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Seminar for non-governmental organizations on humanitarian standards and cultural differences


 Summary report  

 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),  

 The Geneva Foundation to Protect Health in War, Geneva, 14th of December 1998  



Several years ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) decided to enter into a more systematic exchange of views with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in general. One of the means it chose to do this was an annual seminar, the first of which took place in Geneva in 1994 and was organized jointly with the Graduate Institute of International Studies (GIIS) in Geneva. The seminars aim to bring together NGOs from different backgrounds and with different types of experience that are actively involved or interested in humanitarian work. They allow for an exchange of information on the role of international humanitarian law and human rights instruments, on the ICRC's work and on other topics of mutual interest. The 1997 seminar, for instance, focused on the security of humanitarian personnel in the field.

The 1998 seminar, organized in conjunction with the Geneva Foundation to Protect Health in War, discussed humanitarian standards and cultural differences. Indeed, in recent years the humanitarian community has worked to establish standards for the conduct of its activities. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's contribution was a Code of Conduct issued in 1994 together with the Steering Committe for humanitarian Response (SCHR), but dozens of other initiatives, not all of them widely known, have been taken since then.

The Sphere Project is one such initiative. Taken in 1997, it has given rise to intense discussion. The results of the Project's first phase were presented simultaneously in Washington and London on 3 December 1998.

One of the humanitarian community's concerns is how to integra te the " cultural dimension " into these initiatives. Although the term " cultural dimension " may be vague, it is a decisive factor in the humanitarian operations carried out in the context of modern conflicts. The " cultural dimension " may be ethnic, religious or socio-economic. And of course each humanitarian organization has its own " cultural dimension " , which may be institutional or stem from the geographic origin of its staff. In addition, each humanitarian organization works in a specific context, which may or may not reflect its own culture.

The participants in the 1998 seminar, whose views are summed up in the following pages, strove to obtain a clearer picture of the " cultural dimension " , an important subject which definitely merits further debate.

  Carlo von Flüe, ICRC  


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 Monday the 14th of December 1998  


Registration of Participants




 Keynote address: M. Paul Grossrieder, Director General, ICRC




 The SPHERE Project:  M. Nicholas Stockton Chairman The Sphere project

Management Committee




Coffee break




 The relationship between humanitarian work and cultural specificity  

Prof. F. Sabelli, anthropologist




 Relief agencies: Cultural challenges and cultural responsibility  

M. Hugo Slim, Director, CENDEP, Brookes University , Oxford








 Panel: Does the cultural dimension have an impact on results?  




Prof. Luc Paunier, President, Geneva Foundation 

Dr Pierre Perrin: chief medical officer ICRC 

M. Joel McClellan: Executif secretary SCHR*

Mme. Homayra Etemadi: Head of the International NGO working group on refugee women

M. Michael Kingsley: UNHCR

Ousemane Dianor, IUED **

M. Jean Luc Bodin, Director, ACF***







 Coffee break  




 Concluding remarks  


* Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response 

** Institut Universitaire d'Etudes pour le Développement

*** Action Contre la Faim

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 By Mr Paul Grossrieder, ICRC Director General  

In my talk to you today on humanitarian standards and cultural differences, I would like first to emphasize the preventive nature of humanitarian work. Non-governmental organizations and the ICRC take the preventive aspect of their work almost for granted, but many governments do not think it opportune to lend it importance.

For the ICRC, the word " preventive " refers to everything it does to promote knowledge and acceptance of international humanitarian law. And when the ICRC develops programmes of prevention, it must take into account cultural differences. Your discussion today is therefore of great interest to it.

The second point I wish to stress is the changing nature of conflicts. As you know, today's " new " conflicts are characterized not only by the fact that they are internal - that is nothing new - but also by the fact that the internal factors are fundamental. During the Cold War, all internal conflicts were in fact conflicts by proxy between the two superpowers. Today, internal conflicts arise from social, ethnic and religious tension, and/or economic disparity. The result is the sort of fratricidal wars which have broken out chiefly, but not exclusively, in Africa.

The fact that internal factors play such a major role in internal conflicts is one more reason why the intercultural aspect must be taken into account in our humanitarian work. These conflicts are in fact rooted in the history and tradition of the societies involved.

There is a third reason why today's theme is so important. For the ICRC, all aspects of protection are linked with human rights, and if you talk of human rights you inevitably touch on the issue of particularity versus universality. International humanitarian law reflects the same dichotomy.

Allow me briefly to list those human rights which form the basis of international humanitarian law:

 The right to life - this is a concept which needs to be interpreted in terms of cultural difference, not to negate the right to life, but rather to discover what makes it universal. And you cannot discover what makes it universal without considering cultural differences.

 The right to liberty and personal security - this right is explicitly mentioned in international humanitarian law, for example in the rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war. Here again, approaches differ depending on the culture.

 The right to a fair trial - this is another fundamental right in international humanitarian law, but also needs to be examined from the point of view of cultural difference.

 The right to family life and the protection of children - this is another fundamental right in international humanitarian light, but must be interpreted in the l ight of the culture concerned.

 The right to health care, adequate nutrition and shelter - this right must also be understood in the light of each culture. The approaches cannot be materially and physically the same everywhere. We need to take into account the structures of the different societies in which we work.

 The principle of non-discrimination - this is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law. Here, again, the cultural basis of this principle needs to be interpreted.

 The prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment - this is a basic tenet of international humanitarian law and is part of human rights, but needs to be understood from the point of view of different societies in order to be effectively applied.

As you know, international humanitarian law is based on the principle of humanity, which emphasizes the victims'right to receive humanitarian aid, to be assisted and protected. But it does not give us the right to interfere, it does not confer un droit d'ingérence , which would be counter to respect for different cultures and societies. The principle of humanity needs to be explained, in order to be accepted by the different societies in which we work.

In the field, humanitarian action is subject to many constraints. Cultural differences are one of the constraints insufficiently taken into account in our way of working. When the ICRC tried to understand why it had so many problems in obtaining access to the victims and ensuring its delegates'security, it came to the conclusion that if it had a better understanding of cultural differences and a greater awareness of what it was wh en it intervened in other societies, its work would be better understood and in the long run better accepted.

Another factor to consider when discussing humanitarian standards and cultural differences is the proliferation of new protagonists in theatres of conflict. Your presence here today is vivid proof that we are many to intervene in the humanitarian field. In addition, more and more local, national non-governmental organizations are present in the field and they need to be better understood. These national NGOs and Western humanitarian actors need to improve their understanding of each other in order to have a more effective mode of intervention and to interact more effectively.

There has also been a proliferation of combatants. Let me emphasize the private actors, for example security companies hired to support the management of certain crises, be it by governments or armed opposition movements. They also need to be approached appropriately with respect to international humanitarian law, and this is not an easy thing to do, as you know. Up to now, very little has been done in this field.

Then there are what the ICRC prudently calls the non-State actors, who are linked with crime and have nothing to do with traditional combatants. They also need to be approached effectively, in mutual understanding of humanitarian standards, not of their acts. This is in keeping with the philosophy of international humanitarian law, which is based on bringing every participant in war to respect the victims.

 Technical standards  

Following the 1993 Council of Delegates, of the International Movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent the International Federation and the ICRC were asked to work on the establishment of technical standards in their respective fields of activity. The outcome was the Code of Conduct, drawn up by the International Federation, other NGOs and the ICRC in order to obtain a common framework and terms of reference for their operations in the field.

At the same time, Oxfam and the International Federation initiated discussions which eventually resulted in the Sphere Project , a code of conduct which is in many ways an offshoot of the Red Cross Code and was drawn up by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, Interaction with Voice, ICVA and the ICRC.

At this stage, the Sphere Project seeks the formal commitment of a wide range of humanitarian agencies to the implementation of its Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in disaster response.

The Humanitarian Charter should be considered as a tool for dissemination of existing relevant bodies of international law. It evokes the international legal standards which apply to humanitarian activities, no matter what the context, in particular the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977, human rights law and refugee law. The Humanitarian Charter also reaffirms the need to act in accordance with the principles of impartiality and other humanitarian principles. The Charter does not imply that international humanitarian law should not be adapted for the purpose of working with different cultures.

The Minimum Standards represent the first attempt ever to develop common standards of reference and accountability. For the time being, they deal with specific activities undertaken at a specific time of emergency and for the needs of specific categories of persons. Later, an attempt should be made to find standards which could be applied to other situations in which humanitarian needs are observed.

While references for greater accountability are undoubtedly necessary, it would be counterproductive to adopt an approach that is too rigid or lacks flexibility. Doing so would place humanitarian practices above question and would discourage new initiatives and the development of alternative types of action. Flexibility is needed to ensure that responses are better adapted to needs in different contexts.

The effort made to date is most welcome, but it should be maintained. During Phase II of the project, close attention will have to be paid to the various perceptions and understandings that users from different cultural backgrounds may have of it.

