Monday, June 20, 2011

Professionalizing the Humanitarian Sector

I recently attended the Second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University. The “humanitarian sector” is a growing field with anticipated 6% annual growth in terms of expanding needs for humanitarian assistance and concomitant increases in the numbers of those engaged in humanitarian work.

About 400 scholars, practitioners, educators and the Kumarian Press editor attended the conference. As Peter Walker, Director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts, explained the conference was to be very much a work in progress where ideas, suggestions and musings could be distributed in an open and receptive environment. I found the meeting fascinating. Clearly, with the growth of the humanitarian industry, something similar to what happened with business schools as explored in a wonderful book by Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands (Princeton University Press, 2010) is a distinct possibility. Khurana notes the emergence of the MBA, designed to inculcate standards and levels of competence for those at managerial levels in the private sector. The professionalization of business required codifying knowledge relevant for practitioners and developing enforceable standards of conduct.

The Tufts conference attendees noted that professionalizing the humanitarian sector would entail devising sets of core competencies, enacting processes of certification and accreditation, inculcating opportunities for apprenticeship and lastly, forming a kind of professional association.

Obviously such professionalization is not without controversy or challenge. For one, the question of voice and who determines standards and core competencies remains unresolved. For another, the possibility of a professionally trained humanitarian elite—comprised of individuals from both the global North and South—runs the danger of devolving into the trajectory Khurana observes for business schools. Initially envisioned as training that would create a professional business class that would serve the needs of both society and business, the moral and ethical framework of professional education and apprenticeships in MBA programs became muted as business schools increasingly adopted the perspective that professional managers are merely agents of shareholders, responsible only for increasing profits.

Given the fact that humanitarian aid is also big business with a wide range of economic interests and competing stakeholders involved (indeed, among the attendees at the conference were some hedge fund managers), my fear is that a cadre of professional humanitarians could lose its way and professional humanitarians could become more the servants of special interests and organizations and less the helpers for those in need.

What do you think? Is there a need for defining and professionalizing the humanitarian sector? What would be some features needed to professionalize the sector?


  1. Thanks for taking this opportunity to discuss this, I feel fervently about this and I like learning about this subject.Best Business School

  2. There is a debate ongoing in ATHA (Advance training on humanitarian action) that can be of your interest.