(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Some of you may have noticed this post by Paul Currion over at Humanitarian.info - "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?
If we don't get involved in shaping the development of professionalisation measures, then it will be reduced to a bureaucratic process, because it's the bureaucracies (specifically national governments, international organisations and donors) that will be driving it.
When you employ a doctor to staff your mobile health clinic, you insist on professional qualifications. When you employ an engineer to build your sanitation, you insist on professional qualifications. When you employ a lawyer to draft protection legislation, you insist on professional qualifications. So the principle of professionalisation is absolutely accepted in the aid world - and sometimes it seems that it's just generalists like myself that have a vested interest in not extending that principle to ourselves.
My experience tells me we don't have enough technical skills, and the only reason nobody calls us on it is because there aren't any professional management structures in place. You can select and train staff for their ability to understand other cultures, respect affected communities and combine soft skills with hard. That's part of the professionalisation process as well; building better HR systems that identify and develop staff that can do these things, rather than perpetuating a frankly unacceptable status quo.
Enjoying this interesting exchange.
I wanted to emphasize that your point about HR is important: improvements in HR management really make a difference at the project level- in delivering effective services to beneficiaries. Fire incompetence. Keep people motivated. It just doesn't happen enough and honestly makes for bad aid. Good people in the field make for good aid. I know it's complicated out there, but sometimes it can be simple too.
I'll disagree with your generality (though I actually think we agree)... As a WASH engineer, I can tell you that hiring a qualified engineer does not guarantee a good sanitation project. We (aid workers) are asked to do a little bit of everything when we implement a project (coming from an NGO/UN background), but it does require a skill set that a traditional degree does not demonstrate.
I like to think I am good at my job (for arguments sake anyway :) ), but not because I am a good engineer (in fact I'm a rather crappy engineer, despite a degree from a prestigious university), it's because I am smart, creative, conscientious, and detail oriented in a practical way - things that are demonstrated through good HR Management, not through certification or qualifications... which brings us back to the first point.
I realize I am going in circles here, but even with a crappy proposal from a crappy donor that outlines a crappy project working for a crappy NGO in a crappy place, a smart person implementing it can do some good.
We do agree, and I'll write a reply later on. Right now it occurs to me that "a crappy proposal from a crappy donor that outlines a crappy project working for a crappy NGO in a crappy place" is a very accurate description of some projects that we've all seen or heard about. What it comes down to is that this is not acceptable to me, and I don't think it shouldn't be acceptable to any of us, even if a smart person gets involved. These are peoples' lives we're talking about, and they deserve better treatment. Certification isn't a guarantee that they'll get better treatment, but it's a damn sight better than nothing, which is what we have now.
"...I don't think it shouldn't be acceptable to any of us, even if a smart person gets involved. These are peoples' lives we're talking about, and they deserve better treatment. Certification isn't a guarantee that they'll get better treatment, but it's a damn sight better than nothing, which is what we have now."
Exactly. Couldn't agree more strongly. I seriously fail the see why there is the amount of push-back and nitpicking the idea of professionalizing the aid sector as a matter of principle (not saying you're doing this, Trayle :) ) that there is. I find it curious in particular that when it comes to justifying donor-driven, beyond-crappy projects (often involving SWEDOW of some kind), people are very quick to say something like, 'well, they have NOTHING now.. and so SURELY SOMETHING is BETTER THAN NOTHING.' But when it comes to basic measures which would move the entire industry in the direction of a common level of competence it's all brow furrowing and grumbling about elitism.
Yes, of course certification/professionalizing (and all that goes into those) will not make everything perfect. Yes, of course it will be difficult. But even so, at the very least, aid recipients deserve more from us than that we simply make the best of a lame situation.
Deep breaths J, deep breaths....
Trayle - just to clarify, I am not claiming that hiring a qualified engineer guarantees a good sanitation project. I am merely pointing out that nobody in their right minds should hire somebody with no qualifications (even if those qualifications are based on experience rather than paper) to design a good sanitation project. If traditional degrees don't give us the necessary skills, then we need to acquire them - preferably with the support of our organisations, but sometimes (often?) we don't have that support.
We need people who are "smart, creative, conscientious, and detail oriented in a practical way" and HR management is the key to this. In theory certification should help to make HR management better by allowing HR staff and systems to focus on those intangibles - rather than having to spend their time checking out if somebody has basic qualifications.
I do understand why people push back against certification, and it's a deep strain in the sector. It's understandable because a lot of people got into this work just through being in the right place at the wrong time; there was no career path, and so we feel it's "natural" that things just mosey along. My feeling is: that was a different world, and things need to change.
I absolutely agree with both of you, and in fact I would say that I am pro-certification... I just don't think that it's enough, I think it will be a huge challenge to do well, and I think that good HR must contribute to professionalization as well.
Paul, I agree with you 100% and your clarifications really drive the HR point home. Makes a lot of sense how they HAVE to work together.
My point was just making a worst case scenario down to the lowest level I could get to, for the sake of the argument. Take my logic up the ladder and nothing would be crappy. (ha ha, I know it's not that simple, but.)
J. have a beer with that breath. :) I totally agree with you too, and didn't mean to imply that "something is better than nothing for those poor starving black babies" and aid does need more than lemonade from lemons- I just meant that good people count in delivering good projects. I realize this is a small thing, but it is something i think that does hold us back and makes us "look" unprofessional and easy to criticize.
It's definitely going to be a huge challenge, and that's what worries me the most. We're just not very good at challenges at the system level, because all our planning tools are linear.
I get so depressed thinking about system level change. That is probably why all my comments are about lower level changes.
you hit the nail for me, Alessandra---but I have a bias as a health/lifestyle coach for humanitarians! But I saw it as a massive gap and it affects the quality of work...