 Cultural approach [1 ]

In recent years, the concepts of culture and identity have been widely used in the world of humanitarian endeavour. We need think only of the terms " cultural identity " , " identity-related conflict " and " intercultural approach " . Indeed, there has been much debate about what the word " culture " means. Philosophers, ethnologists, sociologists, anthropologists and more recently political scientists have published material on identity, on cultural malaise, and on changing fashions in – and even the " illusion " of – cultural identity. Much has been said of the weaknesses inherent in these concepts and they are the object of frequent criticism. In any event, there is a need to take a more constructive and dynamic approach to the matter.

What distinguishes one ethnic group from another is its members'conviction that they have common origins, be they religious, social or of another nature. But these criteria, which also include language, territory and skin colour, are not enough in themselves. In fact, they are little more than symbols of identity, their importance lying not in their substance but in what they represent for those who use them.

It is very important here to distinguish between cultural identity and the different aspects making up that id entity. Those aspects may be, for example, language or religion, and each person's cultural identity consists of not one but a series of such aspects. The horrible thing about recent cases of genocide is that one aspect was exploited as the identity of an entire population or society. Yet no society can be identified by one aspect alone. Each of us here today has a linguistic, religious and traditional identity. Our identity is never monolithic, but rather is made up of a number of different " essences " .

By declaring that a certain type of behaviour, a perceived virtue, a story, a song or a name is part of a tradition, one lends it the legitimacy of association with the past, even if there is no historical foundation for that association. Very often such traditions are mythical, and again, they should not be confused with cultural identity.

The issue of culture and identity is generally perceived in terms of interaction, of communication. " Otherness " is frequently perceived as an obstacle to be overcome and the intercultural approach considered a means of understanding and being understood by " the others " . The term " intercultural approach " very often embodies the idea of possible exchanges between one culture and another, an idea that presupposes clearly defined demarcations between different cultures.

There are definite implications to adopting an intercultural approach, for it means placing oneself at the very heart of the debate between the universalists and the cultural relativists. That is to say, it means facing the difficulties of reconciling respect for others, the right to be different, human equality, individual liberty and social determinism.

Defining others in terms of culture and identity is also a constructive act, for any intercultural action, be it by an individual or a humanitarian organization, serves to foster respect for others.

International rules cannot in themselves be adapted to cultural specificities. Nevertheless, strategies to promote international law should take into consideration regional, national and local cultural contexts. 

I am convinced that today's discussions will allow us to make progress in examining the relationship between humanitarian standards and cultural differences. Both need to be maintained, but not to the detriment one of the other.


In answer to a question about the process of economic globalization , Mr Grossrieder stated that while economic factors undeniably played an important role in " post-modern " conflicts, in his view humanitarian organizations could, by playing closer attention to cultural aspects and by adopting an intercultural approach, bring into play a counterweight to economic globalization and its effects. Globalization was of no social or economic benefit to the majority of the population, rather it tended to increase their suffering. It would be another matter if globalization improved the population's living conditions, but he knew of not one example in which this was the case. The economic factor was a factor of conflict, a reason to maintain and prolong an internal conflict. If humanitarian agencies resigned themselves to the inevitability of the process, they might simply prolong the wars they wished to see an end to - in fact they were already often accused of this.

When it came to human rights and humanitarian law , Mr Grossrieder said that while their significance should never be diminished, in some cases they did need to be interpreted for different cultures and societies. They were expressed in a certain language, for example that of the Geneva Conventions, which translated a very important human aspiration but was not necessarily the only language capable of doing so. Humanity was not just a universal concept but was lived by every society as a basic value. For example, in his discussions with a clan leader during the Afghan conflict, Mr Grossrieder had observed that any attempt to compare the Geneva Conventions with the Koran was pointless. What had in fact paved the way for greater mutual understanding and dialogue was the fact that the ICRC had visited the clan leader's own combatants in Pul-i-Charki prison; this act spoke to the fundamental sense of humanity which was present in both him and the clan leader and which transcended issues of philosophy and language.

Humanity was a basic reality so long as there was a common experience to be shared.

Humanitarian agencies claimed they had no right to interfere , yet they were developing strategies for interference on the basis of human rights. On this point, Mr Grossrieder stated that he was not in favour of a right to interfere by force. He accepted interference by force only if it was carried out in the context of an intercultural approach, in which case he would call it the right of the victims to be protected and assisted via an intercultural exchange. If humanitarian organizations showed due respect for cultural differences whenever they " interfered " , their presence and activities would not need to be imposed; rather they could carry out their work on a basis of mutual respect. This kind of cultural exchange was vital if interference by force was to be avoided.

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 By Joel McClellan  

Executive Secretary, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response

 The humanitarian challenge: today's context  

Humanitarian resources are plummeting. Humanitarian spending by the world's largest donor has fallen by 78% since 1995; food aid is down by 62% in five years; the percentage of UN consolidated appeals met by donors has decreased from 80% in 1994 to 49% in 1998; in 1997, OECD overseas development aid was about $ 40 billion, a 38% drop since 1992.

In the current environment, where resources for all " universalist " and " internationalist " projects are under growing financial pressure, the debate about humanitarianism is being conducted within an increasingly desperate and often highly competitive search for legitimacy on the part of all sections of the aid system.

It is in this context that the current discussion about conduct and standards is taking place.

 Background information on the Sphere Project  

" The Sphere Project: Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response " was sponsored by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (which included the Save the Children Fund, Oxfam, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, MSF, the World Lutheran Federation, the World Council of Churches, Care and Caritas Internationalis) and In terAction. Voice, the ICVA and the ICRC were observers. Funding was provided by eight NGO networks and 10 governments.

The project's goals were to:

  • draw up a Humanitarian Charter,

  • draw up an agreed set of minimum standards in four essential areas (water supply and sanitation; clothing, shelter, household items and site; health services; nutrition and food aid),

  • gain broad acceptance of the project,

  • disseminate the results widely.

Why had a need been felt for the project? More agencies were involved in humanitarian response; they were running larger operations and faced growing calls for accountability and increased tying of funds by the donors. Moreover, past operations had been criticized (i.e., the Rwanda multi-donor study).

The project was managed by a Management Committee made up of representatives from the members and observers, who also seconded sector managers to head the sector committees. Extensive use was made of lists of e-mail addresses. The draft standards were discussed at meetings in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and were posted on the worldwide web.

The project's acknowledgements lists 641 individual participants (countless others have gone unnamed) drawn from 228 organizations, including NGOs, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, academic institutions, the United Nations and governmental agencies, in what was truly a cooperative, collaborative and transparent process.

The completion of Phase I of the Sphere Project was celebrated at a simultaneous event in London and Washington on 3 December 1998. The full document has now been printed and was sent out last month.

 Phase II  

The Humanitarian Charter and the Minimum Standards have been distributed initially in English. French and Spanish editions will be available as soon as possible. All will be put on the Web and will be downloadable.

In 1999, humanitarian agencies committed to working towards implementation of the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards will examine and test their application in the field. The results should be fed back into the wider dissemination and training process. A new edition will be produced in the year 2000.

A training programme will be developed and implemented to ensure the widest possible awareness of the Minimum Standards. The capacity of organizations to implement them will be strengthened.

Organizational management will develop a best-practice approach, taking into account different organizational cultures.

Possible quality-assurance and compliance systems will be examined with a view to proposing a system for the project.

The Sphere Project's present URL address is:

 Humanitarian standards and cultural differences: are Sphere standards meant to be universal?  

Let us begin with the foundation of the project: " We believe that the human rights that underlie these standards must by definition be universal and cannot be compromised upon. The minimal standards that have derived from these rights also aspire to be universal " .

Allow me to quote UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the universality of human rights: " I think the universality of human rights has been questioned quite often. Let me start by saying that the Human Rights Convention was drafted by a unique group of scholars coming from all backgrounds and all cultures, and the majority of them came from the non-Western world. This sense that human rights is something that is being imposed by Western culture I personally find very demeaning. Demeaning for the love of dignity and the love of individual freedom that resides in the heart of every African, every Asian, every Latin American, and every American and every European. Human rights is intrinsic, is inherent in each individual. It is not dependent on what governments are prepared to give us or not give us. Human rights finds its roots in all the great religions. Whatever religion you are, if you read your basic book and it teaches you to be tolerant, to be fair, to be just, what is wrong with that? What is so cultural about that? In effect, human rights is about tolerance. It's respect for the other person, it's respect for diversity, and respecting the religions that other people hold sacred. And I think when you look at it and really analyse human rights, basically all these complaints about human rights being imposed, being in conflict with our culture, I will not accept it. The problem, in my judgement, is not with the Convention. It's like any religion, and when we think it through, the problem is never with the Bible, the Koran or the Torah. The problem is not with the faith but the faithful. We are often the problem. "

This echoes what Hugo Slim has w ritten: " The problem with which the principle of humanity has to contend is the nature of humanity itself. In other words, humanity is humanity's own worst enemy " .

