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“First things first”: New report explores the evolution of priorities in the Sphere Handbook


Laurie Chartrand and Anna Ploeg are students at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva. During a 10-month research project in collaboration with the Humanitarian Exchange and Research Center (HERE-Geneva), they explored how the concept of “life-saving” humanitarian assistance has evolved since the first edition of the Sphere Handbook was published in 2000. As they went along in the research, they uncovered the many challenges of applying Sphere standards on the ground, but also the support that standards may bring to their future careers.

A summary of their report, “‘First things first. Understanding priorities in humanitarian action”, is available on HERE Geneva’s website.


What prompted you to choose humanitarian priorities and standards for your research? 

Laurie: Capstone Projects are a learning experience where small groups of graduate students work with partners from International Geneva to conduct research projects that respond to today’s global challenges. When the topics are released, students have to express their preferences and then the academic team form the groups considering it. We were lucky to be assigned with this topic which we were both very excited about. We did not know each other very well before being assigned to work together, however we quickly saw that we would be a very good team with complementary strengths and shared passion for humanitarian action.

Anna: We got to pick our top three choices from a list of anonymous project descriptions. I was immediately drawn to the one about understanding priorities in humanitarian action, because throughout my education I have learnt about the many flaws when it comes to humanitarian assistance. I also found it valuable that the project not only focused on the historical aspects of humanitarian action, but also allowed us to actively look forward to where its next priorities lie.

It was then revealed that the project had been proposed by HERE-Geneva, a think tank that is devoted to closing the gap between policy and humanitarian practice. They proposed said project under the impression that, depending on their interpretation of humanitarian action, different actors can prioritise different interventions and priorities are an essential determinant in resource allocation. They noted that these priorities have broadened since the initial implementation of the Sphere standards in the 1990s, reflecting gaps in humanitarian response and its evolution.


Had you ever heard about humanitarian standards before starting your capstone project?

Anna:​ In all honesty, I had never heard about the Sphere standards before.

Laurie: I heard about the standards for the first time while completing my bachelor’s degree. A professor organised a humanitarian response simulation where students needed to analyse the needs of a population and organise a response according to Sphere. It helped me better understand the challenges in the field and the added value of humanitarian standards.


What was the focus of your research? 

Laurie: The overall objective of our research project was to better understand how the priorities of humanitarian action have changed over time. More precisely, we studied how the understanding of the term “life-saving” has evolved since the first edition of the Sphere Handbook in 2000.


How has the concept of “life-saving” changed in the Sphere Handbook through the past editions? 

Anna: Sphere understands life-saving humanitarian assistance as including four main sectors: WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene), shelter, food assistance and health. These four categories have not changed since the first edition, however the modalities of providing assistance within them did. There was an expansion of life-saving priorities; the standards have evolved to reflect a more inclusive, caring humanitarian practice.

The current edition of the standards includes new guidance on urban settings, protracted crises and delivering assistance through markets. Guidance around communal settlements is more widely integrated into the content; cash assistance is more prevalent and crises such as natural disasters, armed conflict and epidemics are more widely recognised. The language used has become plainer and simpler, making it more accessible to a wider audience and more inclusive. The 2018 Handbook acknowledges topics like the environment, child safeguarding and mental health; it mentions the limitations of humanitarian assistance, keeping in mind that varying contexts mean that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to aid. The standards have also become more mindful of vulnerabilities. There is now more awareness as to how some people may be more affected by crises than others.


Of all the learning that came with your research, is there anything you found surprising?

Anna: I think I went into this project feeling a bit pessimistic, assuming that the priorities laid out by  Sphere were going to be somewhat disconnected from the reality of what is truly needed on the ground. This assumption was especially informed by our literature review, which demonstrated an increasing professionalisation and standardisation of the field. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the standards’ drafting process involves many stakeholders. Our interviewees all spoke very positively about the Sphere standards and about the relevance of their priorities. Although the concept of “life-saving” has evolved, through our study we found that this expansion is purposeful and has been done mindfully with the intention of better serving the needs of affected populations.


What are the benefits for international affairs and development students to learn about humanitarian standards as part of their  university curricula? 

Laurie: I think that studying humanitarian standards can benefit students because they constitute an important part of the humanitarian system today. Also, critically reflecting on them can hopefully contribute to improving their content and application in the field in the long run.

Anna: I certainly think that students in this field should be taught the history, critiques and laws surrounding humanitarian practices. They provide a relevant and important starting point when delivering life-saving support.


Laurie Chartrand is from Quebec, Canada. After completing a multidisciplinary bachelor’s (politics, history, economics and law) at the Université de Montréal, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva. She is particularly interested in human rights, humanitarian action and peace building in post-conflict settings.

Anna Ploeg is also Canadian. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in development studies and politics from Queen’s University (Canada) and is currently conducting a master’s in Development Studies at IHEID. Through her studies, she has focused her interests on humanitarian action and conflict resolution, but is also passionate about environmental concerns.