Time for a humanitarian Profession?

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In ALNAPs soon to be published State of the Humanitarian System Report, they map the workforce in the international humanitarian system as growing “by an average annual rate of 6% over the past decade, [with] a total population of roughly 211,000 humanitarian workers in the field. Across this near quarter of a million population, the clamor to be regarded as professional, as a profession, has steadily risen. The last fifteen years has seen the development of many system-wide codes and standards, the establishing of special interest groupings and networks; ALNAP, People in Aid, ECB, to name but a few.
What has always intrigued me is why, if humanitarian workers believe they are a profession, they have not taken the obvious logical step of setting up their own professional associations? After all, it is professional associations that sit at the very heart of all present professions. It is these associations, not clubs of employers or states, which regular and maintain the profession.
Well it looks like the times they are a changing. Two recent developments, which I’ll expand on below, suggest humanitarianism is coming of age. But fist, why hasn’t it happened already?
The answer I believe lies in a quirk of this line of work. Almost all other professions start as a national concern. They form national bodies which then internationalize. Humanitarianism starts international. And this presents us with an intriguing network problem. Recent research http://connectedthebook.com/ has shown us that the cohesiveness and ability of social networks to organize is related to both their ability to share knowledge and to share emotion, empathy, values, call it what you like. Knowledge shares well across distance, via books, films and emails, emotion doesn’t. Network analysts recon that we effect the emotions and feeling of others at up to three degrees of separation. We affect our immediate friends and colleagues we come into contact with and they pass on part of that effect to their friends and colleagues. After that the effect dies out. Critically, transmitting feelings, intent, values emotions and all those messing human traits seems to require a large band width. It is best done face to face where sight, facial expression, sound, smell, posture all play a role in communication. Thus, literally, getting people together to build a profession is important, and if you are a profession spread out over the world with insufficient critical mass in and one city, this will be slow coming. Perhaps though, our increased human communication band width across national boundaries through on line discussions, video chat and conferencing, online social networks is allowing that critical mass to now form.
This brings me to these two new developments. The first is one coming out of the UK where the body that funds higher education in the UK has got together with a collective of aid agencies to form a consortium (ELRHA - enhanced learning and research for humanitarian assistance) “to explore the potential for creating a unified system of professional development, accreditation and association, which 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.” The group has commissioned a scoping study, being carried out by myself and colleges at RedR to recommend on such basic issues as to what the core competencies of a humanitarian professional need to be, what levels of training are needed, how a certification system might work, how such a system could be designed to work in any country and what international structures would be needed to ensure its success. We hope to release the scoping study in the spring of 2010, but in the mean time if you are interested, check out the web site http://www.elrha.org/professionalisation .
Secondly, in the USA, the students have taken over the class room. At Harvard the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research has been teaching residential and online courses, for over a decade, on humanitarian protection. More than a thousand people have passed through the courses and at present over 6,000 humanitarian workers regularly participate in their online events. Harvard has built this as a community of practice, but now the community is making its own mark and has asserted that it wants to morph into a fully fledged professional international association. The hope is to launch the association in March 2010, but in the meantime, you can read more about it at http://www.hpcr.org/
Perhaps, with these two developments 2010 will see the true beginnings of a humanitarian profession, driven by the professionals, not their employers or donors. I for one sure hope this happens.

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