 The rights-based approach: a current term which lacks precision  

The starting point of the Sphere Project is the " Humanitarian Charter: Rights of beneficiaries " . It embodies a rights-based approach to humanitarian response which is directly related to motives.

Compassion and mercy are important motives for humanitarian response. Many believe that they are necessary motives. Personally, I believe that they are universal motives based on a belief in the precious value or sacredness of human life.

But I think that we need to recognize that compassion and mercy are not sufficient motives and often represent a one-way street leading from the haves to the have-nots. A rights-based approach switches the focus from the feelings of the giver to the fundamental or universal rights of those affected by calamity.

The Humanitarian Charter reaffirms the fundamental importance of the following principles:

 The right to life with dignity, as reflected in the legal measures concerning the right to life and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. We understand an individual's right to life to entail a right to have steps taken to preserve life where it is threatened, and a corresponding duty on others to take such steps. Implicit in this is the duty not to withhold or frustrate the provision of life-saving assistance. In addition, international humanitarian law makes specific provision for relief assistance to civilian populations during conflict, whereby states and other parties are obliged to agree to the provision of humanit arian and impartial assistance when the civilian population lacks essential supplies.

 The principle of non-combatant immunity, based on the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, which underpins the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977 . This fundamental principle has been increasingly eroded, as reflected in the enormously increased proportion of civilian casualties during the second half of the twentieth century. That internal conflict is often referred to as'civil war'must not blind us to the distinction between those actively engaged in hostilities, and civilians and others (including the sick, wounded and prisoners) who play no direct part. Such people remain protected persons under international humanitarian law and are entitled to immunity from attack.

 The principle of non-refoulement . That is, the principle that no refugee shall be sent (back) to a country in which his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; or where there are substantial grounds for believing that s/he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

In relation to the principles mentioned above and more generally, we recognize and support the protection and assistance mandates of the International Committee of the Red Cross and of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees under international law. "

The Humanitarian Charter has selected rights which relate directly to the immediate activities of humanitarian response. It does not represent an attempt to prioritize human rights nor to create new ones. It is important to the Sphere Project because it squarely links humanitarian response to the rights of beneficiaries.

The Sphere Project aims to define technical standards as the exemplification or elaboration of those human rights embodied in international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights law that are of critical relevance to environments of conflict or calamity.

To make explicit the rights basis of the minimum standards, the Sphere Humanitarian Charter emphasizes these linkages, and the particular and primary responsibility of States or controlling authorities in upholding them.

Because the project took a rights-based approach, the standards had, necessarily, to be " minimums " rather than " optimals " or " best practices " . They are of two basic types:

output, or impact, standards related to individual or community needs (for example, " people's nutrient needs are met " , or " foods provided are appropriate and acceptable to the population " , or " mortality, morbidity and suffering associated with severe malnutrition have been reduced " );

management or process standards that apply to the way that the humanitarian system is run (for example, " nutrition interventions are implemented by staff who have appropriate qualifications and experience for the duties involved " , or " the performance and effectiveness of the shelter and site planning programme and changes in the context are monitored and evaluated " ).

It is important to stress that the Sphere standards are not expressed in quantified terms. However, " key indicators " have been proposed, with both qualitative and quantitative indices, for each standard. It is essential to understand, however, that while these are offered as " proxies " for the fulfilment of the standards, they are not in themselves minimum standards per se.

For example, the Sphere Project proposes that to satisfy the condition that " water at the point of collection is palatable, and of sufficient quality to be drunk... " (the minimum standard), there should be " no more than 10 faecal coliforms per 100 ml at the point of delivery for undisinfected supplies " (key indicator).

If evidence demonstrates that the impact or process indicators are too high (or too low) in any particular environment, then it is assumed that these would be adjusted, providing of course that the minimum standard was still met or exceeded.

We want to encourage greater transparency and accountability across the system. But let us be clear. The Sphere Project is not about enforcement and it is not a system of compliance. It has no teeth, it can threaten no sanctions. Furthermore, it cannot provide access to populations whose rights to protection are denied by warring parties.

While the Sphere Project's indicators can help to calibrate the requirements of populations in distress, it cannot provide the financial and political resources that the humanitarian system must be given for the minimum standards to be met. These conditions, which are a sine qua non for successful humanitarian action, are clearly laid out as working assumptions within the project.

The Sphere Project is not and has never aimed to be a humanitarian panacea.

 Standards in differing cultures  

Although the project aspires to universal minimum standards based on universal rights, the application of those standards and the processes of meeting them need to be related to differing cultures. In reviewing the Sphere Project with regard to questions of cultural relativity, we need to examine the Sphere standards at several distinct levels:

  • international law and ethical universality (the Humanitarian Charter),

  • output or impact standards,

  • process or management standards,

  • qualitative and quantitative indicators.

In looking at each of these we must pursue a careful and deliberate process.

  • Does the project's work promote a form of universalism that challenges or threatens cultural diversity?

  • If the answer is yes, does that phenomenon have any critical relevance to " life chances " in conditions of calamity and conflict? (If not, it is probable that the standard or indicator concerned is irrelevant or redundant to the humanitarian system.)

  • If yes, does the phenomenon enjoy the " informed consent " of those who embrace it or who are affected by it? (If not, such informed consent should be sought.)

The issue of culture and standards must be dealt with in a systematic and transparent way, in a manner that is concrete and problem-solving in its approach.

While the development of minimum standards represents an important step towards improving the quality of humanitarian response and our accountability to donors and beneficiaries, it will need to be combined with the inventiveness and flexibility of humanitarian agencies and the dedication of individual aid workers which has characterized the best of our humanitarian work.

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 Professor Fabrizio Sabelli  


What is the influence of " cultural specificity " on the failure or success of humanitarian operations?

The validity of the " culturalist " approach

The American culturalist school is the dominant approach in this field. According to its proponents, every individual's position vis-à-vis humanitarian action is dictated by his own " culture " , meaning a system of values arising from ancient traditions which are largely based on religious imperatives. They hold that the world is divided into " cultural zones " , each of which has its own specificity. One is thereby prompted to ask of humanitarian action whether its ends are compatible with those of specific local traditions. The " culturalists " maintain that cultures are immutable and have become even more firmly anchored in tradition by the process of economic and financial globalization.

The answer to our question would in that case be relatively simple:

  • humanitarian action should pattern its models of behaviour on the fundamental principles of cultural anthropology which currently dominate in the United States;

  • humanitarian organizations should draw up their plans for action on the basis of a solid stock of knowledge about the " cultural specificities " of each continent;

  • they should set up an efficient programme of " computerized " analysis, so as to be able 

  • to assess in real time the degree of compatibility of one or another culture with the principles of humanitarian ethics;

  • they must act in consequence by agreeing to abide by the rules of a sort of " cultural diplomacy " .

This school of thought can be summed up in three words: civilization, identity, conflict. It holds that each civilization provides each individual with a permanent vision of social organization and a permanent concept of religious values, both based on a specific historical heritage; that our present and future world is characterized by a new geopolitical structure made up of " areas of civilization " ; and that we will witness a series of conflicts between civilizations in the name of maintaining cultural identity.

I am convinced - and I am not the only anthropologist to have this conviction - that this " culturalist " vision of the world is profoundly wrong because it does not correspond to the real world. " Areas of civilization " are a pure abstraction. They are the fruit of a discriminatory concept of humanity, the remains of a racist philosophy developed during the 19th century. The significance given to cultural identity and the emphasis placed on religion and traditions are simply another means of distorting reality, of hiding the new identities created by the economic (poverty, inequality, exploitation) and political (injustice, social exclusion, " ghettoization " ) conditions of the modern world.

Any serious anthropological thought on the purpose of humanitarian action in today's world should be based not on " cultural identity " but on the existential dimension of the human condition . Some remarkable works were published on this topic in the 70s; they were all too quickly forgotten, probably for reasons of " humanitarian correctness " .

While the notion of culture may still be meaningful in the field of humanitarian action, its content cannot be disassociated from the specific context . The shantytowns of Kinshasa, the Inera refugee camp (Bukavu), a Washington, D.C. ghetto, the half-abandoned villages of Angola and Rwanda, all are context-places in which men and women produce a... " culture " whose content depends more on their creativity than on their myths or other cultural traditions. The cruel truth of modern life is that an individual's relationship with his Kalachnikov is much more significant for his " culture " than the fetish he carries about with him.

 Back to the basics: love, death and power  

The need to love and be loved, the fear of death and suffering: these existential attitudes are and always have been the foundation of any humanitarian action. They transcend " cultures " and eras, and represent one of the essential constituent dimensions of life in society.

" Humanitarianism " is not the invention of a civilization. But as soon as political power takes charge of this sector of human endeavour, conflict breaks out between groups, between States and between societies. You have to reread William Shakespeare to grasp the universal and " transhistoric " nature of the human condition in the light of the relationship between love, death and power.

If we understand the need for love and the fear of death, we can understand the reaction of the Good Samaritan. The need for love and the fear of death are what enabled us to appreciate Henry Dunant's work and what made him a " layman saint " of the contemporary world. The need for love and the fear of death help us understand why thousands of people - young people in particular - engage in humanitarian w ork.

