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Standards on cash and markets: time to raise the bar

Isabelle Pelly and Stefan Bumbacher

Humanitarian action is changing fast, and an updated set of shared standards will be crucial in upholding quality among a new generation of responders.  The launch of the new Sphere Handbook on November 6th represents the most comprehensive effort to date review the humanitarian standards, to keep crisis-affected populations at the centre of response.

For the last 20 years, the humanitarian sector’s quality benchmark has been the Sphere Handbook, uniting national and international NGOs, United Nations agencies, and governmental authorities across the globe. So how has the new Sphere handbook grappled with some of the major shifts in need, and context?  The ethos at the core of the handbook has been to intentionally put people at the centre of humanitarian action. It strongly emphasises active engagement to ensure assistance meets people’s needs and supports them in their recovery. This may sound self-evident, or risk being mere rhetoric, so what does this actually mean in practice for planning, delivering and evaluating humanitarian operations?

Designing and delivering assistance to work through local markets, including through cash-based assistance, is a big part of the answer. If designed well, cash assistance puts agency into the hands of crisis-affected people, allowing people to make their own choices and support their own recovery. Working through markets, whether by stimulating the demand-side (through cash) or supporting supply chains, is instrumental to supporting local recovery, and enhancing local ownership of response and recovery. The new section on delivering assistance through markets and cash-based assistance places market analysis at the centre of response analysis, taking users through the steps needed to translate market analysis information into market-based programming. The weaving of markets and cash-based assistance throughout the handbook has also raised the bar for the technical standards, by encouraging all practitioners to consider different forms of assistance, and to think through a multi-sectoral lens.

The last Sphere handbook reached nearly 80,000 practitioners in 149 countries in 2016 alone. If the breadth of the consultation (which involved 1400 participants at 60 in-person consultation events) is anything to go by, the reach of this new handbook will be phenomenal. Can we therefore assume that cash-based assistance will now systematically be considered within and across sectors? And what will this mean for quality?

In 2016, cash-based assistance totalled 10% of total global humanitarian aid spend, whereas a GPPI report the same year suggested this could be up to 40%. This growth, supported by evidence on the effectiveness and efficiency of cash-based assistance must continue, but quality standards will need to play a more important role than ever before. CaLP’s Cash Week 2018 (15 – 19 October, London), showed despite significant progress in improving the quality of cash assistance, we are in many cases still falling short of getting the basics of good programming in place. To promote better outcomes, in ways preferred by crisis-affected people, the Minimum Standard for Market Analysis (part of the Humanitarian Standards Partnership (HSP) and a Sphere companion) must be at the core of response analysis. The guidance in the Sphere handbook needs to be supported by practical actions, guidelines and tools, as brought together in CaLP’s Cash-based Assistance Programme Quality Toolbox. And we need to unite around a common language, crystallised in CaLP’s glossary, which is being updated by December 2018 with the support of CaLP’s Technical Advisory Group.

This is a crucial foundation, but we already know that the increasing use of cash-based assistance is challenging us to develop new sets of standards. Standards linked to new technologies and digitisation, which offer exciting opportunities but also open up unknown risks, particularly around data protection. Standards on collaborating with the private sector who are playing a much-needed role in supporting or even leading components of market-based programming. Standards on how to link humanitarian cash assistance with government-led social safety nets. These are just a few of the areas which CaLP will be focusing on in the coming years. To do this we will build on the expertise of our 80-organisation strong membership, and develop our strategic relationships with Sphere and HSP. We are committed to amplifying the power of cash-based assistance, with standards as the cornerstone.  


CaLP's Isabelle Pelly describes how cash and markets have been integrated in the new Sphere Handbook.


The 2018 Sphere Handbook is available online here.


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