The interim findings and roadmap to take the work forward will be presented at the Humanitarian Standards Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, next week (27 June).
But there are fears that such standards and certification will end up promoting Northern donor agendas — and by proxy Western political aims — and shutting out Southern NGOs, as well as concerns over a lack of any data to suggest the existence of such standards does actually improve humanitarian work.
The two schemes — The Joint Standards Initiative (JSI) and the Certification Review Project — and some of their interim findings were presented at the Overseas Development Institute in London, United Kingdom, yesterday (17 June), where they received a mixed welcome.
The challenge is to harmonise the more than 100 standards used by humanitarian organisations by finding a core set that they can agree upon, according to Matthew Carter, chair of the JSI steering group.
The JSI, a collaboration by HAP (the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership), People in Aid and the Sphere Project, stems from the belief that the quality of humanitarian aid could be improved, said John Mitchell, director of ALNAP (The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action).
It surveyed 350 organisations from 140 countries to build an evidence-based, bottom-up approach to designing a core set of standards with clear benchmarks and indicators on how to achieve them.
The aim is to present common standards by the end of 2013 and then support their uptake through collaboration.
Carsten Völz, humanitarian director at Oxfam International, said the standards could be used to enable local and national organisations to build their capacities for dealing with humanitarian crises amid the background of growing risk from natural disasters and the struggle to get disasters risk prevention into the post-2015 development agenda.
The complementary Certification Review Project, which is sponsored by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, is exploring whether a new verification system could improve compliance with humanitarian principles and the quality of aid work.
Review coordinator Philip Tamminga said that many humanitarian organisations already use certification initiatives, but there is little reporting back on what impact they have on their work.
The project is about taking stock of the current situation, and then seeing what such a certification scheme would need and how it could add value to humanitarian work, he said.
It is also an opportunity to examine what donors and affected communities would want from such certification, for example in terms of determining reliability or effectiveness of NGOs, as well as to reach out to smaller and Southern NGOs, Tamminga said.
A few concrete models of such certification scheme will be presented at the Geneva forum, and further research and testing will take place until October 2014.
Hopes and fears
The initial consultations on the initiatives and the London event have revealed fears that they would add more work and bureaucracy at the expense of engaging with people, introduce Northern bias and exclude NGOs that do not pass muster.
Sandrine Tiller, programmes advisor on humanitarian issues at Médecins Sans Frontières, said donors may end up preferring to fund certified organisations — who are likely to be "European governments' favourite organisations" — and excluding new organisations from the developing world, who are playing an increasingly important role.
She said the certification scheme felt like a "closed shop" that may stymie fresh and local humanitarian action.
Hugo Slim, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, also warned that the purpose of standards should be "to expand the quality of humanitarian action, expand capacity and inclusion", not to make it more elitist.
But the consultations so far have also revealed hopes that the scheme could improve the sector by providing more rigorous monitoring and reporting to help build evidence of these organisations' impact, which may boost their credibility and aid fundraising.
The two key features such a scheme will need, according to the consultations, are to find a way of showing it works in the field and to systematically show that the needs of people affected by a crisis are being addressed through humanitarian work.
There are many other questions. For example, who would do the certifying and will the planned changes improve humanitarian work?
"We don't have the answers to all these questions. It's what we're trying to understand," said Philip Tamminga.
But he highlighted that the key to developing the standards and certification was to keep the affected people at the centre of the initiatives. "Technical standards are great, but we shouldn't get lost in the focus on bureaucracy," he said.
Carter admitted there is a lack of data on how standards alter humanitarian practice, saying this is something that his team must keep in mind during the process.
Tamminga agreed: "We need to build the evidence base — we can't build the standards without providing the evidence."