I take it as a given that professionalizing the humanitarian / aid sector is a good thing. Obviously there are many in the world who disagree with me on this.

I would like to know what the arguments against professionalizing the humanitarian sector are. I can guess at some, but I'd like to be more certain. If you know or if you're against professionalizing the humanitarian sector, please enlighten me in the thread below. 

Also, if there are organizations, projects, initiatives... against professionalizing, please paste those links below, too.

Thank you!

Tags: Aid, Humanitarian Aid, Professionalizing the Humanitarian Sector

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I'm going to answer your question with a question, but at least you'll have company ranting into the void! :)

My question is: are we limiting ourselves by structuring this conversation around 'professionalizing' in the same sense as doctors and lawyers (for example) are professionalized?

The humanitarian/aid sector is made up of a diverse group of professionals from a variety of fields. We're engineers and health care workers and project managers and IT specialists (etc etc) who are all both professionals in their specific area and humanitarian/aid workers.

So, I'm not sure that professionalizing humanitarian/aid work *in general* will actually achieve what we hope it will achieve (ie. broader recognition that not just anyone can do this kind of work, and regulation to ensure that the people who are doing it are properly qualified).

This isn't an argument against professionalization per se, because I think achieving the above goals are necessary and would make aid/development work significantly more efficient and effective. But I'm thinking that maybe we need to look outside the box of what professionalization traditionally means, and come up with a more creative approach that encompasses the diversity of expertise that's so fundamental (and, in many ways, unique!) to this sector.

Not that I am against professionalization overall since I think it would be bring in more standards and thus accountability, but I would ask how professionalization could also include and even be driven by viewpoints coming out of the Global South?  

When someone says "professionalization" to me, I assume they mean Western standards because usually that is in fact what they mean.  Thus, to the tune of Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how would professionalization not marginalize local knowledge?  Would it make it more difficult for local community members to come on board to do development work?

In my view there is technical expertise (e.g. health, agriculture, forestry, micro-financing, emergency response) and there is change expertise. The latter is about expertise that builds ownership, supports people and organisations to grow and to pursue their own agendas, facilitates collaboration for social change. This type of expertise is what distiguishes aid professionals. There are not many places where you can develop this expertise in a structured way. The Learning Network on Capacity Development (LenCD) has made a start with a learning package. It's a bit woody, and focusses mostly on using tools and resources rather than developing the person (behaviour and skills of change facilitators), but ok gotta start somewhere. More about balancing change and technical expertise in the freely downloadable book Capacity Development in Practice.

Thanks, those are helpful resources, Lucia.  And good point about aid professionals and change expertise.  

That brings up another thought.  Perhaps there are many kinds of expertise that are not as culturally influenced, like biological sciences, etc. - although the existence of Western and Eastern medicine still points to the role of culture.  However, change would obviously be in the other category as heavily and necessarily influenced by culture.  An example might be how the Japanese contributed uniquely to the field of organizational management (perhaps because of their cultural differences to the West).  Thus, how different perspectives/cultures are  incorporated into a continuously developing field will be interesting to see.


I guess it all depends on what "professionalizing" means. To explain that rather cryptic notion in a bit more detail:

The big difference (for me anyway) between the humanitarian sector and (say) the investment banking sector is that the underlying reasons for giving aid are (or should be) moral ones. "Good aid" therefore has to incorporate some aspect of passion, conviction of doing the right thing and idealistic thought. All stuff that you won't necessarily find in an advertisement for the Deutsche Bank.

Now, I would argue that these character traits are partly a contradiction to complete professionalism - if it is understood in an economic theory sense of the word. If you care for a cause, if you want to keep on innovating to attain some idealistic goal, than there will be screwups.

It should also not be forgotten that aid is about the people receiving it. And if we really mean it when we say we want to include stakeholders, than of course we must invite "amateurs" into every stage of the process of developing aid programs and realizing them. Again, this is a definite source of screwups.

So to bring this rambling to an end, it boils down to this:

Accepting (and even nurturing) a certain amount of non-professionalism will probably lead to some bad decisions being made and some money being wasted. But professionalizing at all costs will undermine the very reasons aid is given and is will probably result in even bigger problems.

Maybe the professionalism is in learning from the screw-ups, so that overall the situation gradually improves.