On the other hand, the power and logic underlying humanitarian endeavour tell us why the Church sets out on crusades, why UNHCR takes on the role of the " religious arm " of the United Nations Security Council, why many agencies and NGOs position themselves effectively and aggressively on the humanitarian market.

The failure of many assistance " operations " in the field and the occurrence of what are termed " chance mishaps " , such as the kidnapping and murder of humanitarian workers, can be explained by the ambiguous position of humanitarian agencies towards power, economic power in particular.


Of course, cultural specificity and religious identity pose a number of communication problems for humanitarian action. It is worth asking, however, whether these cultural factors do not all too often serve as a pretext to hide the real reasons for the difficulties encountered in assistance operations, reasons which are essentially political. In addition, those who stay in power by exercising control on traditions and the faith of believers use " culture " as a symbolic weapon to hamper the process of economic globalization.

Human society is a wonderful machine in which the struggle for power renders good people cruel without their being aware of it.


 One participant raised the problem of arms sales and the military. There had been a general failure after World War II to instil the humanitarian spirit in the military. Did the ends always justify the means?

 Prof. Sabelli replied that when moral values en tered the institutional framework, they came under the influence of political values and changed. Humanitarian agencies had to cope with that. They had to be more cynical to understand reality.

 Another participant mentioned the importance of cultural differences in areas such as the struggle against HIV infection. In such cases, which had little to do with economics, culture had to be taken into account.

 Prof. Sabelli agreed and conceded that culture was not totally irrelevant, especially in the medical field. Even in economics, each exchange system had its cultural specificity. His point was that the cultural approach was not useful in the humanitarian world.

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 Hugo Slim  

Director, CENDEP, Oxford Brookes University

Humanitarianism, its practice and its law, is based on a universal ethic. This makes it universalist, and we can therefore not adopt cultural relativism in relation to the core ethic of humanitar ianism, which is the limitation of war. And yet, I believe very strongly that humanitarianism cannot be a supremacist ethic either, given the difficulties of its operating environment.

This puts me in mind of the Greek myth of the Gordian knot. The Greek king Gordius of Phrygia tied his chariot with such an elaborate knot that it was impossible to undo. Many people tried to untie the knot, until Alexander the Great came along with a very sharp sword and just cut straight through it and took the chariot.

I object to the kind of humanitarianism which takes the Alexandrian approach, which believes in a supremacist approach that can just cut through the problems and realities of culture and politics in people's lives. How wrong it is to think we can arrive as humanitarians and ride through those problems, saying we are right, this is how we work, it is our right to do this. I would argue for a loosening rather than a cutting of the knot.

If this is true, then humanitarianism, as we heard this morning from the ICRC, is required morally to negotiate its presence and its actions, in spite of its universalist nature. It therefore has to negotiate the knots of politics and culture in any given situation. Our challenge as humanitarians is negotiating with culture. This is not ethical relativism in the face of cultural difference, but an ethical and operational pluralism where we have to accept the knot and work with it.

It is important first to take a look at what modern, organized humanitarianism is culturally. It springs from a culture, one of the sources of which is here in Geneva. It engages around the world with many cultures. It prizes culture itself. In the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, religion, people's way of life, their cultural objects are prized by humanitarianism. So we can say that humanitarianism prizes cultural difference.

Humani tarian aid also aims to spread a culture. A culture of restraint in war and increasingly, particularly in the NGO community, a culture of peace as well.

Finally, of course, organized, modern, Western humanitarianism has an organizational culture of its own. And within its wider international, global culture, it has different national cultures of humanitarianism.

Bearing this in mind, I want to look at two main things. First I would like to examine what might be considered the operational principles for humanitarianism's encounters and engagement with other cultures, and second I would like to look at humanitarianism's own culture.

Let us start with the latter: humanitarianism and the culture it embodies. Humanitarianism, as it is manifested today, is quintessentially and predominantly Western. It is therefore a philosophical culture of restraint in war, not objection to war in itself.

It also, in its understanding of the principle of humanity, has an essentialist philosophy of humanity. It believes there is something in all people around the world that makes them essentially human and essentially the same. It was nevertheless interesting to hear Paul Grossrieder take a more subtle approach to this view and argue that " essences " never get you anywhere, that humanity has to be proved by shared experience. In the same way, Richard Rorty speaks of human solidarity as made, not given.

Humanitarianism also springs from a philosophical culture which is fundamentally individualistic. The laws and traditions of humanitarianism are framed in a way which is primarily about the protection and assistance of the individual rather than the group or community.

Increasingly, as we have seen not least in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter, the philosophical culture of humanitarianism is individual human rights-based in its theory and its e xpression.

And finally, humanitarian culture is law-based, as developed in the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, in codes of conduct and in standards such as the Sphere Project, rather than virtue-based. So it makes laws, it has prohibitions and injunctions, rather than prizing virtues which then become principles for judging situations.

If that is the philosophical culture of humanitarianism, how does it, and how should it, engage with different cultures?

Modern, Western humanitarianism engages with other cultures at three levels: ideological, social and practical.

At the ideological level, when we engage with another culture and negotiate a humanitarian presence in that culture and its conflict, it is important to look at three things in particular. First, how do the people in question understand the principle of humanity, how do they see human nature? Do they have an essentialist approach, or is their sense of humanity based more on the relationships created by interaction rather than on a characteristic found in every human being?

Second, what is a people's philosophy, morality and culture of war? How do they understand, use and develop war and violence in their society. Some people speak of the culture of bellicosity. As Englishmen we tend to be pretty bellicose, but we have a warrior culture, we get a special group to do it for us. Switzerland has a different culture of bellicosity, with a gun in every cupboard.

Third, what is a people's philosophy, their culture of charity, of hospitality, of help. We have a very definite, imperial culture of help in humanitarianism. But what is the culture in the community in which we are trying to be charitable, trying to be hospitable, trying to be helpful?

At the social level, we also need to ask a number of question s. Do people understand social life primarily in individualistic terms, as in the West, or more in corporate, communal terms? Do they have a more social understanding of being a person? What are their theories of childhood and of gender? The protection of women and children has a special place in humanitarianism and its laws. What does this mean for the people one is engaging with? How do they, indeed do they, give priority to women and children?

The questions at the ideological level relate to the concept of humanity, whereas those asked at the social level are more practical, because they affect the way we programme and manage humanitarian operations. They affect the way we design relief distribution models, the way we target women and children in our work.

At the practical level, the questions are also, of course, more practical. The most obvious concerns diet. The humanitarian community has on several occasions given totally unsuitable food to people, food that could not be eaten or cooked, or was religiously inappropriate.

There is also the question of health models. We need to understand how people express and envisage their own sense of health and well-being. This will have a decisive impact on how we programme physical health programmes and even more importantly, as we have learnt in the past few years, the way we programme psycho-social health programmes.

Those are the three levels at which we need to negotiate culture. If we do this from the point of view of our universal ethic, we are likely to encounter one of four scenarios.

In the first, similar values are presented differently. We might all agree about humanity as a principle, we might all agree about children, but we might present those topics somewhat differently.

In the second scenario, we may find a significantly different emphasis around shared goods. This would pro bably most often occur when a communalist approach confronts an individualistic one. In some societies you help the community to help everyone, whereas the Western humanitarian usually helps individuals to help the community. We need to negotiate to understand whether we are really talking about different things or similar, common goals.

In the third scenario, a negotiation of culture might reveal real differences. These are very important to uncover. They may concern the treatment of prisoners (who in some instances will be killed or humiliated) or the dispensability as opposed to the primacy of children.

A serious negotiation of culture may also, in a fourth scenario, reveal that culture is being used as a political alibi for excessive violence, for a ruthless political project. It has been dressed up as culture, but it is not really culture. You will hear this if you talk to certain women in Afghanistan and elsewhere. So from a proper negotiation of culture and cultural values we may well discover where culture is being used as an alibi.

From this cultural negotiation, humanitarianism can find out what is held in common and stand firm against what is a real difference. This process is very necessary. We have to find out what can be adapted and negotiated, and what real differences we have to take a strong line on.

It is also interesting to point out that as humanitarian agencies we are often dealing with bicultural groups. For example, an NGO working in Sierra Leone will have staff familiar with Western culture but also with their own national culture. The same applies to local authorities, warring factions, and any elites we work with. They will be fluent in the neo-liberal project Professor Sabelli was talking about.

I would like to talk now about the risks of not negotiating culture. The first is that if you take the sword approach to the Gordian knot you might miss the o pportunity of working with the humanitarian element in the culture you want to help.

The second risk is that if you do not negotiate culture as a humanitarian, you design technically bad programmes. They are socially bad because they are organized around models of distribution which are irrelevant or plain ridiculous. They may be providing resources or inputs which are also irrelevant or ridiculous.

The third risk is that where real differences exist, we cannot convince, change or transform those differences. We never really talk about those differences, and therefore as universalists we never have the real conversation that our ethic demands.

