Some of you may have noticed this post by Paul Currion over at - "Certified Fresh."

For those of you who didn't, it's worth the mouse click and the 10 minutes, tops, that it'll take you to read.

My initial reaction:

1) Take a good look and understand what's happening, because this is the future. If you are an aid worker now, or hope to be one some day, this is a peek through the window at at least some of what you'll be required to know in order to do you job (or even be hired into it).

2) As Paul says (and I paraphrase): It is a lot. You have to know/be good at a lot to be an aid worker. As I have argued repeatedly on my (now closed) blog, this job is not for everyone, and it's certainly not something to do as a hobby during spring break.

3) The "Professionalize the Aid Sector" train has left the station. We won't be being forced to certify by next year, but the day is coming.

What are your reactions?

Tags: Aid, Aid Worker, Certification for Humanitarian Workers, ELHRA, Professionalizing the Humanitarian Sector, SCHR

Views: 672

Replies to This Discussion

My initial reaction is to smack my forehead that CaLP is listed under livelihoods. That's just me being me though.  It's a good list and thank you Paul for getting up a table like this.

Second reaction was to check off most things on that DO need to know most of that in some shape or form----but do I need a certificate that says I sat in a training versus actually being part of an EMMA assessment?  I've always said no to that---like for instance when someone I am managing says to me, I want to go to a training, my first response is yes, that's awesome.  Training in what?  If we are ALREADY running a cash programme and someone is going to sit in a CaLP training then I feel like that's a waste of time, money and resources...find something (like an EMMA training or a MANGO one etc) that perhaps you don't know that much about and want to move into or feel it will augment what you know...

Is there anything to be said about 'certification' that comes with experience as well?  How do we measure that?  We do informally but not across any standard lines---and basically if someone is not good at something despite the years they might have, instead of telling them, actually, you aren't cut out for this, we send them on trainings instead.  You can stick me on a math training but I'm not about to be the next Einstein.  Aptitude for something should also mean should performance based work--if you suck and don't meet standards set, you need to be let go.  As you would in any job.

So yes, certification is coming and it's actually here and you need to know all that stuff (it looks like a helluva lot more than it is---a lot of it overlaps and works together, at least it does for me), and being an aid worker is a job and a serious one and it's not for everyone.  The bigger issue for me is that people should get fired for being bad at their jobs.  That's what we need standards and precedence for.  We keep multiplying and letting people believe as long as they have good in their hearts they can "help".  Which you can, but not without the requisite skill set.

Oh and disclaimer:  I am a Red Cross person mostly---so someone from one of the big NGOs being mentioned--which is probably why that list looks normal to me and the minimum people should know. 

Oh and Paul: Add SEEP network or Eldis etc under livelihoods instead of CaLP.

Apologies for including CaLP under livelihoods. To be fair, the table was built on the back of an envelope using half a biro.

For me the question is not so much whether you need a certificate that shows you were in a training, but how you balance education and experience to create a framework which accurately represents peoples' skills. This is entirely possible, although that sort of framework requires a lot more work to build; and that's what worries me, because it is always easier for organisations to take the path of least resistance.

I would be careful about writing off training simply because you think you already know the subject area; my experience is that many experienced aid workers do not in fact know the basics precisely because they picked it up on the job – and that can lead to greatly decreased effectiveness, if not serious mistakes. That's where your last point is particularly relevant, because we do need to be better at spotting duds (as well as spotting talent) – but the serious shortage of decent aid workers we face makes that more difficult than it should be.

Hmmm... I have been sitting and thinking about this one for a few days and in the sense that I think its a good idea, I also know that "professional certification" is not the same as "competent."

(skip to the part 2 minutes in after the activisty platitudes)

Now, I'm not a fancypants-super-dark-sider (not yet, anyway)  The outcomes of lives and significant conflict does not depend on my actions.  That said, some part of professional certification feels a bit like applied bureaucracy to solve a different problem.

The Problem it seems like it wants to solve is getting  "qualified people in the field" by raising the bar with the goal of "being better at aid".  What Certification actually does (IMHO) is creates a new system to objectively manage (or manipulate) qualities that are non-objective (people with skills).  I think its a common management issue to solve problems by adding more structure... I think it might be one of those things that is endemic in ID...  just add some more process/paperwork/etc with the goal of legitimizing the work done in the field.

Trainings and certifications, like bootcamps can teach you how to follow protocol, operate in a structured hierarchy, to accomplish a task.  Not much of it gets at the heart of the matter... our roles in these structures, and how they actually play out -- we can bang out the theory all day... but what is the certification for it being absorbed, integrated, and practiced on the hyper meta-level that drives the systems of change?

