research. training. advocacy.


Thoughts about the professionalization of the humanitarian sector


(Para VOICE out loud)
Throughout the last decade, the major increase in humanitarian action has gone hand in hand with a significant rise in the number of people professionally dedicated to this area. According to some studies (Stoddard and Harmer 2006)1, at least 250,000 people in the world are humanitarian workers. The majority of these come from affected countries, but a considerable amount also come from donor countries. However, the latter group’s abilities have not really been studied yet, which has led to a critical debate on their origin, motivations, level of influence, added value and, above all, professional capacities and training. The lack of experience of some expatriates is often criticized and it is not rare to hear comments such as “they can´t find jobs at home” or “they come to take the jobs of our qualified engineers” (Donini 2010).2

The fact that young staff in their first field mission are sometimes given responsibilities in complex emergency situations such as Darfur feeds into this criticism. Humanitarian action requires a high level of professionalism, given that it takes place in difficult environments, and that it could be regarded as having received some of the most advanced technical means and sophisticated technologies in the aid sector. Nevertheless, some humanitarian organisations’ vision in terms of human resources and staff needs remains very simplistic. And this is the context in which the Lisbon Treaty specifically mentions the creation of a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps in order to “establish a framework for joint contributions from young Europeans to the humanitarian aid operations of the Union” (European Union Treaty, article 214.5). This plan is in the same line as proposals of politicians wishing to create new Corps of intervention in cases of emergency, such as the so-called “red helmets”, or the proposals to use armed forces by default in the fulfilment of humanitarian aid tasks. It seems as if there is no space left for a professionalization of humanitarian aid in between interventions by young volunteers on the one hand and militaries on the other.

The debate around the professionalization of the humanitarian sector has been on-going for a long time in European humanitarian bodies like ECHO or member states’ agencies, as well as in UN civil agencies. However, that debate has been very technical and has put too much emphasis on corporate issues, which resulted in a poor understanding of the process outside the humanitarian community. At the end of the Eighties, various initiatives concerning Quality and Accountability (Q&A) were created, such as the Sphere Project, Compas, AL NAP 3 and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP ). Without any doubt, these contributed to the strengthening of issues of quality, including those related to the needs for training in human resources and professionalization. The establishment in some EU member states of postgraduate courses and training activities specialised in the humanitarian sector has also contributed to a further professionalization of the sector. In that respect, the existence of NOHA (Master in International Humanitarian Action with a European scope), which takes place in various European universities with the European Commission’s support, is a positive initiative on a cross-continental scale.

In this context, a paradox is arising between the will for further professionalization on behalf of some institutions, and the support for non-professional volunteering or militarisation on behalf of others. What are the challenges for the humanitarian NGO s in such a context?

Firstly, it is important to understand that what is at stake is not just any kind of professionalization. Investing in further professionalization of the non-governmental humanitarian sector has to be compatible with the sector’s compromise between both advocacy tasks and the principles and ethical values of the humanitarian enterprise. The sector’s professionalism can’t be as ‘clinical’ as some propose. Some comparisons, presenting humanitarian workers as mere “pizza deliverers” orientated towards totally technical tasks, should not be accepted by NGO s.

There are further aspects such as cultural sensitivity or understanding issues of gender and team work that should be part of the requirements necessary to be a humanitarian worker. There are already too many mercenaries in other sectors.

A second challenge has to do with human resources training and professionalization in the North and South. Humanitarian action has for a long time been a northern enterprise but this approach should end. Capacity building tasks with counterparts in disaster-affected countries should be a substantial part of humanitarian NGOs work. In this context, professionalization of humanitarian workers from the South is a key aspect.

Thirdly, there are some important HR aspects that NGO s should seriously consider, such as motivation, promotion and retention of humanitarian professionals. The humanitarian sector is maybe one of the sectors with the highest turnover of professionals. While this presents certain advantages in terms of using others’ experiences and lessons learned, it can also be very inconvenient. The elaboration of career plans, which is not very usual in the sector, should be considered. In addition, the introduction of professional standards and transparent recruitment procedures should be more widespread.

Full newsletter

Related publications