Now I would like to brainstorm about our culture as humanitarians. Modern, Western organized humanitarianism embodies a particular culture. It is a white culture, a middle-class culture, a culture of wealth and of ignorance. How often have we been amazed at how little those people charging around in Landrovers actually know and understand?

Humanitarianism is distinguished by transience. It passes through, it comes and goes. It is detached from the people, the society it seeks to engage with. For many people, it has a dazzling array of cultural emblems, badges and logos. A refugee camp in modern Africa resembles nothing so much as a battlefield in medieval Europe, with everyone parading their heraldic coat of arms. This must be rather baffling for those who see it arriving on their doorstep.

Humanitarianism is a young culture, and it is more and more a female culture. It is a wonderful story of women getting a piece of the action. It is also ritualistic, falling back on the cleansing rites of war: rituals of food distribution, water supplies, plastic sheeting.

Humanitarianism is increasingly priestly. The Sphere Project is one manifestation of the codes and standards by which you have to abide to join the club. You have to believe to come into the sacred space of international humanitarianism. Then and only then will you be ordained to deliver and give out the rites, the rituals of international humanitarianism.

Allied to this idea of priestliness is the notion of growing professionalism. Much writing has criticized professionalism as a deadening process for a vocation. Humanitarians want to keep an eye on that.

One can also characterize the humanitarian culture as increasingly legal. Here in Geneva you have always been legal. But even Save the Children Fund has now gone megalegal.

If that is how the humanitarian culture is perceived by the people we help, how is it perceived by the people who send us, by the people who give us money? I think it is still perceived as something exotic and erotic. It is quite an erotic profession within Western culture. It is still considered noble, selfless, courageous. There is the idea - although this is now disputed - that it is good. A sense also that it is naive, but a naiveté we quite like. And as Professor Sabelli said, it is a commercial culture; there is a humanitarian market, people are selling Somaliland.

As Jonathan Benthall has done, we can break Western humanitarian culture down into cultural differences between us as well. There is a definite Swiss humanitarian culture: it is a legal, reserved, discreet but determined sort of culture. There is a Gallic humanitarian culture, quite full of bluster, charging around demanding rights to intervene, being passionate. There is also an Anglo-Saxon culture, a Nordic culture, and probably an Italian and a Spanish culture of international humanitarianism.

In conclusion, I wish to stress that I think we should remain firmly universalist, but we must accept that there is a plurality of engagement. We need to negotiate with, explore and work with and, when we discover real differences, challenge different cultures, and we must do this on different levels. But we must be very aware of our own culture, its philosophy and our organizational culture.


 Prof. Sabelli asked how one could negotiate culture if culture was a part of us? How could we negotiate ourselves? Secondly, how long would it take in terms of field work to collect all the information required (ideological, social, everyday life)?

Third, was a nation's culture of bellicosity unchanging?

 Mr. Slim replied that negotiating culture was not a problem. An effort had to be made to know what one stood for and put it on the table. One could listen to others say how they perceived Western humanitarianism. This was communication, of course, but certain things - presence, programmes - had to be negotiated in line with people's understanding of the rationale of the programme and its detail.

This need not take that long, especially if points of agreement were discovered.

Each nation's culture of bellicosity could, of course, change, but it was essential to understand the people encountered.

 Another participant wondered how humanitarianism could move beyond priesthood, to convince non-believers of its universalist ethic.

 Mr. Slim replied that this was essential, that humanity wa s not a principle owned by a small group of humanitarian agencies, but that multinationals, politicians, etc., could become believers too. Humanitarianism had to be not just priestly but also prophetic, challenging others in their beliefs.

 One participant spoke of the culture of peace mentioned by Mr. Slim. It seemed contradictory to speak of restraint in war but not be particularly against war. How could this be explained, especially given that more and more humanitarian organizations, in particular the ICRC and Oxfam, were moving away from activities that could be described as purely humanitarian and towards those that could be described as conflict prevention activities.

 Mr. Slim pointed out that things were changing. Classical humanitarianism was an ethic of restraint, not an ethic of objection to war. It legalized war. The majority of humanitarian organizations were not pacifist organizations. Indeed, some of them had recently even called for the use of force. But the past few years had seen a pacification of humanitarianism. This was dodgy for two reasons. One, did humanitarianism really object to war per se? Two, the pacification of humanitarianism could be seen as putting peace conditions on humanitarian aid. If one started designing programmes in terms not of need alone but also by looking at who could add peace to the process, the traditional notion of impartial response to need could be undermined. This might lead to a shift away from those who suffered towards the " peace-able " .

In this connection, Carlo von Flüe of the ICRC pointed out that peace always involved a political dimension (redistribution of resources, etc.) which was beyond the scope of humanitarian work.

 Mr. Slim added that one could value peace, as the Red Cross did, but that programming around a particular peace was problematic.

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Professor Luc Paunier, Chairman

Dr. Pierre Perrin

Mr Joel McClellan

Ms Homayra Etemadi

Mr Michael Kingsley

Mr Oussemane Dianor

Mr Jean-Luc Bodin

 Dr Pierre Perrin ,The complete text of Dr Perrin's statement (in French only) is available from the ICRC. speaking about standards and quality assurance, stated that the search for quality was a constant factor in any activity, and that when it came to humanitarian work, the criteria of quality were not necessarily the greatest cost-efficiency but first and foremost the victims'needs. He described a concept for the establishment of a quality-assurance system in the humanitarian field and identified the place of standards within that system.

To start with, any quality humanitarian operation was based on two important tenets: the first was to focus the work done on the victims, and not to allow the operation to deviate and serve the needs of humanitarian organizations for reasons of political opportunis m or visibility; the second was to follow a logical approach known as PDCA (plan, do, check, act), which had long been applied in humanitarian operations.

" Planning " implied first analysing the victims'needs and the economic, socio-cultural and political systems to which they belonged. An in-depth analysis of this sort would enable humanitarian workers to adopt the strategy of intervention which was most appropriate for a given situation at a given time.

The victims'overall needs then had to be analysed to avoid setting up sectorial operations which would leave entire sections of their needs untreated. For example, technically correct assistance operations might ignore the fact that they were being conducted in a context in which the victims'fundamental rights were being systematically flouted.

Once both these analyses had been carried out, the planning phase ended with the definition of general objectives based on the victims'needs. In this way, the means did not become the ends.

In terms of quality assurance, " doing " implied conducting activities with due respect for the coherence of the objectives set, following the procedures for implementation defined in the planning phase, and mobilizing appropriate resources.

" Checking " corresponded to monitoring and evaluation, two processes which must have been planned before the operation got under way and which had to be carried out while it was ongoing.

To " act " then meant to adapt the operation on the basis of the regular analysis of the situation as a whole, on the information gathered during the monitoring process and on the results of the evaluation.

This sequence could be represented in a loop with the victims in the centre, as follows:


Quality had to be sought at all levels. High-quality activities would be irrelevant if the decision to undertake them was based on a poor-quality analysis.

While planning, doing, checking and acting were the basic elements of any quality-assurance system, they were not enough. the system also had to take account of standards which might be international, specific to an organization or local. Such standards were of vital importance when evaluating impact because they allowed for useful comparisons. The existence and knowledge of such standards were part and parcel of any quality assurance system.

Evaluations constituted not only a management tool but were also indispensable for an institution's collective memory. That memory was not just a passive pool of information but an instrument for developing institutional policy. It was the link between changes in strategy and procedures and the lessons learned from past experience.

It was also important to ensure that policies and procedures were learned by those who had to implement them. Training was therefore another essential component of any quality assurance system.

The above loop could therefore be expanded as follows:


Each component of the " quality loop " had to have its own quality criteria and the necessary mechanisms to guarantee quality. For example:

  • the analysis of the situation had to be done with great care using available analysis tools;

  • the services provided had to meet the quality criteria defined for that kind of service;

  • the mechanisms for regular monitoring had to be put in place and work;

  • evaluation had to be planned;

  • appropriate standards had to used;

  • policies had to be regularly updated;

  • training programmes had to be designed to prepare personnel for their future tasks.

The following chart summed up the quality aspect of each component of a quality assurance system.


Quality-assurance systems were useful only if there was interaction between the components. Mechanisms therefore had to be put in place guaranteeing that:

  • the results of evaluations were systematically used to adapt ongoing operations, feed institutional memory, develop policy and as practical input for training programmes;

  • standards were used in all three phases of the operation (planning, implementation and evaluation);

  • training gave personnel the competence required to carry out the planned activities. This implied constant exchange between those in charge of the operation and those in charge of training.


The ICRC had set up its own quality-assurance system, comprising:

  • " Planning for results " , a planning tool established in September 1998 which emphasized rigorous analysis of humanitarian situations and the establishment of objectives on the basis of the victims'needs;

  • analytical accounting which enabled the ICRC to establish a link between activities and their real cost in order to provide precise information to the donors; impact evaluations;

  • the regular review and development of ICRC policy, for example as concerned the treatment of war wounded;

  • training, from introductory courses to specialized courses on topics such as international humanitarian law and public health;

  • close links at the level of the Directorate between operations, resource management, evaluation and policy development.

