Humanitarianism now has its first true international studies association.
Fifteen years ago, when the humanitarian Code of Conduct and the Sphere Standards, were being conceived, they were part of a logic which asserted that humanitarianism needed to “get more professional”. Well this week, one of the key elements in becoming a profession has fallen into place.
Professions – law, medicine, engineering, etc all share a set of common attributes. They all:
• Utilize knowledge in an altruistic fashion
• Have a monopoly on specialized knowledge
• Therefore have autonomy to self regulate
• Are responsive to the users of the profession
• And have a responsibility to expand the Knowledge
If we think about the developments of the last fifteen years we can see how the field of humanitarian practice is moving closer to this model. Structures like the Active Learning Network on Accountability and performance (ALNAP) and the Humanitarian Accountability Project International are making practitioners more responsive to their clients. The issue of autonomy to self regulate has been highlighted and reasserted by the pressure put on agencies, particularly American ones, to conform to foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Older developments, like the seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, speak to the altruistic utilization of knowledge and the many coordinating and cooperating associations and funding agreements predicated upon proven competence speak to the monopoly on specialize knowledge.
But until now the reasonability to expand that knowledge has been a rather defuse notion.
Most professions are structured with a body of practitioners who have an ethical code to abide by, a body of knowledge to apply in the service of others and a set of regulations to control that service. Downstream are their clients and upstream is their academy: Law Schools, Medical Faulty, Engineering departments, with their associated specialized journals, conferences, professional degrees and academic associations.
In Groningen (Netherlands) this week we had the world’s first ever full scale academic conference devoted to humanitarian studies. Over 500 hundred academics and practitioners came together, 50 panels, 400 plus papers, and out of the conference has come the launching of the first full academic study associating devoted to humanitarian issues. The International Humanitarian Studies Association. This association, open to academics and reflective practitioners world wide will promote humanitarian studies, organize an international bi-annual conference and launch a peer reviewed journal for the association. The next conference is already planned for June 2011 to be hosted by Tufts University, Boston, USA.
The academic rigor, obsession with actions being evidence based and compulsion to share knowledge, embodied in such an association, has the potential to make a real difference to humanitarian practice and through that to the lives of those caught up in crisis.