31 Oct

Required Background Reading:

1) New York Times online edition article by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution.”

2) Foreign Policy online response by Dave Algoso entitled “Don’t Try This Abroad.”

3) Rebuttal to the rebuttal by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Answering Readers on D.I.Y. Aid

* * * * *

The comments threads under the three posts linked above, as well as a large number of comments on different posts on this blog would seem to indicate (note: not calling this “evidence” @TexasinAfrica :) ) a great deal of emotional energy out there around the word “professional” in the context of aid work. As I alluded in a prior post, I think we’re seeing a bit of the American Tea Party movement mentality creeping into public consciousness around humanitarian practic. There seems to be a growing wave of opinion that an infusion of random, well-intended aid industry “outsiders” with no prior experience or knowledge is what is needed to fix the perceived ills of the aid system as we currently know it. And I think such a perspective is absolutely dead wrong.

But I also sense that the emotional energy around the words “amateur” and “professional” is not going away any time soon. So forget those terms if it makes you feel better. Here is what I think humanitarian aid work requires, at a minimum:

1) Knowledge. There are certain very specific things that you need to know in order to do good aid work. There is a large body of aid theory that you need to know, and there is an even larger body of raw information. You need to know (fluently) standards like Sphere, HAP, or those related to your area of technical expertise/interest. You need to know grant management (not just management, grant management). You need to know the latest thinking in community assessment, organizational learning, and maybe child protection. Been busy tweeting and blogging about how the big INGOs just aren’t accountable? You’d better know what humanitarian accountability is (and what it isn’t), because if you strike out on your own, the day will very likely come when a journalist or another blogger accuses you of not being accountable…

You need to understand R2P (don’t know what that is? Better Google it…) and why it matters. You need to know industry best-practices related to humanitarian protection. You need to know the difference between OCHA and UNOPS and UNHCR. You need to know how humanitarian coordination works and where to find information about it. Depending on your job, you may need to know basic logistics, financial management, communications or security. Even if you don’t think that you’ll ever do fundraising, you need to understand how it works because the manner in which funds are raised back home does matter in the field. You need to understand advocacy, too. That’s just off the top of my head right now, and we haven’t even gotten to what you’d need to know about a local context…

(Oh, and by the way, as with any other professional field, the body of knowledge and theory related to aid work changes and evolves constantly. You can’t just know it once. You have to stay current.)

2) Skills. There is a wide range of both general and specific skills that you’ll need to master if you want do aid work properly. As much as anything else you need to be good at writing – and not the emotive, soul-baring, self-righteous naval-gazing that far too often passes as aid blogging (yes, I’m aware of the irony here), but the concise, grey technical-ese that gets grants funded (and keeps your staff salaries paid). You don’t have to be a statistician, but you do need to know what a “regression” is, what it means to “groom data” (and why data should be groomed at all), and how to read an evaluation report.

Maybe you’re one of those who’s all up in arms because the NGOs just don’t listen to beneficiaries? Well, you’d better get good leading focus groups and key-informant interviews, because this is how that listening happens. You’d better be up-to-speed on what what is evidence and what isn’t, because you’ll soon discover that there is a very wide gulf between “listening” and “understanding what you’re listening to.” You’ll need to develop the ability to triangulate information, too, because until you’ve been through a community assessment process you really cannot appreciate how wildly varied responses can be to what you think are easy, basic questions. More generally, you need to be good at working cross-culturally, because unless you’re hiring a lot of local staff (like those wasteful  big NGOs with all the white Landcruisers do), you’ll be talking to those beneficiaries yourself (you do you speak their language, right???). Also, unless your situation is highly specific and quite unusual there will come a day when you need to understand and also be understood by someone who sees the world very differently. And in the vast majority of aid jobs out there, regardless of whether the position is field or HQ-based, that day is pretty much every day.

You need to be good at recognizing when to be patient and when to be pushy. You need to be good at simply getting from point A to point B without a lot of drama in a country you’ve never been to before. Depending on your job, you may need to be skilled at selecting and securing a distribution site and/or running distribution (no, actually you can’t just open the back of the truck and expect disaster survivors who haven’t eaten in several days to queue-up quietly…). You need to be good at leadership (even if you’re just a junior program officer). You need to be good at managing assessment and evaluation teams. You need to be a good communicator and knowledge manager (even if these terms are in neither your title nor job description). You need to be able to see the big picture and deal with details simultaneously. And again, this is all just for starters…

3) Experience. How, you must be wondering, does one get good at all of those things? The answer is simple: by practicing doing them. You need to practice, in my opinion, under the guidance of someone who knows what they’re doing. In other fields we might call this “apprenticeship.” But regardless of what we call it, you need to spend time writing grants that are reviewed by a more experienced practitioner before they’re submitted. You need to be part of an evaluation team a few times, and prove by your performance that you have an aptitude for evaluation before you lead an evaluation yourself. You need spend a few years as a program officer, supporting program implementation before you move up to be a program manager yourself.