In conclusion, this approach made it possible to situate standards within a quality-assurance system. Standards were an important factor on the condition that their interpretation took account of the parameters of each situation, in particular the constraints, the socio-economic environment and the cultural criteria. It was important to remember that in

the humanitarian field, the objective of any quality-assurance system was first and foremost to ensure that operat ions corresponded to the victims'needs.

 Mr Ousmane Dianor [2 ] spoke about the impact of the cultural dimension on emergency food aid . Although food aid sought to meet physiological needs expressed in terms of energy and vitamins, it was pointless to distribute food if proper account had not been taken of food habits, which were cultural. The Sphere Project represented an attempt to address this issue.

Nutrition or food was in fact a cultural need which could be defined as the acquisition by a group from its environment of the foodstuffs required to cover not only basic energy needs but also to ensure growth, good health and vitality. Depending on each society's nutrition customs, those foodstuffs were either vegetable or animal, or both. Africa could thus be divided into two patterns of food consumption: to the west of the Abidjan-Bobo Dioulasso meridian, food consumption was basically cereal-based, while to the east it was based on the consumption of tubers.

Because food habits varied so widely, they could not be defined in " universal " terms. They reflected the relationship each society had with its environment, and the nutritional state of a group of people thus depended on the resources available and its degree of social organization.

Thus, a population could have more than sufficient resources, yet still suffer from malnutrition, either because the foodstuffs were not sufficiently nutritious or because they did not correspond to local custom. This latter case had arisen when humanitarian organizations had tried to meet a population's food needs without taking into account the local cultural and traditional specificities.

Mr Dianor gave as a first example what had happened in 1994 and 1995 in the camps for Rwandan refugees in the N'Gara region of Tanzania. Humanitarian agencies working in the camps had wanted to improve their food distribution mechanisms by taking into account the structure of the " African family " . With the best of intentions, they had identified the man as the " head " of the family, and therefore distributed the food accordingly. What they had not realized was that in Africa since the introduction of cash crops, men had been in charge of economic sector (commercial crops which were sold for a profit) while the women had been in charge of social sector (food crops which generate nothing in returns if not few). When the humanitarian organizations distributed food to the unemployed men in the camps, the men did what they had always done: sold them. The money they earned was not put towards feeding their families, but was used to satisfy their personal needs (for drink, to gamble, etc.). The women, who were responsible for the welfare of the family and vulnerable groups, were left out of the system, and the survival of the family was thus threatened.

In such a case, the humanitarian organizations had not taken sufficient account of a vital cultural aspect: that while men were the titular heads of the family, women in fact did 60% of the agricultural work and had sole charge of feeding the family.

The refugee camps in the Bukavu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were another example. In that part of the continent, aid organizations usually distributed biscuits, wheat flour, milk and pulses. Although this was sufficient to meet the refugees'energy needs, it was not sufficient to meet their local dietary needs for plantains, yams, manioc flour and meet, and did not meet their social (cultural) need for beer. The refugees therefore tried to meet those needs themselves. Contrary to the camp rules, which forbade all economic activity, they tried to grow their own food or opened bars, restaurants and small shops.

Space was in such short supply, however, that the refugees had to rent land from the local Congolese population. They paid the rent either in cash or with their labour. But the local landlord could break the contract at any moment, and since the refugee had no right to exercise an economic activity, he had no means of appeal. In fact, the Congolese landlords did regularly break the contracts, often with the complicity of the armed forces and usually just before a crop was ready to be harvested.

Moreover, the refugees never knew when the camps would be moved or they themselves forced to move on.

To solve such problems, humanitarian organizations had to make greater allowances for the cultural aspects of diet, or all their efforts to help would be in vain. Some of those sub-contracting their operations to local NGOs were already doing that, but the local NGOs tended to be very competitive. The humanitarian agencies therefore had to continue buying products on the local market, thereby providing a source of income for the local population and eliminating competition with imports.

Humanitarian organizations also had to develop consumption strategies. They had to find effective and low-cost means of providing adequate minimum nutrition which respected the cultural food needs of the victims of war or natural disasters. The Coalition of African Organization for Food and Sustainable Development and the Graduate Institute of- Development Studies therefore recommended that refugee camps be " consolidated " , meaning that the population's needs had to be identified and production organized in such as way as to involved it in the decision-making process.

" Consolidation " was possible in several areas: shelter, latrines, health services, education, etc. When it came to " consolidation " of agriculture as a complement to food aid, the term referred to the development of means enabl ing the refugees to produce some of their food. This would have two advantages. First, they would be able to a certain extent to fend for themselves and not be dependent on international aid. Second, their creative instincts would be stimulated, and this would help them cope with their trauma. This form of " consolidation " implied making available land and the material and financial means to farm it. With the development of quick-growing varieties of tomatoes, cassava and cereals, continuity between the emergency and the development phase could be ensured by making available simple farm tools and small loans.

This tendency was in conformity with the Sphere Project. It took account of cultural specificities and constraints. The fact that these had been ignored in the past was one of the reasons why the development strategies implemented in Africa in the past thirty years had failed.

 Michael Kingsley spoke about the cultural dimension in terms of shelter. He felt that an appreciation of the cultural dimension was central to the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance in all situations. Not only was this logical, his reading of the experience of UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies tended to support it as well.

Culture was an essential component of who we were. This was particularly so in times of upheaval and crisis, because our world view and our psycho-social orientation were crucial to the means by which we dealt with pathological situations. In other words, our cultural constitution was of immense relevance - some would say that it was the very foundation of coping mechanisms.

For a variety of reasons, we tended to be familiar with a State-centred approach to humanitarian issues. We generally had little difficulty understanding the interests of States. What we needed to do was lower our sights and see flight, forced displa cement and exile from the perspective of social and cultural uprooting - in a word, in terms of social breakdown. It was a well-known fact that flight and forced displacement were almost always followed by loss of identity and disrupted relationships of custom, status, traditional authority and social structures.

From this angle, the cultural perspective was important for at least two reasons. First, it helped us to appreciate the human impact of flight. Second, it helped us to better understand the consequences of social breakdown on the coping mechanisms and response capabilities of those affected by humanitarian crises. If we failed to incorporate the cultural perspective in our humanitarian work, we would ultimately disregard the humanity of those we claimed to serve. If we failed to incorporate the cultural perspective in our humanitarian work, we also denied ourselves an important tool, because the culture of the victims and hosting communities could be a source of valuable information as to how best resolve the humanitarian challenge.

The issue of shelter had to be considered beyond the physical connotations of the word «shelter», which invoked images of a mere physical structure, and suggested that the loss of a dwelling place could be dealt with in terms of plastic sheeting and metres and centimetres. It further suggested that the central purpose of a house was simply to provide

cover from the elements. 

The effectiveness of humanitarian work, however, would be optimized if humanitarian organizations understood that to the victims of displacement, a home was much more than a mere physical structure.

In all societies, the location of a house, its appearance, and what it contained were key indicators of the occupant's place within the social structure of the community. A home was a special space which facilitated social interactions because it set apart the publ ic arena from the private domain. Within this unique sanctuary called a home, an individual could commune with the intimate family circle and with God, and reinforce the kinship and family bonds upon which the community and the larger society thrived. A doorstep - whether of a tukul in the Horn of Africa or a hut in Afghanistan - was the frontier between public authority and personal space. A home was a universe in which an individual's rights had their full meaning. 

When individuals were forced to move from their homes, and particularly when this happened in violent circumstances, the material losses and psycho-physical injuries represented but a fragment of their deprivations. Displacement also caused the collapse of social and community ties and often shattered the very sense of self of the individuals affected. Where, as was often the case, land, livestock, and other means of sustenance were tied to the home, the disruptive impact of forced displacement was greatly magnified for individuals and communities. In effect, the community fabric unravelled.

This was manifested at the individual level by feelings of inadequacy, humiliation and disorientation.

The essential point was that the raison d’être of humanitarian intervention should be to enable the victims to overcome these negative consequences of trauma, flight, and exile. This was best achieved through genuine sensitivity to the culture of those we claimed to serve.

 Ms Homayra Etemadi spoke about cultural symbols and values. She pointed out that as the humanitarian community sought to improve the quality and effectiveness of assistance to peoples whose lives were disrupted by disaster, it should not lose sight of the fact that there was a difference in the psyche of those affected by a natural phenomenon such as an earthquake or flood, and of those affected by warfare.

War was a social phenomenon characterized by the disruption of relations and a sense of hostility and animosity towards the opposition group(s). More often than not, in the context of warfare, emotionally-invested cultural symbols and values that fostered tension and conflict were manipulated so that they gained prominence over values that promoted social interaction, cooperation and harmony. Though culture provided the symbolic matrix within the context of which factors contributing to social disruption or cohesion were understood and interpreted, aid agencies responding to suffering brought about by conflict only give peripheral attention to it in the planning and execution of humanitarian assistance. When aid agencies were ignorant of cultural institutions and the symbols that supported them, they unwittingly contributed to a process of social and political engineering that could have negative consequences for the very populations that they sought to set on the path of recovery and sustainable socio-economic advancement.

