Sphere Project

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The Sphere Project[1] was launched in 1997 to develop a set of minimum standards in core areas of humanitarian assistance. The aim of the project is to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disasters, and to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system in disaster response. One of the major results of the project has been the publication of the handbook, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response.[2]


The 1990s saw a rapid increase in the international activities of humanitarian agencies. This was particularly the case during Great Lakes refugee crisis in 1994. A growing number of donor and NGO evaluations were critical of the responses and actions of many NGOs. There was growing discussion among humanitarian agencies about the lack of standards for providing humanitarian assistance. Some of the preliminary conclusions of the multi-donor Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda[3] were critical of the performance of humanitarian agencies in the Great Lakes crisis. A number of agencies felt that it was time to get their own houses in order and explored the idea of formulating standards for humanitarian response.

Original Sponsors and Observers

Simultaneously, in 1996, discussions were taking place within InterAction and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) about a project for setting standards. The members of both organizations decided that it would be a good idea to pool their resources and set up a joint project. Thus, in 1997, the Sphere Project was set up with a management committee made up of representatives from each of the SCHR members and representatives from InterAction. More than 25 percent of the funds for the first phase of the project came from the member agencies of the management committee and the rest from a few government donors. From the beginning, three observers were invited to fully participate in the work of the management committee.




Objective: "The project objective is to develop a humanitarian charter and associated set of minimum standards in collaboration with leading NGOs, interested donor governments and UN agencies, to both disseminate the resultant products widely within the international humanitarian system and to encourage their formal adoption and practice by relief agencies and their donors."[8]

In July 1997, the first phase of one year of the project began.

Five sectors were chosen to cover the basic sectors in humanitarian response:

  • water supply and sanitation
  • nutrition
  • food aid
  • shelter and site planning
  • health services

Phase 1 July 1997 to October 1998

Setting Minimum Standards

Five sector committees were formed, each with a manager seconded by one of the sponsoring agencies. The sector committees were made up of experts drawn not only from NGOs, but also from the Red Cross and Inter-governmental agencies such as the UNHCR, WHO, and WFP. The sector committees formulated minimum standards of assistance for each of the sectors.[9] The intention of the project was that the setting up of minimum standards would help to improve accountability and the overall quality of humanitarian response to those affected by disasters.

Humanitarian Charter

In early 1998, a working group was established to draft the Humanitarian Charter.[10] Its final draft highlighted the importance of three principles in particular:

  • the right to life with dignity,
  • the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and
  • the principle of non-refoulement.

By May 1998, a draft edition of the handbook was posted on the internet for comments. Phase 1 was extend by four months to October 1998.[11]

Phase 2 November 1998 to January 2000

Phase 2 of the project was initiated in November focusing on the publication and dissemination of the standards and the development of training materials. In December, a first draft was published and launched both in Washington, DC, and London. The first draft notes that it was drawn up with the work of some 641 named individuals (plus countless unnamed persons), drawn from 228 organizations, including NGOs, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, academic institutions, the United Nations and governmental agencies. It was posted on the Sphere Project site to allow for wide feedback.


Phase 2 saw the development of extensive training material for using the handbook. The training program focuses "mainly on the day-to-day work of the individual humanitarian practitioner." The main method is to use workshops for humanitarian field staff to facilitate the practical application of the minimum standards.[12]

Phase 3 November 2000 to December 2004

The handbook was completely revised and a second edition was launched in 2004.[13] In addition an extensive external evaluation was carried out.[14] As a project, Sphere came to an end in 2004.

A New Form

Today, the Sphere Project has taken on a new form, with an expanded board of 14 members replacing the project's management committee.[15] Its focus "has shifted towards facilitating the work of people already using and promoting Sphere at national and regional levels."[16]


From the beginning, a decision was made that an important part of the funding would come from the sponsoring agencies themselves, with the remainder made up of funds from governmental agencies. A little over a quarter of the funds for phase 1 came from the SCHR and InterAction with the rest coming from 10 governments. As the budget expanded in Phases 2 and 3, so did the number of government donors, shifting the balance, with governments contributing about 85% of the funds for the latter two phases.


French Agencies

In 1998, there was public criticism of the Sphere Project from a number of French humanitarian NGOs. They felt that Sphere was too focused on the technical aspects of humanitarian response and could easily ignore non-quantifiable aspects such as solidarity and witnessing. It also could devalue efforts of the affected population to solve their own problems.[17]


Within the Sphere Project management committee, MSF was also critical of the project, fearing that it reduced humanitarian response "to a simple mechanical and material exercise, devoid of its humanitarian ethos." There was a risk that by focusing on standards it could reduce humanitarian action to business to be performed only according to technical standards. At the end of Phase 2, MSF decided that it would not participate in Phase 3.[18]


  1. Sphere Project
  2. Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response
  3. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide:Lessons from the Rwanda Experience
  4. Walker and Purdin wrongly indicate that MSF only joined the SCHR and the Sphere Project half way through the process. MSF joined the SCHRin July 1997 and was a sponsor of the Sphere Project from the beginning, paying their assessed contributions for both Phases 1 and 2. They withdrew from the project at the end of Phase 2. Peter Walker, Susan Purdin (2004) Birthing Sphere. Disasters 28 (2), p. 106
  5. InterAction
  6. Voice
  7. ICVA
  8. Sphere Project Proposal
  9. Handbook
  10. Humanitarian Charter
  11. For more detailed descriptions see: Buchanan-Smith, Margie (2003); How the Sphere Project Came into Being. ODI Working Paper 215, July 2003 ISBN 0-85003-665-8 and Peter Walker, Susan Purdin (2004) Birthing Sphere. Disasters 28 (2), 100–111
  12. Lowry, Sean; Sphere at the end of phase II. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 17, October 2000. pp 11-13., training materials can be found at [1]
  13. Sphere Project Newsletter No. 16 (February 2004)
  14. Sphere External Evaluation
  15. Sphere Board
  16. The Sphere Project Governance Structure
  17. see Gidley, Ruth: "Critics find fault with Sphere standards for relief work" AlertNet, 15 October 2004 and Charlotte Dufour, Véronique de Geoffroy, Hugues Maury, François Grunewald, In: Disasters, Volume 28 (2), June 2004, pp. 124-141.
  18. MSF Position vis a vis the Sphere Project For an extensive discussion of the MSF position see: Jacqui Tong: Questionable Accountability: MSF and Sphere in 2003 in Disastrs, Volume 28 (2), June 2004, 176-189