Being well-supervised is an incredibly important part of gaining experience. If you practice doing something wrong, you get good at doing it wrong (duh). While I won’t prescribe a specific length of time that you should “apprentice”, I can tell you that I spent about 8 years as a program officer and/or text bitch, under the close supervision of people who had been at it much longer. During those years when I was young in my career I made a huge number of mistakes, some small, others not. Thankfully, because I was under the guidance and supervision of more experienced practitioners those mistakes were caught and corrected before they could come back to harm those I was honestly trying to help. Having this experience was an absolutely necessary prerequisite to eventually taking a job where I was in a position to make decisions which could affect the lives of entire communities of people.

4) Commitment. Humanitarian work is not a hobby. It is not something to do for two weeks out of the year during your vacation. It is not a spring break option. All of the things above require the willingness to commit, to invest the time necessary to make them happen. You don’t hear about bankers who do dentistry for fun on the side. Or about marketing executives who spend their vacations practicing gynecology. We are very often quick to say things like, “either do it right or don’t do it” when it comes to almost any other field of endeavor. Why anyone would think that aid work is any different is simply beyond me. It takes knowledge, skill, experience, and commitment to getting aid right.

So either commit to it – commit to gaining the knowledge, skills and experience needed to do it right – or else don’t do it.

27 Responses to “Professional!”

  1. April 31 October, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    So, so glad you responded to the DIY article with a series of well-written posts about professionalism, education and skills. I kept checking your blog all week after Kristoff’s article came out, hoping for a counter-argument and your posts did not disappoint.

    I work for an international NGO and frequently receive communication asking how I got into my career and what people can do to get a job like mine. I always recommend experience and education, however it also just takes time. Thanks to you, Alanna and Saundra I can also recommend reading on why it’s not a good idea to skip the experience and education and go straight to the field. Thank you!

  2. Transitionland 31 October, 2010 at 11:09 pm #


    Having been at this for a few years (with this year being my first full-throttle field year), I still worry about points #1 and #2, and I know I’m not alone in that. The gaps in my knowledge keep me up some nights. Yet, I’ve watched friends and colleagues with Master’s degrees flounder in the field as much as (and sometimes more than) people with just Bachelor’s degrees. It’s terribly frustrating how few academic programs teach any of the skills aid/development workers need, and how the handful of decent programs are prohibitively expensive. With the exception of persuasive writing, very little of what I learned in college has been useful to me in Afghanistan. I have learned through trial and error, and through slogging it out (point 4). Hell, I think the road trip I took through Eastern Europe when I was 19 better prepared me for field work than my development-focused coursework.

    Oh, point #4, you mofo. I knew Afghanistan would be hard before I arrived. I did my best to prepare mentally. But I knew I would encounter situations I couldn’t prepare for ahead of time. And whoa was I ever right about that. At dinner the other night, a diplomat friend told me, “Sometimes I envy your lifestyle, but most of the time I really don’t.” As my first year here winds down, I think back to the highs –the meaningful work, the otherworldly landscapes, the incredible friendships– and the lows –the losses, the narrow escapes, the days I was on the floor crying so hard I couldn’t breathe, and the days I was too sick to move. I would do it all over again, and I will come back, but this first year has aged me and exposed me to things I doubt I’ll ever make peace with. Never again having to hear a hiring manager tell me “I just don’t think you’re ready for a hardship posting” has come at a steep price.

  3. David Week 1 November, 2010 at 1:16 am #

    I agree with both your posts. Some comments:

    I’m a development professional, so I’m biased. However, I started my career as a development amateur, and I think that there’s space for the amateur, as long as they do no harm.

    And you never know, sometimes amateurs come up with something new and good. Mhd Yunus started his development career without a master’s in development, and I’m worried sometimes how many people who meet who have master’s in development, who are rich in theory and poor in experience, and in practical wisdom.

    So I propose that amateurism can be just fine, but we should draft a simple code of ethics as to what amateurs should aim to get involved in, and what they might avoid. On the negative menu, for example, would be disaster response, or post-conflict reconstruction, where the scope for serious error is large.

    Also, I understand (though I don’t sympathise with) the outrage you report encountering. It seems to me that in a democratic society, there are certain domains of knowledge that are accepted as professionalised, like engineering, public health, law and physics. In other domains, though, everyone is deemed to have a valid view: justice, humanitarianism, politics and music. If you suggested that only experts could decide what was just or injust (as opposed to legal or illegal) I think you’d be met with similar outrage.

    So, maybe there’s away of refining—in development—the line between what has to remain public turf, and what can be cordoned off for professionalism: just as it is in the legal system, where both public views and professional views have well-defined and agreed roles.

    Food for thought: it has me thinking, anyway.

  4. MJ 2 November, 2010 at 5:34 am #

    Good post, mostly, and I’ll respond with a full article in due course. But just wanted to note that development is a lot more than just emergency humanitarian assistance (you knew that already). R2P, OCHA, UNOPS and UNHCR have got absolutely zip to do with any of the work I do – in fact I had to google one to remind me what it stood for.