In Afghanistan, for example, ever since the proclamation of the first constitution in 1923, successive governments had attempted to strengthen the political institutions and mechanisms of governance that were considered to be conducive for the strengthening of a modern nation-state. Despite these efforts, Afghan society had maintained a strong tribal and community-based identity. In reality, beyond extracting taxes and performing limited services, the central political authorities interfered little in the lives of the vast majority of Afghans. In 1978, immediately after seizing power, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) began a " socialization " process that was perceived as not only infringing on the private lives of the people but also directly attacking the people's cultural, traditional and religious identity. Many of the PDPA reforms, pa rticularly those relating to the emancipation of women, land distribution and the eradication of illiteracy, addressed some of the crucial problems facing Afghanistan. However, the failure of the PDPA cadre to appreciate the influence of age-old cultural institutions and religious values on the acceptance or rejection of these reforms, and also the provocative and repressive methods used to implement them resulted in a series of localized uprisings that ultimately led to a state of civil war.

This situation culminated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which in turn set the stage for the resistance or national uprising to take on a homogenous religious character. The Afghan self-image was centred around honour and the defence of religion, country, neighbour, customs and traditions as a sacred duty. Tribal and age-old customs were closely integrated with the Islamic identity of the Afghans. The global Cold War politics of the time necessitated that the Afghan Islamic identity be advanced as the cohesive element through which the various divisive forces in Afghan society could be controlled and focused on a resistance to the Soviet occupation.

As such, instead of looking to support the traditional political power structures, the international community directed its support to the militant Islamic groups that had been residing in exile in Pakistan ever since their abortive attempt in 1975 and that were inciting a rebellion that was aimed at purging Afghan society of the depravation, the indecency and the undermining influence of Western norms and values. Militant Islamic groups became the foundations upon which the political/military Mujahideen groups were created. They gained authority over the people because of the control that they wielded over the supply of weapons and access to humanitarian assistance. They achieved added legitimacy for their authority through the manipulation and exploitation of religious values and symbols. Islamic rhetoric became the norm: every meeting was started with a recitation from the Holy Koran, every rocket fired was accompanied by the call " Allah Akbar " . Meanwhile, stories about the virtues of the Mujahid (holy warrior) and Shaheed (holy martyr) helped to nurture and shape a Afghan symbolic self ready to join the ranks of the Mujahideen groups.

The Mujahideens’ exploitation of the religious symbols and traditional customs valued by the Afghans had a major impact on humanitarian programmes. Influenced by their own perception of the conflict and unable to look beyond the Islamic rhetoric, the aid organizations fell into the trap of accommodating the demands of the Mujahideen leaders and the political interests of the donors in the design and planning of their programmes.

During the period of the Soviet occupation, NGOs and other humanitarian organizations actively supported and worked with the political/military Mujahideen groups, arguing that a military victory for the Mujahideen would bring an end to the conflict. Moreover, cooperation with them was seen as the most efficient way to deliver aid and provide support to the war-affected Afghan population. In the post-1992 period, many NGOs and humanitarian organizations continued the practice of channelling aid through or in cooperation with the local Mujahideen commanders. This approach for the delivery of aid empowered the commanders or warlords, who were able exploit the age-old Afghan tradition of " dastarkhandar " (persons who can feed the people) to muster popular allegiance, thereby usurping the role and position of traditional elders in society.

Ironically, because of their lack of understanding of and insensitivity to the indigenous institutions of governance and the systems defining socio-economic relations within Afghan society, the NGOs and humanitarian organizations were unwittingly instrume ntal in strengthening undemocratic and unpopular leadership structures that were created by outside forces.

The Afghan example demonstrated that most aid agencies failed to appreciate that, regardless of their wish not to " interfere " and to " do no harm " , their action in effect impacted the social, political, and cultural dynamics within a society affected by conflict. On the positive side, humanitarian action could strengthen the social capital through the enhancement of the beneficiary's skills and capabilities. On the negative side, however, it could actually fuel discord and conflict.

Previous speakers had suggested that society was moving towards a new Humanitarian Order that would give prominence to the rights of beneficiaries over the sense of giving charity, and would require greater efficiency, accountability and transparency in the provision of services. Ms Etemadi suggested, however, that a new Humanitarian Order would be rendered " sterile " if solely focused on the mechanics of the delivery of services. The overarching goal of humanitarian assistance was to reduce the suffering of the victims of conflict and disaster and to help them restart their lives. If the latter was to be achieved, care must be taken to ensure that the approach to the delivery of assistance contributed to revitalizing the indigenous social, political and cultural institutions dealing with differences and conflict. It would require that the analysis of the victims'physical needs be complemented by the gathering of accurate information on the political, social and cultural dynamics of their society. Such an approach would facilitate the identification and appreciation of variables such as cultural symbols, belief systems, political structures, types of hierarchical organizations and economic systems; these could then be drawn on to promote peace and social recovery.

War was a disruption of relationships and the exploitation of symbols that fomented animosity and fear. Through an understanding of the social and cultural dynamics of societies affected by conflict, humanitarian organizations would be in a better position to strengthen those institutions, symbols and value systems that could counteract the disruptive forces of discord and conflict.

 Mr Jean-Luc Bodin stated that Action contre la faim (ACF) had no strong technical objections to the Sphere standards. It considered them to be ideal objectives that every humanitarian agency should apply as completely as possible.

ACF had been using this approach for years. Indeed, its technical experts had played an active role in Sphere working groups on nutrition, food security, water and sanitation and health care. With very few exceptions, but with realism, ACF applied Sphere standards in the field.

Standards and indicators were valuable and necessary, but they were only tools and should not be confused with objectives. They could represent a major handicap, because standards were easier to meet in one field situation than another.

Sphere gave the impression of reasoning in terms of an ideal humanitarian operation, with all the right resources in position, with good physical security for humanitarian workers, the beneficiaries and other actors. But operations were almost never conducted under such conditions.

Where would the Sphere standards apply? What had been learnt from working in Afghanistan, North Korea or Sierra Leone? What could be done in Burundi or the Democratic Congo, where violence was cyclical and long-term planning impossible?

Physical security and roadblocks had to be put back on the agenda when discussing standards, because standards were imp ossible to apply in the complex conditions of the field.

ACF saw a problem with reducing interventions to standard technical evaluations. Reality in the field was too complex for spreadsheets. Statistics were not enough. Some of the standards should really only be guidelines or indicators, not binding regulations.

Humanitarian organizations operated in emergency conditions. If impact studies were to be fair, they had to allow for the local context, which was almost always extremely complex, unstable and destructured. The Sphere Project was very sound from a technical standpoint, but what had happened to the interpersonal dimension? The Project needed more humanity, more compassion for the interpersonal relationships that developed between relief workers, beneficiaries and other actors.

Indicators were just one part of evaluations. They ignored both the local context and the relief strategy applied. In one recent example, ACF had conducted an evaluation in Burundi together with Echo. ACF had obtained the evaluation's approval because it and ECHO had understood each other and Echo had taken account of the operational context.

Mr Bodin spoke of the danger that spreadsheets would become a new political weapon to disqualify an NGO.

The essence of humanitarian work was the interpersonal relationships it built with the victims. Spreadsheets had no columns for emotional security, emotional support both day and night, no axis to plot local ethnic values, small talk, or just being available when needed.

The real danger was that the people who paid for humanitarian operations would grab the Sphere standards and wave them like a new flag. As the document now stood, they would not need to worry about conditions of applicability. They would not need to ask themselves if they were making over-simplistic judgements. As the document now stood, it would help them use NGOs for their own purposes, far removed from the needs, priorities and expectations of the beneficiaries.

In conclusion, humanitarian agencies operated in contexts of great humanitarian and political instability. With proper positioning, the Sphere Project could help them avoid a repetition of the disorganization, waste and mutually destructive competition seen in Goma. It should not become an instrument to regulate the industry, however. It would be more effective were it to define guidelines for ideal quality and become a living symbol of quality itself.

Another issue was implementation, evaluation and inspection. They all needed to be carefully defined in terms of applicability.

One of the virtues of NGOs was that each had a special, individual approach. What would happen to their operational flexibility in the field when they came under a book of standard regulations?

There was, of course, an obvious need to set up local national coordination among all agencies, to agree on common objectives, to optimize limited resources and to avoid duplication. But humanitarian agencies did not need more technical evaluation criteria.

The Sphere Project had excellent intentions, but its actual impact might be very different. ACF was concerned that it would undercut work and attitudes in the field. It worried that NGOs would conduct their operations on the basis of technocratic criteria, not human values. This was something private enterprise did very well, but humanitarian work was all about becoming involved with real people.