Here's the other catch -  Certification is going to come with a sort of... cache that will be inaccessible to our local partners, and then once again, only the privileged and now certified people can save the world. 

Maybe there is a way to change *how* this certification would be implemented -- but I doubt that any funding agencies would like that.

Certification is absolutely a management tool, but I disagree that the qualities that we want to manage are non-objective. What we should be aiming for is a) basic minimum levels of competence that b) relate closely to the designated and actual roles of the individual, c) in the practical context of the organisation in which they work.

This does require more bureaucratic structure, which is something which I am generally opposed to on principle. In my rich fantasy life, however, I dream of organisations who develop more effective structures, rather than just developing more structures. I realise that this is a pipe dream, which is why (if I continue to be involved in certification issues) I am going to fight the bureaucratic tendency strongly.

I agree with you that individual certification does not address organisation-level quality, but org-level certification also approaches rapidly, and is likely to hit us before individual certification does. I also agree with you that there are questions about how certification will be “absorbed, integrated, and practiced on the hyper meta-level that drives the systems of change” - but since the humanitarian sector is already atrocious at learning, I don't really see that as an obstacle.

Finally: yes, certification does imply exclusion, and that worries me because it undermines the spirit of voluntarism that this sector was built on. However I have to face the fact that the world has changed, and voluntarism is not as relevant it used to be in the industry. Even if it is, being a volunteer does not mean that you can't be professional. (For example, RNLI lifeboats in the UK are crewed entirely by volunteers, and believe me when I tell you that they are professional.)

The challenge is this: how do we build professionalisation frameworks (including certification) which act both as a quality assurance mechanism for the sector, and also as a capacity-building framework for our existing and future partners? It may be the case that funding agencies don't like what we propose; but it's better that we set the terms of the negotiations, rather than waiting for them to design their own certification systems.

Great response! 

If they are atrocious at learning... how is that not an obstacle?

I'm an OrgDev junkie at heart -- so this is an interesting statement to me.  Is it not an obstacle because its so critical? or not an obstacle because its so broken?  Or?

On the exclusion point -- I think the exclusion part is interesting but not because of that whole "volunteering" history -- but more that in order to do this work, you have to *care.*  Deeply or madly.  Maybe that caring spirit is what drives half of the broken systems that we fight so hard to keep in place.  Maybe the intrinsic karmic reward is what causes our suffering?   Maybe an industry-wide level or indifference is required for us to do it better.

(and you maybe right that "setting the context for designing the playingfield"  is necessary -- but I'm curious who is going to declare themselves the one(s) who are in the know enough to swing this system into action -- if only to do it before the funders do?)

I could write more, but I'm going to create some space for other folks respond...

The answer to the question of who will take the lead is already becoming clearer. SPHERE, HAP and People in Aid have already started the process of creating a potentially viable standard by pooling their efforts via the Joint Standards initiativeSCHR and ELRHA have put down the research foundations on organisation and individual certification, and both of them are moving ahead with their partner networks to work out how they can be implemented. Most of the "premier league" humanitarian organisations are either considering or already putting in place quality assurance mechanisms that strongly resemble the first steps towards certification.

On caring, I would rather work with somebody who was good at their job but didn't care about the community they were serving, rather than somebody who cared a lot but was not very good at their job. I don't want to downplay the caring aspect - it's why I do this work, after all - and obviously the ideal is somebody who is both, but a well-designed certification could actually help both of those people.

I think that certification, done properly can actually help with recognising the huge array of skills and competencies that are utilized in aid work on a daily basis.

The framework is important for how this is done and I think there is a huge difference in classroom based learning to field expereince, and I think you need both theory and practice. I think certification should be demonstrated on current competencies for people with years of experience, or completed on the job for people new to the field. 

I wonder if as part of the certification process people will be required to complete a certain amount of field practice under supervision?

thank you for reading

If I was designing a system, then field experience would be central to achieving higher levels of professional qualification, although not for entry-level positions. On the other hand, academic qualifications in generalist subject areas would probably count for nothing; so I suppose I'm showing my bias...

Hi, Paul

what my hope would be is that you end up with certification pathways that suit a variety of experiences with a variety of processes. 

 For academic quals - ah this is a difficult one. I get asked all the time in my primary field how come people can't get certified on the basis of their quals alone? and I say because you need to demonstrate how you meet those competencies against these performance elements in your current role. all the quals say is you completed study in a certain area, not that you know how to apply it. ( sorry that might sound a bit blunt)

 My feeling is for academic quals that specialise in an area - that gets your foot in the door of an organisation if you are lucky.

