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Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response


Links to the Humanitarian Charter and international law

The minimum standards for food security and nutrition are a practical expression of the shared beliefs and commitments of humanitarian agencies and the common principles governing humanitarian action set out in the Humanitarian Charter. Founded on the principle of humanity, and reflected in international law, these principles include the right to life with dignity, the right to protection and security, and the right to receive humanitarian assistance on the basis of need. A list of key legal and policy documents that inform the Humanitarian Charter is available for reference in Annex 1, with explanatory comments for humanitarian workers.

Although states are the main duty-bearers with respect to the rights set out above, humanitarian agencies have a responsibility to work with the disaster-affected population in a way that is consistent with these rights. From these general rights flow a number of more specific entitlements, including the rights to participation, information and non-discrimination that form the basis of the core standards as well as the specific rights to water, food, shelter and health that underpin these and the minimum standards in this Handbook.

Everyone has the right to adequate food. This right is recognised in international legal instruments and includes the right to be free from hunger. When individuals or groups are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, states have the obligation to ensure that right directly. The right to food implies the following obligations for states:

In the case of disasters, states should provide food to those in need or may request international assistance if their own resources do not suffice. They should also facilitate safe and unimpeded access for international assistance.

The Geneva Conventions and additional protocols include the right to access to food in situations of armed conflict and occupation. It is prohibited to starve civilians as a method of warfare and to attack, destroy, remove or render useless foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works. When one state occupies another by force, international humanitarian law obliges the occupying power to ensure adequate food for the population and to bring in necessary supplies if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate. States should make every effort to ensure that refugees and internally displaced persons have access at all times to adequate food.

The minimum standards in this chapter reflect the core content of the right to food and contribute to the progressive realisation of this right globally.

The importance of food security and nutrition in disasters

Access to food and the maintenance of an adequate nutritional status are critical determinants of people’s survival in a disaster. The people affected are often already chronically undernourished when the disaster hits. Undernutrition is a serious public health problem and among the lead causes of death, whether directly or indirectly.

The causes of undernutrition are complex. The conceptual framework below is an analytical tool that shows the interaction between contributing factors to undernutrition. The immediate causes of undernutrition are disease and/or inadequate food intake, which result from underlying poverty, household food insecurity, inadequate care practices at household or community levels, poor water, hygiene and sanitation, and insufficient access to healthcare. Disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, floods, conflict and drought all directly affect the underlying causes of undernutrition. The vulnerability of a household or community determines its ability to cope with exposure to these shocks. The ability to manage the associated risks is determined largely by the characteristics of a household or community, particularly its assets and the coping and livelihood strategies it pursues.

For this chapter the following definitions are used:

The framework shows that exposure to risk is determined by the frequency and severity of natural and man-made shocks and by their socio-economic and geographical scope. The determinants of coping capacity include the levels of a household’s financial, human, physical, social, natural and political assets; the levels of its production, income and consumption; and its ability to diversify its income sources and consumption to mitigate the effects of the risks.


The vulnerability of infants and young children means that addressing their nutrition should be a priority. Prevention of undernutrition is as important as treatment of acute malnutrition. Food security interventions may determine nutrition and health in the short term and their survival and well-being in the long term.

Women often play a greater role in planning and preparation of food for their households. Following a disaster, household livelihood strategies may change. Recognising distinct roles in family nutrition is key to improving food security at the household level. Understanding the unique nutritional needs of pregnant and lactating women, young children, older people and persons with disabilities is also important in developing appropriate food responses.

Better food security and nutrition disaster response is achieved through better preparedness. It is the capacities, relationships and knowledge developed by governments, humanitarian agencies, local civil society organisations, communities and individuals to anticipate and respond effectively to the impact of likely, imminent or current hazards. Preparedness is based on an analysis of risks and is well linked to early warning systems. It includes contingency planning, stockpiling of equipment and supplies, emergency services and stand-by arrangements, communications, information management and coordination arrangements, personnel training and community-level planning, drills and exercises.

The main areas of intervention for food security and nutrition in disasters covered in this Handbook are infant and young child feeding; the management of acute malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies; food transfers; cash and voucher transfers; and livelihoods.

Links to other chapters

Many of the standards in the other chapters are relevant to this chapter. Progress in achieving standards in one sector often influences progress in other sectors. For an intervention to be effective, close coordination and collaboration are required with other sectors. Coordination with local authorities, other responding agencies and community-based organisations is also necessary to ensure that needs are met, that efforts are not duplicated and that the quality of food security and nutrition interventions is optimised.

The conceptual framework for undernutrition identifies poor household environment and inadequate health services among the underlying causes of malnutrition. Responses to prevent and correct malnutrition require the achievement of minimum standards both in this chapter and in the WASH, Shelter and Health chapters. They also require that the core standards be achieved and the protection principles addressed. In order to ensure food security and nutrition of all groups in a manner that ensures their survival and upholds their dignity, it is not sufficient to achieve only the standards in this chapter of the Handbook. Reference is made, where relevant, to specific standards or guidance notes in other chapters and to companion and complementary standards.


Links to the Protection Principles and Core Standards

In order to meet the standards of this Handbook, all humanitarian agencies should be guided by the Protection Principles, even if they do not have a distinct protection mandate or specialist capacity in protection. The Principles are not ‘absolute’: it is recognised that circumstances may limit the extent to which agencies are able to fulfil them. Nevertheless, the Principles reflect universal humanitarian concerns which should guide action at all times.

The Core Standards are essential process and personnel standards shared by all sectors. The six Core Standards cover people-centred humanitarian response; coordination and collaboration; assessment; design and response; performance, transparency and learning; and aid worker performance. They provide a single reference point for approaches that underpin all other standards in the Handbook. Each technical chapter, therefore, requires the companion use of the Core Standards to help attain its own standards. In particular, to ensure the appropriateness and quality of any response, the participation of disaster-affected people – including the groups and individuals most frequently at risk in disasters – should be maximised.


Vulnerabilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations

It is important to understand that to be young or old, a woman or an individual with a disability or HIV, does not, of itself, make a person vulnerable or at increased risk. Rather, it is the interplay of factors that does so: for example, someone who is over 70 years of age, lives alone and has poor health is likely to be more vulnerable than someone of a similar age and health status living within an extended family and with sufficient income. Similarly, a 3-year-old girl is much more vulnerable if she is unaccompanied than if she were living in the care of responsible parents.

As food security and nutrition standards and key actions are implemented, a vulnerability and capacity analysis helps to ensure that the disaster response effort supports those who have a right to assistance in a non-discriminatory manner and who need it most. This requires a thorough understanding of the local context and of how a particular crisis impacts on particular groups of people in different ways due to their pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g. being very poor or discriminated against), their exposure to various protection threats (e.g. gender-based violence including sexual exploitation), disease incidence or prevalence (e.g. HIV or tuberculosis) and possibilities of epidemics (e.g. measles or cholera). Disasters can make pre-existing inequalities worse. However, support for people’s coping strategies, resilience and recovery capacities is essential. Their knowledge, skills and strategies need to be supported and their access to social, legal, financial and psychosocial support advocated for. The various physical, cultural, economic and social barriers they may face in accessing these services in an equitable manner also need to be addressed.

The following highlight some of the key areas that will ensure that the rights and capacities of all vulnerable people are considered: