Humanitarian recruitment = elitist?

The drive to professionalise the humanitarian sector is widely heralded as a positive thing. But is the impact of professionalisation on recruitment practices creating an elitist sector, open only to those who can afford a postgraduate education, and lengthy periods of unpaid work?

Understanding what exactly is meant by ‘professionalisation’ within a humanitarian context is itself a challenge, as the word is often used as an umbrella term encompassing all manner of schemes. Broadly (and conceptually) speaking, it is the attempt to define and codify the set of knowledges required to create the ‘professional’ aid worker, with the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA)* Core Competencies Framework as a prime example . This is in turn used to inform, limit and manage recruitment – constructing the required profile of a humanitarian, encompassing both professional ‘technical’ skills, as well as personal competencies.

Ultimately, the emphasis and overall intent of professionalisation is the improvement of the humanitarian enterprise, increased effectiveness and better management (at individual and organisational level). This is laudable, and I think necessary. However, the manner in which this is taking place is at times worrying and counterproductive – driven in part by the fragmentary and ambiguous nature of the humanitarian system.

Over-focus on qualifications, such as the increased expectation of postgraduate qualifications as a minimum for unpaid internships, drives a worrying trend towards elitism in the sector and an unnecessary narrowing of entry points. A competency based framework should allow for a wider recruitment approach, but is undermined by the reliance on ‘field experience’** or internships that essentially makes the sector accessible only to those who can afford a taught MA, or several months/years unpaid work.

How many internships or trainee programmes pay a living wage to their recruits? Most entry schemes demand Masters-level education, something that it is nigh on impossible to find funding for, at least in the UK, and significantly whittles the eligible pool of candidates to those who have been able to finance their way past an undergraduate degree.

The reality is that solid team management skills, the ability to function under extreme pressure, land on your feet in alien circumstances and communicate well are far, far more important skills than familiarity with the finer points of international relations theory. Excepting some of the technical sectors, I would suggest that a period working nightshifts in your local will probably equip you better for any length of time in the field than a postgraduate qualification in international politics, or a gap year jolly teaching English at an ‘African’ school.

Facetious points aside – study of humanitarian politics, IHL and human rights law are absolutely important, but their relevance is undermined if not combined with solid working experience. The concern is prioritisation of theoretical knowledge over direct, practical skills.

The professionalisation agenda presents an exciting opportunity for the sector to do something truly radical, especially given the current economic climate. As organisations with social objectives, humanitarian agencies could reach out beyond the largely Western, middle class demographic to explore recruitment from asylum populations, the European Eastern bloc, or pioneer paid, skills based/vocational apprenticeships for UK jobseekers. Yet how many HR departments pioneer an entry level scheme that actually supports people financially and is accessible to those without significant savings? Or actively recruit from UK jobcentres, or prioritise recruitment from poorer or disadvantaged areas? I seriously think we are missing a trick.

*The CBHA has been rebranded as the Start Network and now incorporates aid agencies outside of Britain.
**See J.’s recent blog on why ‘the field’ is becoming outdated.

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10 thoughts on “Humanitarian recruitment = elitist?

  1. Thanks for at least saying that further study is important (if not essential)! I’m something of a lapsed humanitarian worker, now in academia, but my experience of the field has been that it is nepotistic, and very often reproduces paternalistic relationships even as it claims to want to dismantle them. It’s unfortunate, but good for students and those with an eye towards getting into this field to know what they are in for. It’s now old, but I find Hugo Slim’s ‘The Continuing Metamorphosis of the Humanitarian Practitioner: New Colours for an Endangered Chameleon’ (Disasters: Vol. 19, No. 2, 1995) to be still very relevant (and one of the best titles of a journal article ever).

    • Slim’s piece is a good read – we had forgotten about that one. Your comment rings true with what almost all of us Aid Leapers have found. There are moments of luck and of merit but often its who you know that matters. And sometimes this is because if you come with a recommendation then it shortens the recruitment process in what can often be fraught times. But when we see the same happening outside of an emergency situation it is very depressing. There is still a lot of work to be done to iron this out – will it dissolve naturally as a new generation rises? And there is still a lot to be done on the professionalisation agenda.

  2. I wrote a long comment and lost it.
    In a nutshell what I was saying. I was privileged to know 2 generations of aid workers. In the 1950/60s, the only people who could afford to work for an NGO were wealthy people. My father-in-law who became the technical director of a very well known British NGO took elocution lessons to fit in. He was the son of a London tramway driver who took evening lessons to become an engineer and bring up 4 kids on a shoestring. Today the same NGO has only Oxbridge people in its management team.

    I worked 30 years ago for MSF and the same British NGO,. Plenty of mistakes were made, but I am looking now at Haiti or Niger in 2005. How far have we gone? Interestingly enough, camps were frown upon until Syria and the skills built in the Zaire, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad camps have been lost.

    I was talking about older aid workers. I guessed I was talking about my husband, who started work in 1983 in Nicaragua. He was this year dismissed on health grounds because he cannot travel anymore to insecure regions after being diagnosed with delayed and full blown PTSD as he had the misfortune to be caught in the war and civil war of the Great Lakes region between 1994-1997. How likely he is to find another job in the aid business? Are his skills not relevant anymore?

    Forget what I am saying. I am bitter and twisted, not only because of what this business has done to my husband but also because I can seen human suffering being rationalised and justified. I hate the expression food insecurity when severe malnutrition or famine is ignored like in Niger in 2005.
    MSF has a beautiful sentence: ‘Humanitarian action is subversive’. Unfortunately today it is not. It is totally subordinated to development objectives, meaning political and military objectives.
    By the way, I shared a mango sorbet with Hugo Slim in Port Sudan in 1985.

    • Sorry to hear your story Anita. We hope that your husband gets better. There are many lessons for us to learn from the past and we must not forget those who have been through this before and have ideas/experience. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Another aspect of this conversation is the misguided pressure on humanitarian aid orgs to lower administrative costs combined with the often self-righteous belief among young aid workers that “it’s not about the money” (read: “I am privileged”). These aspects of the international aid sector create an environment in which staff feel guilty for wanting more reasonable compensation. With so many young, aspiring aid-workers willing to work for little or nothing (myself included), or hiding from a depressed job market by going to grad school and getting a masters, what incentives do orgs, especially small non-profits, have to look beyond the wealthy western candidate pool? None beyond idealism idealism, in my experience.

  5. I have zero problem with either fact or the label of “elitist.”

    Not just anyone should be able to practice on survivors of disaster, conflict or general poverty under the mantel of some vague notion of “feeling called to help” (or a thousand variations on that general theme). You (One) should have specific qualifications, skills, and experience before being allowed to make decisions which affect the lives of others, and in some cases entire communities. The fact that there is not, as yet, an equivalent in the aid world of a malpractice lawsuit in the medical world should by no means be seen as license for just anyone to drop into a poor community or disaster zone somewhere and sort of trial-and-error their way through other people’s lives.

    [Steps off of soapbox]

    That said, I agree that much of the emphasis in the current professionalization debate is misplaced on theoretical things (“the big thoughts”, as I call them). Those are important, of course, but I see far too many MA in International Development grads show up for work not knowing what to actually do.

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