That is an entry point - the development of competency in key areas required for certification or perhaps different levels of certification takes time, and learning from others, and experience. Ideally a good certification system would work for both experienced field workers, those new and just finshing their study, and those transitioning in from other sectors with transferable skills.

thank you for providing so much information. I'm going to follow up because it interests me a lot.

Really really good question J/Paul. One I feel I should ponder further, but then I never seem to get enough headspace to ponder a lot, so...

As a person who gets paid to do training I naturally feel quite keen on people taking it seriously to gain professional skills. But as I think through some of the issues I feel it links to the age old debates around education. For example - is good education the one that gets you through exams? Or the one that makes you think? Certification could easily become all about the label and less about the 'professionalism'. 

I really believe in professionalism, but I don't necessarily think that certification will make you professional. How many incompetent doctors, lawyers, plumbers are there out there? All with excellent certification, and maybe even in some cases references? 

I also feel uncertain about the debates on volunteerism/professionalism etc. I mean, I think communities definitely don't care if you are a nice person or not, they mostly want you to deliver. But part of that delivery for a good percentage of aid work is communication, respect, values. In fact in the list of standards above there is a lot of discussion on values, standards and 'philosophical' issues if you will. I just recently did a training on several of them, and I spent a lot of that training challenging local colleagues to widen their world view so they could become 'professional' aid workers.  So you may not 'love the poor' but I kind of expect you to 'respect them' and by that I mean, act as if their views, rights, culture is important and not subject to the efficiency demands of you, the professional. It's tough to define the boundaries on this one, which is why I think we are all a bit uncomfortable in drawing them too simplistically. Or maybe it's just because professional aid workers are trained to think critically about everything which makes them a little exhausting to be around! ; - )

I agree with those who say that the same 'market' forces that caused all the other professions to become professional are definitely upon us. For example, money (communities getting to veto incompetent aid agencies anyone?!), or legal pressure (taking agencies/individuals to court for professional malpractice - it's already happening in the media in some countries).  I think that whilst the certification/standards manuals can be terrifying they are designed as best as people know how, and they are a constant attempt to codify am immense body of knowledge and experience. So, I hope we can drive the certification train in roughly the right direction. 

Still, at the end of the day your personal values will drive you to use that professional knowledge/training/information to become a 'good' aid workers. Personally, I couldn't bear the thought that as a well paid ex-pat I didn't deliver the best service in the best way as I knew how, because I figured if they wanted someone incompetent, they could have got them cheaper, local and at least some poor person's kids would have got fed. And that was what pushed me to improve - more than any boss, performance appraisal or course. I suspect for most of us that is what is behind the rejection of 'because I care I am doing good' kind of attitude and pushes us towards embracing professional standards, mixed though they may be. 

Dammit, I should really go do some work now. 

The argument ad incompententio doesn't persuade me very much - while there may be incompetent doctors out there, I really wouldn't want to have been born before the medical sector professionalised. (That's not quite true - I wouldn't want to have been born before the development of anaesthetics.) However you're absolutely right about the central role of the way we work, and not just the professionalisation of the work itself. While we may be uncomfortable with simplistic approaches to incorporating this into professionalisation measures, that's not an argument against professionalisation per se. It just means that it's our responsibility to make sure that simplification doesn't become over-simplification.

It's your last point that cuts me the most, and I think cuts the professionalisation argument its most fundamental issue. I have literally no interest in professionalising expatriate aid workers, because the primary reason we need international aid workers is that we have failed to build the professional capacity of local aid workers (and other local actors). I realise that any system that will be developed is likely to be developed starting from the international cadre and working "down", but I believe it should go the opposite direction. This is both because it's local staff that bear the weight of responsibility for delivering in the field, and also because international staff already have access to far more, far better resources for professional development.

EDIT: "Literally no interest" may be a little strong; I do have quite a lot of interest in professionalising internationals. However "professional development" oftens gets interpreted as doing a Masters in International Relations, which for obvious reasons is functionally meaningless.

Whilst I agree that 'professionalising' may help, I fear that it will be a step towards bureaucratizating the sector. I may be swimming against the tide, but I think that what aid workers need is enhanced emotional intelligence, more 'soft skills', more inter-relational and self-relational training. As my good friend Jennifer Lentfer says: aid workers need to know themselves! My experience tells me that we have enough technical skills, but we can do better in terms of relating to oneself and others (and "the other", as other countries, other cultures, etc) with more awareness. Yes, awareness. So if I had to wish the sector more training I would say "let's all go on an awareness training". The best aid workers combine emotional intelligence with professional skills and they leave a positive mark behind them mainly for their ability to relate as human beings with other human beings, not for their logframe skills, because “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”  (Maya Angelou).




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