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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