18 comments on “Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 2. Aid Work is a Profession

  1. Pingback: 5 Part Series: Becoming an Aid Worker « WanderLust

  2. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 3. Experience, Education and Personality « WanderLust

  3. Hi MA,

    Thanks for putting together this series. It is always useful to get a career perspective from someone knee-deep in the industry. But, I disagree with you that ‘aid work’ is a profession.

    I think the aid industry is a long way from becoming professionalised, as the ELRHA study suggests, if at all. There is no professional association body or a standardised qualifications system. If these were developed, it would be very difficult to make this a universally, globally recognised body or system. First have to be developed at national levels, most likely in U.S, UK, Australia, Canada or EU. This will require funding, research, collaboration, consultation, etc. Certainly achievable, but will take time.

    Qualifications are fragmented; competencies, learning outcomes and curricula change from one Masters degree to another; and access to obtaining higher-level degrees inequitable. In addition, there is no one profession that the aid industry consists of, unlike the medical, law, teaching or accounting professions. The aid industry encompasses all four professions and more.

    Your post also raises the question of knowledge and who should provide it; what knowledge does a student, graduate, volunteer, worker need to work in the aid industry? Are we better off studying for a profession, such as teaching, and then taking those skills, ethics, knowledge and experiences into the aid industry? I think it is also pertinent that we acknowledge the inequity of access and opportunity for students from Low- and Middle-Income Countries to participate in the aid industry.

    We need to first define what ‘aid work’ is; in this case and what I get from the ELRHA study, is that ‘aid work’ largely refers to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief work. But, the aid and international development space is much larger than that and encompasses any number of professions across a variety of sectors.


    • Thanks Brendan,

      You’ve raised some excellent points and for the most part I agree with your take. Perhaps, instead of saying that aid work is a profession, it would be truer to say that the aid industry is professionalizing, or that it aspires to be governed by equivalent standards.

      Two key points you raise I strongly agree with and I think are important to emphasize in relation to this. Firstly, the complexity of actually creating a body of standards to adhere to as a profession. You’re right- getting something like this to carry across international boundaries and between government, corporate and non-profit sectors is at best daunting, at worst, a bureaucratic and political nightmare of epic proportions. We are barely scratching the surface of this. I have worked on a project within an NGO that sought to establish some competency standards around aid work, and just getting them to work within the organization, let alone beyond it, was fraught.

      Second, that the aid industry is highly fragmented, and as such calling it ‘a’ profession is not an accurate or helpful depiction (and doesn’t lend itself to the simple professionalization of the sector). So many skillsets, backgrounds and roles, with vastly varying competencies, makes this, as you say, a highly fragmented field.

      One point I would challenge: inequity of access and opportunity for people from low- and middle-income countries. Within the organization I currently work for, a majority of staff are not from Western nations. This includes staff from field work right up to the country director level, and includes senior expatriate roles in regional and global coordinating positions. While in a head-office context such as Australia or the USA there may be fewer opportunities for less experienced students from low and middle-income countries, the reverse is largely true in that, in field office contexts, local students will find it easier to get roles (in some of these countries NGOs are major employers) than inexperienced expatriates. There is inequity between expatriates and local staff: the smaller proportion of Western expatriates will tend to occupy disproportionately more senior roles where they do exist (although I would argue that the trend continues to be in favour of fewer Western expatriates in a majority of roles, including management). However I think this is less reflective of the aid industry specifically, and more reflective of the international division of labour, and to some extent of the differing styles and acceptability of education systems globally. Not that this shouldn’t be challenged, or that the aid industry generally shouldn’t challenge itself to be a front-runner in aiming for equity in this particular field.

      In terms of defining aid work, yes, the aid and development fields are vast (will be touched on in the next post- thanks for the segue 🙂 ). My own context, as per the content of this blog, primarily relates to humanitarian emergencies and disaster response- hence emphasizing the ELRHA report. While some of the commentary in my posts could probably be applied to the broader context, my aim is primarily towards this audience, as this is the area I have experience of myself. I’d love any input from yourself and other readers that addresses the broader context, and draws out differences that might be worth elaborating.

      Ultimately, the purpose of this particular post is to stress to would-be aid workers that this is not a casual past-time or a gap-year extension, but is a career-choice and one that has standards (if ill-defined) and- among the cadre of aid workers who take their work seriously- the same sorts of expectations as would be placed on another profession. You’ve made your point well that the aid industry can’t be defined as a ‘profession’ per se, and I’d agree with you, but I’d also stress that there are serious steps being taken to make it more professional, and that anybody entering this field should expect to find high expectations around professional delivery, and for the industry as a whole to continue moving in this direction.

