Syrian refugee children in Lebanon’s massive Za’atari camp, where UMCOR works with partner ACT Alliance to provide food and other aid, adhering to best international standards.
by David Tereshchuk *
January 14, 2014—Last November, shortly after Super Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc on the central Philippines, staff and volunteers of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) passed heavy bags of emergency food relief to survivors waiting along the side of a road. The bags contained rice, oil, sardines, cooking oil, water purification tablets, and other staples.
Over and over again, recipients, who had had little or no assistance until that moment, voiced their gratitude. The food packages they now carried in their arms were calculated to nourish their families for about a week. UMCOR had prepared the emergency rations in strict adherence to international standards.
Since 1997, a remarkable collection of international humanitarian agencies has operated together as a global community of goodwill and practical assistance called The Sphere Project. Its purpose is to ensure that the work of aid organizations always maintains the most effective standards. UMCOR is an enthusiastic adherent, employing the Sphere Core Standards in its projects throughout the world.
UMCOR regards the Sphere Project as an important example of an international consensus around best practices that helps significantly to guide its work. UMCOR’s full participation is focused on ensuring both a high level of professional expertise and deep respect for the rights as well as the needs of the populations it assists.
Other international protocols that guide UMCOR’s disaster-response work include the Red Cross Code of Conduct, the widely-endorsed “Build Back Better” principles, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In addition to setting practical standards for the content of humanitarian aid, The Sphere Project lays down basic principles to guide agencies in how they carry out their work. This helps improve the quality of humanitarian assistance as well as the accountability of humanitarian agencies to their donors and other stakeholders and, most importantly, to the affected populations.
Sphere defines its vision in this broad assertion: "Sphere works for a world where the right of all people affected by disaster to re-establish their lives and livelihoods is recognized and acted upon in ways that respect their voice and promote their dignity, livelihoods and security."
In specific terms, examples of Sphere’s guiding principles and practical ground-rules range from:
Support local capacity by identifying community groups and social networks at the earliest opportunity and build on community-based and self-help initiatives
Enable staff and managers to jointly identify opportunities for continual learning and development.
The Rev. Jack Amick, UMCOR’s assistant general secretary for International Disaster Response, says UMCOR’s overall approach is to “do good, but, more importantly, to do good better.” It is, he says, “vitally important that we constantly monitor our work and ensure that we are doing the very best for and with the people who are impacted by calamitous events.”
And doing the very best involves much more than purely supplying the commodities that are necessary. Essential human sensitivity—what Sphere and others call “people-centered” response—is every bit as vital.
This applies, as elsewhere, to UMCOR’s work, through the ACT Alliance, with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Emergency food supplies are designed to provide the required 2,100 Kcal (kilocalories) per person per day, comprising 17 percent fat and 10 percent protein (World Health Organization standards, also incorporated by Sphere). Just as important, the selection of the particular foods provided takes into full account the Syrian people’s own dietary habits—and, so, the rations deliberately include the very familiar items of rice, beans, and lentils.
Amick cites UMCOR’s emergency response last year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the health situation in the war-torn North Kivu region presented great challenges. “We did an assessment of what was needed, fully engaging with our local partners. We were very careful to not introduce our own systems in any sense. Instead, we determinedly reinforced North Kivu’s existing health arrangements,” he recalls.
“Being well-meaning,” says Amick, “is in itself not enough. We have to be highly professional and thoroughly reflect the needs and also the wishes of the people we serve.”
Your gift to International Disaster Response, Advance # 982450, will help UMCOR provide communities with a “people-centered response” to their needs in times of disaster, in line with internationally agreed-upon standards.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic, who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.