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How to make an expanding aid sector more professional?

Published on 23 July 2010

Author(s): AlertNet/Katie Nguyen

Type:  News

In the aftermath of January's devastating quake in Haiti, large numbers of do-gooders rushed in to help survivors who'd lost homes and family members in the disaster. But their presence wasn't entirely welcomed by the more established aid community, which was having trouble coordinating the relief response.

It's well recognised that, while most have charitable intentions, some groups and individuals can make a tough crisis situation worse by distributing inappropriate aid, or being so ill-equipped they even end up needing assistance from other humanitarian organisations.
The problem was highlighted again this month by U.N. aid chief John Holmes at the launch of an inter-agency report on the lessons to be learned from Haiti. "The influx of hundreds of humanitarian organisations to a major disaster like this, many of whom, while well meaning, were not necessarily professional and well-informed in their approach, posed a huge challenge," he said.

"A new system of certification of capacity and experience needs to be looked at again." It's an idea supported by a recent survey of more than 1,100 humanitarian workers, which found 90 percent wanted to see "professionalisation" in a sector whose workforce is growing by a projected 6 percent each year.

The report - produced by the Enhanced Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance project (ELRHA), a network of aid agencies and British universities hosted by Save the Children - proposes establishing a system of certification and an international professional association for humanitarian workers. "I think the whole sector has been moving towards greater professionalism and greater accountability. They go hand in hand," ELRHA Project Manager Jess Camburn told AlertNet. "People who have experience of, or are living in, a humanitarian crisis or rapid onset disaster are very vulnerable. You want the people who are going to be working directly with them to be professional, to have standards that they work to, as you would if you were going to a doctor."

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A Haitian earthquake survivor yells slogans as protestors block the main road to the airport during a rally to demand food, shelter and other aid in Port-au-Prince, Feb. 11, 2010. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

More questions than answers


While few would argue against efforts to improve effectiveness, some aid workers who participated in the survey expressed concern that professionalisation could lead to qualifications trumping experience, or make it harder for people in poor countries with fewer resources to get jobs.
And what do you do about genuinely capable volunteers? "You don't want to kill that sector," one veteran humanitarian worker with more than 25 years' experience told AlertNet. "Organisations like the Red Cross rely very heavily on national volunteers. They're not paid, so technically they're not professionals. Are we suggesting that everyone has to have some kind of certification or qualification before their offers of help can be accepted?"

Other unresolved issues include what to do if an aid 'professional' is found to have acted unprofessionally. And how would formal systems for the humanitarian sector affect agencies whose staff move between the fields of relief and development?
Others think the problem lies further afield, given that rich governments are so often in the driving seat when it comes to how much aid money is spent and where.

"Understanding that helping people - particularly in emergency relief and humanitarian aid - is a professional activity that needs to be (done) by people who are trained is a very important idea ... but I don't think that targeting the implementers is the right way to bring about change," said Alanna Shaikh, a development expert who writes the Blood and Milk blog. "You need to educate donors."

Some senior humanitarian workers question whether it's up to any part of the aid sector to decide what's needed. "I think the states and countries where we work have a right to impose any set of conditions and professional qualifications they would like on us - the same way for a medical doctor who wants to come to the UK and practise," said Marc DuBois of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) UK. "Obviously you wouldn't want to see that become an obstruction to aid, but I wouldn't think it's for us to have this discussion (about professionalisation). I think it would be for the recipient and beneficiaries of aid to have this discussion in some ways."

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