      Thanks, Brendan, for adding some depth to this topic and for bringing a fresh perspective and some points that were very much overlooked. It’s very appreciated.



      • MA: At the risk of being pedantic given your clarifications above, in a capital-P profession there is actually a bar or body or guild which upholds professional standards at the level of the individual practitioner. Is it desirable or attainable that we end up with a model where a Humanitarian Programme Manager could be “disbarred” from working in the field?

        Brendan: CBHA have got the first baby steps on the way, with the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework. Looong way as you say from that to a professional association or standards body.

      • Thanks Cynan. A good point/clarification. On the one hand I agree with the leaning of your ‘question’ that the idea of having a centralized body that oversees aid work in the manner of other Professions doesn’t sound like an optimal idea. While on paper the notion of having that level of accountability to acheivement and standard may sound like a good way to improve the quality of aid delivery and remove some of the damaging practices/individuals/organizations from operating, the reality is far more complex (and refer, eg., to many of the ongoing discussions around chaos/complexity in humanitarian action and the difficulty of putting regulations and rigid systems around these things). We would seriously run the risk of entrenching something that many organizations are working hard to remove, which is that some guy at a desk a thousand miles away is dictating and judging the actions of the field practicioner working in a highly complex situation and having to choose which principle they have to compromise next to get an impossible job done. Not at all desirable.

        On the other hand what I think many people want to see is a greater level of accountability at the level of field delivery, and also at an organizational level. In effect, people and organizations doing bad work being held accountable for that, and possibly prevented from operating. For example, of the 10,000 NGOs who invaded Port-au-Prince after the earthquake last year, I think there’s a fairly strong feeling within the sector that the majority of those organizations shouldn’t have been there, and made life more difficult, not less, in that context. The notion of professionalization, when you look at it, is an imperfect solution to this problem. Perhaps what we need to be looking for is small-p professionalization rather than capital-P. But at the same time, something that holds more clout than the Red Cross Code of Conduct and some of the other voluntary standards around aid delivery, and can have a global application rather than leaving it up to overwhelmed government institutions to decide which agencies can operate post-disaster, would be desirable to try and raise the bar in this field.

      • Thanks for your considered and thoughtful reply MA! Serious steps do need to be taken towards making the aid industry more professional, and perhaps in time, a profession (in the capital P sense of the word). It is certainly not a part-time or gap-year extension that can be walked into (well, it can, but should not be). Perhaps we should take a note from the medical profession and the Hippocratic oath – do no harm. This would be a good principle to start with in putting together professional standards and accreditation.

        Your post has really encouraged me to think about this topic, particularly in terms of higher education and preparing graduates for entering the industry; in whatever capacity they choose. What core subjects should be included in say a MA in development studies or an Masters in Development Practice? A unit on ethical practice and behaviour? What would it take for a graduate to become an accredited ‘development practitioner’? I think it may be easier to professionalise the humanitarian and disaster response sector, but as we have acknowledged, the industry as a whole is so fragmented, it is very difficult to try an get my head around. Where to begin? PhD research?

        I am putting together a post on this; looking at development curricula in higher education, and would very much appreciate your input MA. Can I email you for your thoughts, which would be included in the post?

  4. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 4. What Do You Want to Do? « WanderLust

    • Hi Brendan

      here are six core units for your course…

      HUM 101 Understanding humanitarian contexts and application of humanitarian principles
      HUM 102 Achieving results effectively, considering the need for speed, scale and quality
      HUM 201 Developing and maintaining collaborative relationships
      HUM 202 Operating safely and securely in high risk environments
      HUM 301 Self-management in a pressured and changing environment
      HUM 302 Leadership in humanitarian response

      Add on some thematic/technical electives (two? six?) and you’re away…

  5. Pingback: Becoming an Aid Worker, Part 5: Count the Cost « WanderLust

  6. Pingback: Higgledypiggledy: Weekend Links | Wandering. Wondering. Writing.

  7. Pingback: Development Digest – 15/07/11 « What am I doing here?

  8. Pingback: Worth sharing: a round-up of links « Find What Works

  9. Pingback: What is an Aid Worker and How do I Become One? | The Out Post

  10. I’m a a young adult very interested in becoming an aid worker, but wherever i go they always say I need experience. i have qualifications, but I lack experience. People won’t hire me because I lack experience but without getting hired I’ll never get experience and therefore I won’t get a permanent job. I hope you can somehow give me some advice

  11. Pingback: So, you're thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again. | WhyDev

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s