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Helping local aid workers build meaningful careers

Aid distribution of food and non-food items in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, Pakistan Abdul Majeed Goraya/IRIN
There has been much talk of decentralizing the northern-centric humanitarian aid sector to give more power to southern staff, but how much has changed over recent years?

A 2012 study reviewing progress on professionalizing the humanitarian sector - with an emphasis on the deployment of national (local) staff in affected countries - revealed inadequate progress.

It is now well-understood that nationals - individuals, associations, professionals - are the first to respond to disasters, and in many cases are the most generous donors, though figures are still difficult to tally. With the number of recorded disasters up year on year - doubling over the past 20 years to more than 400 per year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) - the need to support humanitarians to professionalize improve standards and obtain professional qualifications is more important than ever.

Increasingly aid agencies are sending nationals to run programmes in risky environments - such as northern Mali or Syria - due to shifting patterns of securing access and mounting fear for expat safety, but once internationals are allowed back in, the knowledge and experience accrued by national staff may not help them advance their careers.

As Sri Lankan aid workers told the authors of the 2010 aid professionalization scoping study, (commissioned by ELHRA - Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance): “After many of the INGOs left, the local staff were left with nothing - no references, no certification, no jobs. How can they prove they worked in the response?”


Some things are working better: agencies are collaborating more closely than ever to build national staff capacity, cutting down on the endless duplication of individual-branded training courses that used to predominate.

Humanitarian training resources
ECB Project’s Good Enough Guide
Manchester University with the IFRC
ELRHA and study containing annexe of humanitarian training courses
Oxfam Context Project
Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)
Oxford Brooks
The Development and Humanitarian Assistance (D&HA) competency framework
Security training Staying Alive, for instance, is becoming “standard currency in the sector, as is the Humanitarian Logistics Association’s accredited online logistics course. “Everyone recognizes that the piecemeal approach hasn’t worked,” said Save the Children’s head of learning and professional development, Catherine Russ.

“Working together raises the profile of the schemes, gives staff an opportunity to network and see what’s going on out there,” said People in Aid’s human resources services manager, Emmanuelle Lacroix. “It works because there is a commitment at the international level to push it forward.”

Standards are also improving - or at least systems to measure them. Agencies have agreed on a set of seven core competencies for all aid workers, and these are increasingly being incorporated into training by established bodies, such as vocational training bodies Bioforce, or RedR.

The competencies include applying humanitarian principles, managing oneself in a pressured environment, and developing collaborative relationships. The framework marks “the beginning of occupational standards in our sector”, said Russ.

Training consortia

The Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA) and the Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) project also draw on these competencies in their global humanitarian training courses, as well as their leadership training programmes, which they have run in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Bolivia and South Sudan, and which are designed to be culturally responsive, accessible - in large part online-based, and practically-led, working with coaches and mentors.

There is growing awareness that rather than a general Masters in development or humanitarian studies, emerging modular certificates and diplomas focused on practical knowledge can build the necessary skills to get a job in the sector . “This brings down the costs significantly – you can build up your skills module by module even if you don’t have the time or money to do a Masters,” said Russ. (UN agencies still insist on a Masters degree for posts over a certain level.)

Universities and aid agencies are increasingly teaming up to design these courses: the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, for instance, provides training diplomas in health management, humanitarian diplomacy, voluntary sector leadership, and disaster management, in conjunction with the UK’s University of Manchester and other institutions.

While navigating the humanitarian training on offer globally is still difficult, it is easier than it was, said Russ. A Save the Children initiative, the Humanitarian and Leadership Academy, aims to make things clearer in the future by providing a one-stop-shop for all the types of humanitarian career-oriented information that exists.

Trained, then what?

But training for training’s sake is not useful. IRIN spoke to several national staff in NGOs and UN agencies, most of whom complained that they had had numerous training opportunities but that these had not resulted in any meaningful career changes.

“I’ve been on about seven career development trainings over the past six years, but the problem is once I’ve done them, I can’t use them. Nothing changes,” said one humanitarian aid worker in West Africa hub Dakar. Even when qualified as a humanitarian affairs officer, she has been unable to get a job in the position she is qualified for. “I am under-used. The organization has invested in me, but it doesn’t then use me well.”

Advice to national staff
Emmanuelle Lacroix, human resources manager, People in Aid

“Network, network, network. Build your portfolio of experiences. Be clear on where you want to get from the outset. Look at ELHRA and make sure your skills are transferable. What is your plan?

Catherine Russ, head of learning and professional development, Save the Children

Staff have to have some sense of where they want to go - you can’t just take a generic approach to your career. Do you want to be a project manager or a health worker, for instance? Find websites where you can get career guidance information. Get on top of the competency frameworks.

Cathy Violland, manager Bioforce

“Try to access as many humanitarian networks as you can - events, seminars, through training organizations like Bioforce. Be coherent in your goals.”

