Professionalizing the Humanitarian Aid Sector

Given the high levels of professionalism that humanitarian workers demand of themselves and each other and, given the increasing investment in capacity building and standard setting across the sector, is the time now right to create an internationally recognized humanitarian profession and put in place the coherent training and professional development structures that would normally be expected of an established profession? The Feinstein International Center is working with Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) to establish a path towards professionalization.

In a sector where consistent humanitarian occupational standards do not exist, several NGOs, INGOs, learning providers and universities have unilaterally moved, over the years, to address the learning and capacity building needs of workers based on their particular interpretations of identified needs. This has led to an ad hoc training offering, with gaps in provision and a lack of pathways and progression routes for the sector, both for those wishing to enter the sector and those wishing to develop professionally within the sector.

With an identified lack of entry and mid-level qualifications, often the only qualifications available to humanitarian workers in developing countries are expensive master’s degrees in a range of non-humanitarian subjects such as business, the environment, geography and human resources amongst others. This has had and continues to have implications for the adherence of humanitarian principles and ethics within organizations and raises the issue of equity of access for those staff not able to access higher education.

For those master’s degrees on offer in humanitarian work around the world, there is no agreed core curriculum, leading to a variety of interpretations of what is essential humanitarian knowledge, and only a proportion of these programs offer practical internships and secondments. This can lead to recruitment difficulties with agencies’ recruiters having little understanding of the knowledge and skills with which these graduates present themselves.

Following the publication of the April 2010 study on Professionalizing the Humanitarian Aid Sector, the Center has worked closely with ELHRA and a network of aid professionals and academics across the USA as we seek to establish the structures and content necessary to develop a full profession in humanitarian aid. With ELRHA we are building a global network of study hubs, one on each continent, which will help develop a set of core competencies for aid workers and from that a system for delivering those competencies through training and apprenticeship in order to establish a global mechanism for certifying the competency of aid workers. The US hub is being coordinated through a social networking site.

As part of this initiative, the Center hosted the 2nd World Conference on Humanitarian Studies in June 2011. The conference was held under the auspices of the International Humanitarian Study Association. In July 2010 Center Director Peter Walker was appointed as President of the Study Association. The conference attracted over 500 global participants from the research and practice community. Some 370 papers were presented. Plans are also underway to establish a new academic peer reviewed journal for the association.

We have also begun a collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Swiss government to help develop a template for national legislation for disaster-affected countries, which would allow them to put in place effective and respected structures for coordinating and targeting international humanitarian aid. Field studies will be carried out to test the proposals and draft legislation should be ready in late 2012.


The study (accessible in the “Publications” tab below), commissioned by the UK’s Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance project (ELRHA) and carried out by the Feinstein International Center in collaboration with RedR, comes after a decade in which the humanitarian enterprise has sought to develop global standards, codes and representative bodies, and amid increasing momentum for creating a global system for professional development, accreditation and association. The study explores the nature of professionalism today and sets out key recommendations which, if implemented, could increase accountability, raise the quality and consistency of humanitarian service, open up the profession to talented new recruits, and raise the status of the humanitarian service provider to a level on a par with other professional groups.

Professionalising the Humanitarian Sector A Scoping Study
By Peter Walker, Catherine Russ | April 2010

This study, commissioned by the UK’s Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance project (ELRHA) and carried out by the Feinstein International Center in collaboration with RedR, comes after a...

Read More