  5. timi 2 November, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    It is true that amateurism in aid work has done a lot of harm in the past, and the indignation of amateurs is infuriating to development professionals. But professional aid work also has a mixed track record, and the indignation of the professionals at the underestimation of their profession comes across as arrogant. Your rant summing up everything a development professional needs to know and be able to do, leaves me unable to conclude anything but: you must be some kind of god then! I think David Week’s reply shows a lot more insight – it isn’t a field like medicine, but should it ever be?

  6. Steve 2 November, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    Well-argued, and I agree with most of this. But on #3, do you think that the aid industry is generally good at making sure inexperienced people have enough mentoring and supervision? In my first field position (with a well-established international NGO, not a small start-up) I was in at the deep end without anyone above me to check what I was doing and guide me. So I sought advice as best I could from more experienced people I knew elsewhere, but really missed having someone in the organisation itself to be a mentor. Was I unlucky and is this rare in your experience? Or is is actually a common situation given stretched resources in NGOs (in my case, a lack of budget to pay someone more experienced than me)?

    • J. 2 November, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

      Your case sounds very familiar, indeed. The majority of NGOs that I have any personal knowlege of the inner workings of, there is no institutionalized apprenticeship or career development program (and those NGOs which have anything even remotely comparable usually call it “mentoring” or some variant thereof). Like you, I mostly had to assertively seek out guidance.

      This lack of defined professional development is a weakness of the industry overall in my opinion.

  7. Amelia 3 November, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    Well J you know I am relatively cynical about the ‘professionals’ out there as well. But I am absolutely convinced that the answer is not to say ‘hey, inexperience and enthusiasm is what really counts’. Nope, I firmly believe being the professionals that we aspire and claim to be is the right direction.

    Regarding Masters degrees, well, I think it depends on what country you come from. I have to say I cannot see why a developing country should pay lots of money for a nice foreigner to come who doesn’t have third level qualifications, they would do better to hire an intelligent local and support them through higher education. Part of this debate for me is that amateur/vs/professional is more acute when you are spending lots of resources to send amateurs from, for example, the West to ‘help’ people in developing countries. The argument also applies the other way, I’m not sure that people from developing countries would do very well in an inner-city ghetto of the US or UK for example.

    I think it behoves foreigners to be very very professional to justify the expense of them being there.

    I also couldn’t agree more with the comments that a) Master degrees should be better quality and more relevant (though I certainly used mine – MSc Devt studies – for those who wanted to know) and
    b) mentoring young staff is the best way to bring them up through the system and most NGOs do not invest enough on this. I have mentored several trainees and have been deeply encouraged by their maturity and the way they carefully avoided most of the silly mistakes I made.

  8. Canadian Idiot 4 November, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    As usual, you’ve given some good insights to what it means to be a professional and effective humanitarian aid worker, both in terms of the qualifications we should aspire to (I saw a few holes in my skill set in the list you give) and how to get there. Unfortunately, most agencies seem to practice “baptism by fire” rather than mentoring approach to skills building.

    I’ve just finished reading the book “Wikinomics”, which looks at emerging trends in business, science and elsewhere, particularly those related to mass collaboration and “open source” approaches. These rely to some degree on the efforts of amateurs and volunteers. There was nothing in the book on civil society organizations or aid in general. However, it’s got me thinking if there’s any room for this type of approach in some aspects of humanitarian action. You could make an argument that the development of NGO component of the humanitarian community has followed an “open source” approach – lots of engaged people and agencies working on this collective “project”, with different bits such as Sphere, HAP, etc. built through the collaborative efforts of many people. Now, none of these people were necessarily “amateurs” but certainly most of the larger NGOs were in fact started by people with limited to no professional humanitarian qualifications, and I do wonder if there is a way to help the passionate DIY aid-types to channel their energy into collaborative efforts that are actually effective in meeting the needs of disaster affected people.

    I am certainly in favor of the type of professionalism you are encouraging – its something I dedicate a fair of time to building in myself and others. However, I hope we can find ways to collaborate with those in the DIY community who actually have some good things to offer and the right attitude to find better ways of doing things together.

  9. prisca 7 November, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    I often read and appreciate your blog, but this is, I think, the first time I post a comment. I have been working “in the field”, both figuratively and practically, for something around 4 years. You know, the usual places, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur..
    And, to end presenting my credentials, I have a Master Degree, going for a second one right now. (but hey, I am from Europe, education is free.) Still, I feel a master should not be a requirement, and it may even harm. In Italian we have a word, mestiere, to describe jobs that you learn by doing. Journalism is a mestiere, and even surgeons, until a while ago, where not M.D., just people who had spent some 10.000 hours cutting corpses, than assisting someone, then being supervised…I feel that the aid industry is the same, and I feel some of the most experienced, wise people I ever worked with didn’t even had a B.A., let aside a master. conversely, among my fellow master colleagues here in the U.S., I can observe a worrying sense of “expertise” and entitlement in people who lack any experience, just because they’re studying it. And I feel that some of these people, just because they got a degree in a top school, will fly straight to a job with responsibility and maybe feel a false confidence in their capacity, and do harm. thanks for writing, anyway


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