Case 2: Mainstreaming the Sphere Standards within CARE International UK

case 2

The problem

As a member of the Sphere Project Management Committee, CARE International had made a commitment to institutionalising the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards. CARE International UK desired to mainstream the standards, and realising its interdependence within a number of networks, also need a strategy for influencing others. They hired me to act as an organisational coach to help with this ambition. Like all humanitarian organisations, CARE UK was stretched by competing priorities and limited capacity. The first challenge was institutionalising the standards within programmes of its direct control, a second challenge was advocating for adoption across the multinational CARE International family.

My response

I facilitated a series of action-learning events, including two tests to improve organisational accountability in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. Based on this research, I produced a bespoke strategy that built on CARE UK’s unique strengths, while being sensitive to their capacity and position. This strategy included recommendations for policies and procedures as well as positions within its various networks. I also developed a participatory audit method for CARE that combines quality standards and beneficiary accountability. This is a way of looking at compliance that emphasises dialogue between the organisation and the people it serves. In effect, the standards became opening positions for a negotiation about aid services between the affected population and the organisation.


The participatory audit method has been subsequently developed and adopted by CARE UK and other organisations.

“…significant constraints to Sphere institutionalisation exist in the humanitarian sector. For example, a rapidly evolving operating context, combined with heavy bureaucratic processes that frequently emerge from donor governments, serve to limit the ability of NGOs to systematically change and improve their performance in relation to their environment…communication and priority setting in geographically dispersed, tightly funded, multi-cultural organisations is limited…the challenge for CARE UK is to adopt a Sphere institutionalisation strategy that is simple, flexible and iterative…The best moment for ensuring Sphere compliance is at the needs assessment and project design stage….Due to the qualitative nature of the Minimum Standards, the systems for compliance cannot function automatically. The systems will depend on judgement by individual CARE UK staff”

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