I think it might help if you clarified a bit what you mean by "professionalizing the aid sector". I'm always a bit irked by this debate because it seems to imply that we are not already professionals! In addition, we already have all kinds of professional standards for humanitarian work (Sphere, HAP, etc) - so shouldn't we instead focus our efforts on making sure that the people we hire are well qualified for the job, the work we do is good quality, and most importantly of all, the people we are trying to reach receive assistance that is appropriate to their needs, and in a dignified and safe way???

I agree with Samantha where the technical fields are concerned.  We obviously can't substitute the qualifications of health professionals, social workers, engineers etc. for generic "humanitarian studies" degrees - nor would these Western degrees be a reasonable requirement with aid professionals coming from all over the world.  

Also, while it makes sense for non-technical aid workers - programme managers etc - to acquire a more specific set of skills and knowledge through higher education, wouldn't requiring the kind of degrees that are currently being talked about lead to a sort of global humanitarian elite? I.e. people who could afford a University degree in the universities that are leading the drive to professionalize aid work.

So I am a bit confused as to the debate on how to "professionalize" what I see as being an already professional sector overall...  What kind of things are we talking about?  An annual need to renew your certification in the Sphere standards?  More investment in pre-deployment training?  More organisational willingness to send people on courses to improve their technical skills?

Maybe that is a topic for a new thread!

So, to sort of respond to a number of comments in this thread in one shot...

The general reasons why I think professionalizing the aid sector is a good idea:

1) Can improve the quality of aid. To me this is obviously needed. I'm not aware of anyone arguing that the quality of aid has to improve. The arguments tend to be around what improved quality looks like, and how to achieve it. I'm not blind to the pitfalls of relying solely on professionalizing to achieve aid quality, but I do see it as a non-negotiable early step.

2) Can improve the consistency of aid. Right now aid quality is all over the map. Even within organizations. Save or CARE or World Vision might rock in one country, but totally SUCK in another. In fact, not "might" - this is the case with every INGO that I have any specific knowlege of in the field...

Moreover - and speaking to Breanna's point  - while I want to believe that aid is a profession, am a believer in HAP and ALNAP and Sphere, and all of that, my repeated direct observation is that the industry is saturated with "players"  of all stripes and colors with varying degrees of commitment to these standards, and in fact not even necessarily acknowledging them at all. For every transitional camp in Port-au-Prince where Oxfam applied  the practices in the Good Enough Guide to the letter, there were five church groups a few camps away, not just blowing off any kind of standards, but reveling in the fact that they were blowing off the standards, while still describing themselves as 'humanitarians' and their work as 'aid work.'

Maybe what I'm after here is a set of standards and definitions, sufficiently inclusive and exclusive for identifying what's humanitarian work and what's not (thinking out loud). It's a bit of a representation issue. And while some might accuse me of just being "elitist" (I'm used to it), I think it's more than just representation - there are practical issues also associated with when, for example, CNN's coverage of "aid" and "the relief effort" in a particular country is based on their coverage of a narrow or inappropriately focused swath of the so-called "aid community." Obviously I could go on......

The reasons that most people I talk to give when pushing back on the notion of professionalizing the aid sector are:

1) The practice of aid should be open to anyone, not restricted. This is essentially a "good intentions..." argument, which I reject out of hand. However, it represents a very prevalent perspective in the general population. "Who gave the UN and the NGOs the right to say who can help and who can't?" is a question that frequently comes back.

2) It will mean that business as usual has to change, it will be expensive, it will mean that certain old-timers may wake up one day to discover that they're not qualified to practice. It will mean that some entrenched practices - sending undergrads to practice on the poor, for example - will have to change. I reject this argument as well. If practices need to change, they need to change. Period.

3) How in the world will we ever regulate, enforce (add your preferred verb here) it? Basically the argument here is that it's just too difficult. 

Howdy J. et al.

I think the depressing thing is your point #3. How will it be DONE, much less enforced?

Take day-care as an analogy... it is pretty easy to pick out a crappy daycare full of jackasses and pretty soon it will be shut down or go out of business. Is aid work different or less transparent, than a day-care? Or do the consumers (donors) just care less or care less deepy (lazy) so it is easier for jackass aid-work to be portrayed as good? Seems there are two factors (1) it is harder to visit an aid project than a day-care. (2) it is harder to tell what is "good" and "bad" aid (esp. if you are an uniformed, read lazy, donor).

