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Putting affected communities at the center… of Sphere training

Photo: KCOC


Tristan Hale, Sphere’s Learning and Training Manager, recently took part in a Sphere training event in Lebanon. Through the workshop, he had the opportunity to interview members of the Syrian refugee communities and discover the value of field visits for practitioners to learn more about putting the Sphere standards into practice.


A couple of months ago, I was called to cofacilitate a Sphere “field school” workshop in the Beqaa valley, in Lebanon. By “field school” I mean that the training consisted of three days in a classroom and one day spent around the valley interviewing parents, teachers and students involved in an education programmes for Syrian refugees. This was a Sphere focused workshop, and we also covered the Education in Emergencies standards (INEE), including the Lebanon contextualised INEE standards.

Through my work with Lake Aid, I have contact with displaced people – but the informal settlements in the Beqaa valley are clearly a different context to the streets, squats and shelters of a French town. There are similarities too; in both contexts, there are displaced children who have a right to education, and there are state and humanitarian actors working to defend this right.

The Sphere Training Package, our most comprehensive set of materials supporting those who wish to learn about Sphere, includes guidance on how to incorporate field visits into training events (notably in modules 11, 12, 14 and 16). This was my first chance to see this put into practice.

Organising site visits is not a trivial task. It should always be well prepared and preceded by an assessment of the impact the exercise will have on the communities involved

Organising site visits is not a trivial task. A field exercise is undoubtably a valuable experience for learners, but it should always be well prepared and preceded by an assessment of the impact the exercise will have on the communities involved. The arrangements should be made by people already working in the communities, and workshop participants must be briefed carefully, especially if the group includes relatively inexperienced people. Our workshop was led by veteran Sphere trainer Jim Good, who has overseen dozens if not hundreds of site visits – so we were in Good hands (pun intended). It was extremely useful for me to witness how the visits were planned and conducted, most importantly without compromising the security or dignity of anyone involved. Even though interviewees are briefed that they will be interviewed by students as part of a training exercise, there are real risks of causing offence and/or raising expectations about the assistance those people will receive, which must be avoided.

The Lebanon workshop was organised by Sphere’s Korean focal point, the Korea NGO Council for Overseas Development Cooperation (KCOC) with support from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). Our Sphere focal point representative, Hannah Kwon, aims to organise a Sphere field school workshop somewhere in the world once per year – she finds they are “one of the best ways to bring international standards to Korean humanitarian NGOs in the field”. Having experienced one of these workshops, I wholeheartedly agree.

Workshop participants included Korean and Lebanese employees of the Miral Welfare Foundation, a Korean International NGO with overseas programs in 18 countries. We visited three of their schools during our field day, including two located next to large informal settlements. We were also invited to a World Vision/UNICEF Early Child Education Centre which prepares younger Syrian refugees to enter the formal Lebanese education system when they turn six.

It was clear to me, from minimal observations and discussions, that living conditions for the Syrian refugees fall well short of many Sphere standards. The situation within the school compounds and buildings that we saw are decidedly better. At a country level, though, the broader problem is that only 50% of Syrian children are in school. The United Nations estimates that more than 250,000 displaced Syrians in Lebanon remain out of certified education, either formal or non-formal.

The value of a field school workshop extends far beyond practical site visits. For me personally, spending a few days with NGO staff to learn about their programmes and the unique context in which they operate was even more beneficial. It has helped me to put what we’re doing here in Geneva into perspective, and I have returned more convinced than ever of the value of Sphere and humanitarian standards.