Sarah Lumsdon, strategic project manager for management and coordination, Oxfam

Develop a technical specialism - that’s your best way in. Try to distance learn. Develop your languages. Present yourself well - there’s no excuse not to know how to create a decent CV. Be wary of spending lots of money on lots of courses without a clear goal in mind.

Allegra Baiocchi, head of OCHA, West Africa

Build your basic skill sets - particularly your written communication and your language skills: master English. Look at any opportunity you can find that will diversify your experience. Focus on less popular things - short-term contracts or emergency zones that others do not want to work in. Never feel that you are anything other than equal to your counterparts. We all know the JPO [UN junior professional officer] who has the confidence of a head of office: these are the people who go far. Don’t forget what you have to offer that others do not: institutional memory, a knowledge of your country’s political dynamics, lessons learned from past emergencies. Challenge expats when they talk about what’s going on in your country and evidently do not know what they are talking about. Be proactive. Seek advice from your managers. Get rostered [if in the UN system]. Apply, apply, apply

Moussa Ndiaye, administration manager, IRIN West Africa

My approach is to only do something for four years, otherwise you lose your edge. You always need new challenges. I’m proactive. I have a large network. Mobility is the most important thing. Your career shouldn’t look like a calm river that never moves. You need to be in the driving seat.

Moumouni Komi, head of administration and finance, AFDI

National staff also don’t strive to seek training opportunities - they tell themselves their employer won’t let them do it. But you must try. There are external support systems, such as grants, that can help [fund training]. Before signing your contract, ask for a training budget to be included as a clause… Try to save to invest in short courses. Ask your employer to provide you with relevant educational material. Encourage dialogue with other NGO leaders as to how they train their staff. Make your employer aware that investing in national capacity will boost engagement and thus the quality of their programmes.

Oxfam’s strategic project manager for humanitarian management and coordination, Sarah Lumsdon, said staff at many humanitarian organizations often do not have the time to manage their staff properly, to help them move forward, or to give even minimal feedback and support. “There’s no point putting people on a course and not following up with them, but that continues to happen,” she said.

National staff stress that it is not only logistical and cost barriers that might prohibit learning opportunities, but also organizational culture and planning which makes such learning unusable.

Despite ample learning opportunities, a Senegalese aid worker told IRIN many nationals feel stuck: “Lots of national staff are very frustrated. Some have been in their posts for 28 years. I think national staff should have possibilities to move on. So many promises have been made but things don’t change.”

Moumouni Komi, head of finance and administration at NGO French Agriculturers and International Development (AFDI) in Burkina Faso, has a diploma from a Bioforce-led training session in administration and recently participated in the ECB’s leadership development training, in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. “I hoped to use the training to in turn train others but I haven’t been able to realize this goal yet,” he said.

The problem for many is there is nowhere to rise up to, to flex their new leadership muscles.

Lumsdon says much more emphasis is needed on helping mid-level managers to navigate a meaningful career path: much of the current emphasis is on senior managers.

Way forward

Things are moving, but huge gaps remain, say professionals. The number of training schemes on offer increases year on year, but far more training programmes for managers are needed,  according to Lumsdon, particularly in regional hubs, where they are most needed.

It is likely that the number of jobs for national staff in humanitarian response will rise given the year-on-year expansion of the sector (international humanitarian funding reached US$17.1 billion in 2011).

But “show us the money” said an aid blogger. Donors believe in capacity-building, but too often fail to fund it. The CBHA-ECB training schemes are on hold as UK aid for them has run out.

“Everyone is responsible for staff development - the organization, the donor and the staff member,” said Komi. “NGO and donor budgets give very little room for national staff capacity-building, focusing only on direct project costs… As a result, rather than building up national staff capacity, tough jobs will often just go to already-trained international staff,” he said, adding that humanitarian training courses, costing on average 850 euros, are very expensive for national staff members.

“Education systems usually need a benefactor,” said Lumsdon, “be it government, alumnae or private investment.” But short-term emergency donors, such as European Union aid body ECHO, usually shy away from funding long-term staff development initiatives.

Going further

Other innovations floated by ELHRA in its scoping study include setting up an international professional association of humanitarian workers to oversee different sectors of humanitarian work, based on common competencies; giving each humanitarian worker a learning and development “passport” where staff can tag their competencies and relevant learning experiences; and certifying aid workers.

To become truly professional, the authors argue, some kind of quality certification is needed to gauge how good staff are. RedR, for instance, trained 2,000 field staff in the aftermath of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, but lacking certificates, they could not easily transfer their skills.

It will be a long time before any of these ideas becomes a reality, said interviewees. But the sector is at least moving in the direction of more accountability and professionalization, said Cathy Violland, manager at Bioforce. “If you look at trends, at least we’re going in the right direction in terms of shifting roles: internationals increasingly play technical support roles, and national staff are taking on more management of programmes.”   

The consortia approach is the one to take, and the one for donors to support, says Lumsdon.

“Ultimately we have to root all our work back to this question: do we work for the good of the sector, or for the good of ourselves,” she said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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