Until recently, much of the humanitarian response to disasters from the volunteer sector could be characterized as committed and compassionate — and competent as well, if sometimes just barely. From the South Asian tsunami of 2004, to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the response has been at best uneven, with some agencies performing brilliantly and others not. The complexity of many contemporary emergencies clearly requires a more professional approach to humanitarian action and a more exacting application of the ethos of professional responsibility. 

Thus, a new report calls for the establishment of a professional association for humanitarian workers. The association would be linked to a system of certification and internationally agreed-upon core competences taught through accredited training organizations around the world – with the objective of developing and ensuring standards, as well as overseeing the certification of individuals working in humanitarian settings.

The report, “Professionalising the Humanitarian Sector” was commissioned by the UK Enhanced Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance consortium (ELRHA). Researchers provided by the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in partnership with RedR UK, a  training group,  surveyed aid workers around the world. Drawing upon the experience of recent quality assurance and training initiatives, the new report paints a convincing picture of the need, and demand, for the establishment of a profession of humanitarian work.

Why Do We Need To Professionalize The Humanitarian Sector?

Put simply, humanitarian assistance is a huge growth business. Funding flowing from the richer Northern countries to the UN, non-governmental organizations and the Red Cross/Red Crescent has increased dramatically,  from $6.5 billion in 2000 to $14.9 billion in 2008.  The general public is thought to have contributed an additional $3.1 billion for humanitarian assistance in 2008.  

The number of people employed in the humanitarian sector now exceeds 210,000 people worldwide, a figure that grows by 6 percent a year.  In the past these workers were principally from the North, but today they hail from across the globe. In an online survey by the ELRHA consortium, more than 22 percent of respondents were from Africa and Asia.  We know only from individual agencies how many people they assist in each crisis, but in the aggregate, the humanitarian community could be assisting anywhere from 50 million to 150 million people a year.

A second reason to create a profession of humanitarian work is that humanitarian assistance now no longer addresses primarily short-term events requiring time-limited aid. Today more than 50 percent of official humanitarian spending is to people assisted for more than three years.  The  majority of funding actually now goes to populations assisted for more than eight years — for example, in the Congo, where a multi-state war has been followed by sporadic ongoing conflict almost ever since. 

A third reason to professionalize the humanitarian sector is that  humanitarian assistance is no longer a historical side show, but is central to saving entire populations and even states.  It is, economically, politically, and in terms of survival a substantial factor affecting some of the poorest countries in the world. It is a far more political and intricate business than in the past, more dangerous and technologically complex.

Developing Worker-Centered Quality Efforts 

Until now, trying to bring quality to this rapidly growing world has been driven by coalitions of aid agencies, not by individual workers.  Groups such as ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action), the Sphere Project, People In Aid, and HAP (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership) International all promote notions of professionalism but do so through the agency of the employing institution, rather than focusing on the individual worker’s abilities, skills, knowledge and behavior in humanitarian settings.   

The ELRHA consortium’s report, published in June of this year, calls for these institutional efforts to be complemented by individual efforts. Specifically, it calls for the establishment of an international humanitarian professional association, which would have the means to certify the competence of its membership.  The study also proposes a set of core competencies describing the values, skills and knowledge aid workers need. It sets forth a training program developed around these competencies that could be provided through any accredited training body around the world, not just the aid agencies and universities of the North.

The study’s authors — Peter Walker of Tufts (see photo and bio above) and Catherine Russ of RedR UK — believe that their recommendations will be of particular benefit to humanitarian workers from the South. Those from the South make up between 90 and 95 percent of the employed worker population but a much smaller proportion of the management and professional grades of the aid agencies. Having certified training available through local institutions, and not dependent on individual employers, would significantly lower entrance barriers and improve the possibilities of promotion for workers from the South.

Sadly, as aid agencies have grown in size over the past two decades, the sense of commitment and loyalty to the “cause” of humanitarianism and to the victims of crisis has at times been buried under concerns to meet donor reporting requirements and corporate fund raising targets. A focus on professionalism could help to reverse this trend.

The study was warmly welcomed when presented in June to an international gathering of aid workers, donors and academics in London.  Mechanisms have already been set in motion to establish the professional association for humanitarian workers, to further refine the suggested core competencies, and gain more general engagement and involvement within the humanitarian sector. The establishment of a truly independent professional association for, of and by individual aid workers, promoting the values of both commitment and competence, will improve the aid system’s accountability to its primary clients — aid recipients — the quality of the aid delivered, and the quality of the work and careers of aid professionals.