of the Sphere handbook is important for you!

Adding the ‘how’ to the ‘what’ of cash-based assistance

Sphere standards are about the ‘what’ of quality humanitarian programming. So, CaLP has also developed a complementary publication, the CBA quality toolbox: the ‘how’ of good quality CBA. The toolbox contains a set of operational standards, actions and associated tools and guidelines. It will feed into, and be systematically referenced throughout, the new Sphere handbook. Have a peek at the current draft of the CBA quality toolbox here.

What does this mean for the new Sphere handbook?

The Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) has brought the technical expertise of its members to the table and worked closely with the revision leads of each Handbook chapter, to fully integrate cash and market considerations throughout the next edition of the Sphere Handbook.

Cash and market-based approaches have been built into the Handbook from the start. The new Introduction to the handbook considers modality choice systematically in its section on the programme cycle, and in a special insert dedicated to CBA and market-based programming.

Moreover, we have integrated CBA into each relevant technical chapter, to prompt you as a user to systematically think about market analysis and modality choice. Specific standards (e.g., on hygiene promotion or shelter) will urge you to consider actions related to CBA, by pointing to:    

  • Cash-based assistance specificities in the sector;
  • Evidence on the use of CBA to meet a particular standard;
  • Where to learn more.

The handbook also addresses the tricky question of how multipurpose cash grants can relate to technical standards. As a sectoral expert, you will be prompted to answer questions such as: 

  • How do I use multi-sectoral needs assessment information to decide if cash-based assistance is appropriate, including multipurpose cash grants?
  • How do I use the technical standards to design a multipurpose cash grant which includes my sector priorities?
  • And how do I monitor the outcomes?

Finally, we have made markets central to the thinking about delivering on standards. A new annex is being proposed in the second draft for consultation: ‘Delivering through markets’ supports market-based programming as an entry point for guidance on supply chain management and providing cash-based assistance. It reminds us that both require collaboration across functions, and flexibility between modalities.

Get involved!

Following a high-energy workshop that gathered lead authors and thematic experts in Geneva from 13 to 15 September, the second draft of the Sphere handbook is under revision and will be out for consultation in October.

Make sure you’re involved in shaping the final version (learn how to do so here). Help Sphere make the standards fit for a market-based future!

(*) Isabelle Pelly, Technical Coordinator at the Cash Learning Partnership, is the leading cash expert for the Sphere Handbook revision. You can contact her by email.

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