It's not that simple, I know. pbbbt.

Also, I admit I am an elitist too - but a depressed one on this topic.

1) The practice of aid should be open to anyone, not restricted.

  • I think the opportunity to practice aid should be open -  if you suck at it, then shape up or ship out. 

2) It will mean that business as usual has to change...

  • Of course it will have to change.  But I'm still not sure that it solves the problem of better and more consistent... I think it has the opportunity to create simply more standards which will feel inconsistent.

3) How in the world will we ever regulate, enforce (add your preferred verb here) it?

  • This piggybacks on to #2 -- but people in good intentions occupations suck at change. Hands down. Hate it.  And while entrenched, they can get super nasty about it too... because, I think, that saying "Hey, WV, what's up with all the SWEDOW?" is the same as asking "Hey, you are a bad person, and you don't actually do anything worthwhile.
    • Imagine the angst around Facebook changing its layout, and apply it to a life or death moral imperative.

I mean, if the goal is to do it better, and more consistently, why not just hire more consistent people?  I mean you have to take  a massive pay-cut and live in war-torn countries without [insert amenities]  And I wonder if any good people who should be doing aid... don't want the aid lifestyle?  Or that those who want it, don't have the cultural competency to "get it? (right now anyway)  Or they don't have the experience... 

Certification gets at the "hard skills"  but I've seen folks with some pretty solid hard skills, get into an intercultural work setting and flip out. (heck, I would guess that this is why NGO compounds and expat communities exist -- to give people a place to flip out, and find a mental break.)  But what about the soft skills?  Who will certify those?

"I think the opportunity to practice aid should be open -  if you suck at it, then shape up or ship out."

This is more or less the system that exists now, no? Anyone who wants can start an NGO, go 'be an aid worker', and all of that. And an honor system of shape up/ship out (although in 20 years I cannot recall a single instance of an aid worker or NGO declaring themselves incompetent and shipping out...).

You're spot on - hiring (and retaining) the right people, in my opinion, is 90% or more of this battle. I'd certification (warts an all) as one way of making easier the task of narrowing who the 'right people' are.

And of course you're also right that certification, by itself, a) doesn't guarantee ability, and b) cannot cover a pretty wide swath of so-called 'soft' skills, as you mention.

Not sure where/how this fits, but it's been my observation that in the moment of confronting an aid workers who's running amuck, we typically latch onto whichever one they don't have as the one that's most lacking in the industry... So the guy who's been living in rural Cambodia for 15 years, speaks the language fluently, is to the point of being uncomfortable around other expats, and all of that... needs technical capacity (certification). While the woman with all of the certs, who can spout all the data, recite all of the studies and theories and acronyms, but somehow offends every local person with whom she comes into contact... lacks the soft skills. 

In my personal opinion, one needs to have both (hard and soft skills). It's just that the soft skills are just as important, but much harder to train for. Whereas by comparison the hard skills are low-hanging fruit.

If they aren't having the self awareness to know when they might not be in the best field (or that the program isn't worth it)... then perhaps that is a key point...

Maybe we have to be more diplomatic, delicate, and direct about our colleagues and compatriots.  (Of course we must be careful that we're not going all expose-gangbusters and demonstrating a deep lack of soft skills and schadenfreude while deciding that we are in charge of keeping aid work safe for the good people as defined my me and my people... )

I think that the hard skills can be taught at a traditional international development graduate program... And besides, most of the hard skills will be vastly different and get likely turned on their ear anyway once you hit the field. and the UN might use XYZ to manage its projects and HRI will use WTF to do the same.

As for the soft skills... you do need them... and most of that is a self awareness piece.

But then I went to a Grad program that taught both hard and soft skills... and sometimes "training for soft skills" looks and feels a lot like group therapy.  To most hardened "hard skill havers"  talking about your feelings (aka: learning to listen and give appropriate feedback to others talk about their feelings and learning how to think about that in a development context while giving your classmates the opportunity to think the same) doesn't seem useful -- because there is no hard metric for excellence. 




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