The subsequent discussion focused on four main issues.

In answer to questions about the Sphere project and human rights , Mr McClellan reminded the participants that the Sphere Project was clearly based on universal human rights. The Minimum Standards were derived from those rights. This did not mean that the standards would always be attained. Indicators might differ from one culture to another, and cultural differences would have to be taken into account when evaluating whether or not standards had been met.

But how were humanitarian agencies to deal, one participant asked, with societies who did not have a rights-based but a duty-based culture? This was a problem faced by the human rights community as well.

Dr Perrin replied that in a rights-based culture, the people had rights and the system had duties. In a duty-based culture, the people had duties. The question was to what extent the system in place was legitimate. This was therefore a political issue. Institutions like the ICRC preferred to speak of rights in the narrow sense used in the Geneva Conventions, so as to fit them into the political dimension.

 Mr Dianor said that there was a culture of rights, and that it could be developed. Aid organizations had to push States to respect the culture of rights, which he considered to be universal.

For Mr McClellan , the culture of rights became a problem when action was needed. Although the motivation of humanitarian organizations was rights-based, they had to negotiate what they actually did to guarantee the right to life. It became a problem when they insisted on a right of intervention.

Responding to the concern expressed by some participants that the Sphere Project was based on physiological needs and therefore ignored human dignity, Mr McClellan said that it was essential to remember that humanitarians dealt with human beings, not objects. The Sphere Project tried to go beyond feelings of compassion (which were in any event in the eyes of the beholder and could be fleeting, as witness " compassion fatigue " ) to a rights-based approach which highlighted the universal principle of humanity and therefore the value of human life.

 Another participant expressed concern that the rights-based approach might render the Sphere Project applicable only in ideal situations, but Mr McClellan did not share that view. Like humanitarian law, the project was perfectly applicable in any situation, be it in Kisengani or Afghanistan, but it could be " violated " . Moreover, the standards were purely technical instruments. For example, they had been met in Goma, where absolutely safe drinking water had been distributed, but because certain political factors had been ignored, the programme had failed.

 Another participant added that the first priority of relief operations was to safeguard people's right to develop their desires, as opposed to their right to realize their dreams. Dialogue was important to allow those desires to emerge.

The same participant went on to say that to date, shelter had been seen as a logistical element required to put in place the other aspects of a relief operations. Hence its central position in the Sphere Project. This approach was inadequate, and an effort had to be made to find people-oriented indicators. The cultural dimension was important, but it could also be a mere alibi and sometimes had to be reinvented. It should also be recalled that p eople did not always aspire to their former shelters (in his experience, Eritreans dreamt of Hong Kong). Humanitarian organizations had to develop an experimental approach and adapt their methodology (the ICRC approach was interesting in this respect).

Finally, this participant recalled that humanitarians did not give the victims dignity; rather, they had to be sensitive to the dignity the victims already had.

 Mr Bodin added that humanitarian organizations must not forget that the beneficiaries did not give the same priority to the same needs. This was one of the main problems in establishing guidelines and was one reason why indicators had to be defined first. The Sphere Project was a tool to define objectives, it was not an objective in itself.

Several participants wondered how a rights-based organization was to know when to withdraw. What to do when the terms of cultural negotiation were not acceptable for the organization's standards?

 Mr Slim replied that it was important to identify what were the real differences, then to acknowledge them and take a pragmatic decision either to work or not to work. This was not a new dilemma. The field had always seen compromise, and it was an ongoing battle to open space for work and for humanitarian principles.

In his experience, when people sat down and talked they often came up with common values. The human rights approach could appear morally superior, which was why it had sometimes been rejected. International humanitarian law did not have this rights-based approach, but spoke to military virtue.

 One participant asked what happened in a societ y where the indigenous culture was in dispute. In Afghanistan, for example, there had been a political project to change the culture.

 Ms Etemadi replied that culture was not monolithic. Humanitarians had to acquire an ability to identify different groups within a culture. They tended to have a monolithic approach to aid (for example, by seeing the Pashtuns as one group), but they had to look at all the variables so as to promote a revitalization of culture.

 One participant asked whether non-respect for the cultural dimension did not give the victims the feeling they had been taken over.

 Mr Dianor replied that in this respect, the fact that Western organizations were working with local NGOs was very positive. They must not function like the World Bank, which imposed its conditions, but have an attitude of " I learn from you, you learn from me " . To establish new relations, humanitarians had to forget what they knew.

 Ms Etemadi gave two extreme examples of non-respect for the cultural dimension. One lead to a psychological state in which the donors were perceived as providing templates. The result was dependency, even on the part of NGOs (for example, in Afghanistan, where the Islamic identity had been advanced). The other example resulted in rejection: " we don't recognize your culture so we won't talk to you " .

 One participant commented that humanitarian organizations had limits in cultural terms as they worked in a political context. They were not there to deal with culture but with the job of disaster relief. And disasters often created conditions for cultural change.

 Mr Dianor replied that everything was culture. There could be no aid or development unless the cultural factor had been integrated.

 One participant recalled Mr Grossrieder's earlier comment on particularity versus universality and pointed out that one topic of dialogue could be the common aspects of universal and local culture.

 Mr Bodin wondered whether the Sphere Project was for the field or for the humanitarian organizations and the governments. Culture was a key factor in any type of action. In his experience, there always existed a minimum core of values. Humanitarian organizations could always use the beneficiaries'basic principles, duties and values to address their own " rights " . What was needed was cultural openness.

Speaking of the Sphere Project specifically, several participants expressed concern that it could become a tool for donors to use against local NGOs, who would in any case be unable to meet the Minimum Standards for years to come. They already felt pushed out by the big Western aid organizations, and saw a real danger that there would in the future be two categories of aid agencies.

 Mr McClellan replied that signing on to the Sphere Project did not mean that an organization could meet the Minimum Standards, but that it would work towards them. Capacity-building was an essential part of Phase II of the project. Local NGOs might be better equipped to meet those standards and give them a cultural dimension than big international organizations with a long history of cooperation.

The question whether the donors would use the Sphere Project as a club over NGO heads was a real concern. But some donors had already defined their own standards. Humanitarian organizations needed to remind the donors that they were the ones in the field, that they would be held accountable, that they set standards based on field reality, not on political expediency.

Of course, some organizations might adopt technocratic solutions, but they tended to be renegades in the NGO system. The voluntary spirit remained important. " Presence " , in the sense of just being there, remained important.

He concluded by asking whether it was necessarily bad for the donors to ask why an organization had not met the Sphere standards. He suggested that, on the contrary, that might even be a healthy situation for aid organizations.

 Mr Bodin agreed that NGO criteria were better than donor-defined criteria, but that was not his point. If the criteria were not properly explained (and in his view the Sphere Project was not properly explained), they could be used by the donors as a club.

 One participant stated that shelter (i.e. the location of refugee camps) had a strong political dimension, and wondered how humanitarian organizations were to deal with this.

 Mr McClellan replied that even a technocrat had to concede that shelter from the elements did not constitute a home. The Sphere standards were not for that. The location of camps was indeed a difficult matter related to protection issues. The Sphere Project had decided to examine it during Phase II, together with people already working on the matter.

He added that the Sphere Project had been started to improve the quality and accountability of humanitarian aid. It was not a panace a but a step forward in that direction.

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 By Prof. Luc Paunier  

 Prof. Paunier, President of the Geneva Foundation , drew the following conclusions from the day's discussions:

The Sphere project was but one part of any quality assurance system. It provided guidelines and contained useful indicators. While the meeting had on the whole accepted it well, some doubt existed as to its applicability in all situations, since it presupposed ideal conditions which did not exist in reality. The Sphere Project might in some cases also be used by the donors to create two categories of NGOs - those which met the standards and those which did not.

The Sphere Project should be humble. It should not aspire to be more than it was. Signing on to the project simply meant working towards meeting its standards. Different organizations could have different approaches.

The meeting had highlighted several examples of the importance of the cultural dimension. To understand the cultural background of refugees meant to understand the humanitarian impact of the disaster that had befallen them and their coping mechanisms. " Shelter " , for instance, had to be considered in terms of a " home " , not as mere plastic sheeting. Nutrition was a culturally-coloured issue. In some cases, cultural symbols had been exploited by the parties to a conflict to gain ascendancy via humanitarian aid. And it should not be forgotten that a calamity could bring about cultural change.

It remained to be seen whether the establishment of standards would promote the influence of technocrats to the detriment of the spirit of voluntary service, which remained vital.

Humanitarian agencies could learn from local NGOs and partners, but had to remember that local NGOs had often turned their backs on local traditions and adopted those of Western partners or donors instead. Foreign NGOs tended to create dependencies; local NGOs should enhance responsibility towards the local culture.


1. Interpretation of views expressed by Ms Gabriela Chaves, Ethnologist in " Culture " , " Identité " : mise au point sur des concepts polysémiques " - February 1998.

2. The complete text of Mr Dianor's statement (in French only) is available from the ICRC.