Further considerations from HQAI Learning Event

This is the second of two posts of reflection stemming from the HQAI learning event on partnerships that took place on June 13th. The first one is here. In this second part, I will focus more specifically on the role of standards and certifications.

The moment you decide to abide to a standard, you are limiting your autonomy. So far, so good.

It is more problematic when it comes to a partner: how far can or should this go, when you need to strike a balance between the autonomy of a partner and the respect of a standard they don’t understand, they don’t stand up for, or they openly oppose (as an example, think about LGBTQI rights and church-based organizations in African countries)? This is a topic that would require a couple of books by itself, and I hope that at least a collection of case studies will be published one day. For some, dialogue has worked fine. Others point on the fact that informal policies can be in place already, and possibly working better than codes of conduct that are great on paper but barely implemented. Bearing in mind that talking in abstract is quite difficult, it probably comes down again to be open about what really matters for a member of a partnership. Ideally, an open conversation about what a standard is and why it is important that the other part respect it (and possibly put some measures in place) should be a pre-requisite in order to enter – or continue – a partnership.

This said, where does the good sense end and time for monitoring begin? NGOs are usually overwhelmed by reporting requirements, and to add up a reporting burden doesn’t seem a great idea for starters. But that’s what basically happens when you ask an organization to develop, as an example, a new complaint mechanism, and you want some evidence (and the other way round, if your partner asks you to do so). On the other hand, how else would you trust or be trusted? An easy answer is that’s where the role of standards and audit organizations come into hand, and although it is really shifting the burden to someone else, I am very curious to see what the CHS alliance (and HQAI) will come out with. At the end of the day, the reason why external standards do exist is because by themselves organizations are not prone to go down a difficult road if an easier one exists, hence they need an external push.

It seems then possible that in the future CHS (and relative certification schemes) can develop as an effective way to streamline donors-recipient relations, create trust, open up possibilities for outsiders, and even ease reporting procedures in the long run (perhaps at the cost of worsen them in the short term). I can then see two directions where work will need to be done.

  1. The first direction is to bring CHS to a wider public. As I mentioned in my previous post, the sector would probably benefit from a revision of its communication strategies towards the public. Paradoxically, the current situation, with all of its challenges, can prove an opportunity for change, despite the fact that such strategy can pose some (heavy) costs in the immediate. An interesting point that emerged during the day concerned the idea of “bringing CHS to the taxpayer”, explaining what it is, why is important, and so forth. It seems a huge work ahead (bringing CHS to the practitioners would seem a nice way to start), but seeing the success of schemes like FSC, it is probably the way to go.
  2. It’s a long way to Renk. Bringing CHS to the taxpayer is one thing. Bringing them to small, local organizations is another – and I guess by no means easier. There are several considerations in place, these are the first that come to my mind:
    1. Costs. I am not talking about the cost that a certification process can pose (HQAI has in fact financial schemes), rather those that an adaptation process can present. This by itself can present for some organizations (and not necessarily only those from low-income countries) a potentially insurmountable burden.
    2. Access is not just matter of money. As mentioned before, there are technical, cultural, and networking barriers that can prevent local organizations from being able to start the process of adapting to a standard. An organization like Coast Trust can be able to get to Geneva – an organization like Mobile Theater Team, a Southern Sudanese NGO, might be less able to do so.
    3. As mentioned above, this push to standardization can be seen as some sort of cultural imposition, underpinning an imbalance of power, whereby adapting to a standard can open the door to resources. Although this kind of logic makes some sense, it seems to me a false problem, in the measure that if we uphold some values, as, say, the humanitarian ones as embodied in documents like the humanitarian charter, it is because we do consider them the better option.

For all the issues and challenges that a push for standardization pose, this seems an improvement as compared to the current situation. It might mean not only a way to streamline operations and made them more efficient, and open up opportunities for outsider organizations, but also a way for the sector to look at itself more honestly and be more open up with the public about the condition of its kitchen.

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