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Are standards the key to working together better?

Bringing water to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda: the Nyumanzi 1 refugee camp. Photo credits: Oxfam Uganda


Edward Sembidde Mwebaze, Oxfam’s humanitarian programme manager in Uganda, shares his experiences and lessons learnt during the response to the country’s protracted refugee crisis.

This article is based on his contribution to a panel discussion co-organised by Sphere and UNHCR. The event – Are standards the key to working together better? – took place on 3 July 2019 as part of UNHCR’s Annual Consultations with NGOs.


You may not know it, but Uganda currently hosts more refugees than any other African country. The humanitarian situation is challenging. Long conflicts in neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have forced refugees to seek shelter in Uganda for decades. With no peace in sight, they have little chance of ever returning home.

Uganda has adopted various approaches in response, one of which is the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), a UN plan that calls for better support for refugees and host countries. My organisation, Oxfam, works with UN agencies and national partners, including local governments, to provide incoming refugees with assistance. We run programmes focused on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), food security, livelihoods and protection.

Using humanitarian standards in our work is sometimes problematic. Resources aren’t growing at the same pace as the refugee population in need. Humanitarian agencies tend to manage to provide high quality assistance initially, but all too often it peters out in a matter of months. The Kyaka settlement in western Uganda is a good example.

Applying humanitarian standards in a refugee camp is also not the same as doing so in an urban area. Humanitarian agencies build camps with the standards in mind so that, for instance, no tent is more than 500 metres from a water source. Uganda’s refugee settlement approach, on the other hand, allows residents to own large plots of land. This means that agencies are not able to build water pumps close enough to all homes and we have to make adjustments to serve a higher number of households instead.

Are standards the key to working together better? The challenges may be many, yet my answer is still yes. There is great value in having shared benchmarks to guide all humanitarian workers, regardless of our different approaches and interests

Working with standards in situations where poverty is high among host communities is also challenging. We follow government guidelines which require us to distribute a third of our support to local communities to prevent social tensions, but clear disparities remain. We have to strike a balance between recognising our donors’ priorities and providing assistance to both groups. Even if we were able to provide more support for host communities, we wouldn’t comply with the humanitarian standards, but we might at least contribute to social harmony.

Local humanitarian agencies in Uganda have integrated their own principles and practices into their work, and the quality of their response is improving. National organisations increasingly create direct connections with donors and, most importantly, they have played a key role in advocating for the localisation of humanitarian responses. The challenge for them is ensuring that smaller organisations have the capacity to work with minimum standards, and that they don’t lose their most skilled staff to better-paying international agencies.

Oxfam has been collaborating with CEFORD, a local partner in the West Nile region, as part of the Local Humanitarian Leadership (LHL) initiative, and we have provided training in humanitarian principles and standards to a number of smaller organisations.

Are standards the key to working together better? The challenges may be many, yet my answer is still yes. There is great value in having shared benchmarks to guide all humanitarian workers, regardless of our different approaches and interests. The lack of resources means it’s hard to make humanitarian standards a reality, but at the same time they keep us focused on the quality we aim to attain. They also give local organisations credibility in their leadership of humanitarian responses. By making better use of their local knowledge and sharing more resources, we can help refugees and host communities to coexist more peacefully, and ultimately refugees’ to integrate.

Based on my work with Oxfam in Uganda, I have a few recommendations for working better together with humanitarian standards.

We should consider national as well as international standards when defining a “quality response”. All of those involved – governments, local authorities, national and international NGOs, communities, the private sector and donors – must be included in the process.

We should make sure that international standards that focus on refugee and host communities are aligned. This means we may need to develop new programmes, particularly for areas that are deeply impoverished.

We should review our programmes’ progress against humanitarian standards more regularly, and then share our learning with other professionals to improve the way we work.

Above all we, the humanitarian community, must also be ready to be guided by the local communities we serve.