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What do we know about users of humanitarian standards?

By Anne Radday and Nola Jenkins

In 2021, the SEADS Project team will draft the first ever standards to support agricultural livelihoods in emergencies. Before we began, we wanted to better understand the preferences of the future users of SEADS. So, in early 2021 we collected input through a short survey. We will use the insights from the survey to inform the structure, style, and format of the SEADS Standards.

While the survey was not a formal study of humanitarian standards users’ experiences, we learned some things that we think humanitarian standards architects and users will find of interest.

Who responded to our survey?

We are grateful to the 161 people who completed the survey about experiences with all the standards that are part of the Humanitarian Standards Partnership (HSP).

Responses came from 43 countries, with 40% of respondents living in Africa, 33% in Asia, 24% in Europe and North America, 2% in Central and South America, and 1% in Oceania. Most respondents (71%) worked for international NGOs or UN agencies. In terms of job function, the majority of respondents were either technical specialists (47%) or program coordinators, managers, directors (34%).

The respondents were highly educated individuals: almost all have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 75% have a master’s degree or higher. The majority of users ranked their English proficiency as excellent (62%) or good to average (37%). This profile is consistent with the 2019 report “Data on Diversity: Humanitarian Leadership Under the Spotlight” from the Humanitarian Advisory Group.

What did we learn?

Many actors influence people to use standards

  • 37% of respondents use HSP standards because they are required to by their employers, donors, or local government
  • 21% use them because of their own conviction
  • 13% are influenced by peers to use standards

Figure 1: Reported influences to use the standards

Several respondents indicated that institutionalizing the use of HSP standards would increase their use. This could include making them part of people’s job descriptions and performance goals and creating more ownership within organizations for the standards. Further, those who responded that they have not used standards gave many reasons for not doing so but said that they would if they were required.

Requiring that HSP standards be used is a sure way to get people to use them, but only 37% of our users use them for this reason today.

Additionally, respondents noted that the standards need to be better understood across the entire emergency response sector. Several respondents noted that standards are not applied as they should be because of “limited awareness of the standards outside the emergency response community.” This could be achieved through better integration and training about the standards.

Humanitarian standards are used in emergency and development contexts

In total 60% of respondents said that they use HSP standards regularly in their job for a wide variety of reasons in an emergency context, including:

  • To design humanitarian interventions (68%)
  • To make ongoing programming decisions during an emergency response (67%)
  • To conduct needs assessments during an emergency (63%)
  • To make decisions about how to implement a humanitarian intervention (58%)
  • To monitor and evaluate humanitarian interventions (55%)

Figure 2: Percentage of respondents who use the standards for a particular purpose

However, many respondents (55%) also use standards to make programming decisions outside of emergency contexts. While some standards already integrate humanitarian and development approaches, for example through a livelihoods approach, there is nevertheless more opportunity for  humanitarian standards to reach across the humanitarian and development sectors!

Perhaps communications about the HSP standards could be reviewed to: (1) capture all the appropriate audiences and (2) ensure that the standards are being used in appropriate contexts.

Technical specialists use the standards the least

Technical specialists reported using HSP standards regularly the least (50%) and M&E specialists reported using the standards regularly most often (70%). Are technical specialists aware that global minimum standards exist that are relevant to even the most unique context?

Users want an app, even though one already exists!

Most respondents consult HSP standards through the interactive online handbooks (55%). Many (40%) use a hard copy (either the book or a PDF printout). Very few respondents use the app (3%). However, many respondents suggested that they may use the standards more frequently if there were an app, indicating that the app could be more widely advertised and accessible.


Figure 3: How user respondents access humanitarian standards

Some users appreciate the simplicity of the standards while others want them to be simpler

While simplicity was often cited as a positive feature of the HSP standards, the most common frustration noted was also the lack of simplicity in some standards and the language used. One respondent noted that “some are overly long and use too much jargon and abstract language.” In the same vein, someone else said that “low awareness of the people with low level of English language” is a challenge. Another respondent suggested that we need to “minimize the complexity and number of standards competing for attention.”

To simplify things, many suggested that more ready-to-use forms, concrete examples, templates, and checklists would be helpful. This may also suggest that more trainings on HSP standards could be conducted or that training toolkits could be developed.


SEADS is an inclusive and consultative process to develop evidence-based standards for supporting agricultural livelihoods in emergencies. People responding to humanitarian crises will be able to use SEADS to design, implement, and evaluate agriculture interventions that will maintain and strengthen the livelihoods of farming communities, support preparedness and post-emergency recovery, and increase resilience more effectively.

A Steering Group oversees SEADS. The group is comprised of the American University of the Caribbean; Catholic Relief Services; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO); the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS); Norwegian Refugee Council; SOS Sahel Sudan; Tufts University; and World Vision. SEADS is also supported by a Field Team comprising ICRC Gaza, iDE Nepal, World Vision Mozambique, and World Vision South Sudan.

SEADS will seek membership in the Humanitarian Standards Partnership.

About the Authors

This article represents the views of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of SEADS.

Anne Radday is the communications manager for the SEADS Project and a research program manager at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

Nola Jenkins is the communications assistant at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

Sphere surveyed users of the 2011 Sphere Handbook in 2016 in preparation for the 2018 edition. View an infographic of the results here.