There is plenty wrong with the aid industry, and it would be patently foolish to try to argue otherwise. Professional humanitarian relief and development, for all the good that they can and often do do, very often also cause harm as well. I’ve been around for a little while, and I don’t know a single actual person in the aid industry who wants or intends or hopes for that harm to happen. That harm sometimes happens is an unfortunate reality.
I’m not new at this. I’ve seen that harm up close and personal. More than once. I’m well aware. So don’t patronize me in the comments thread by reminding me that there is a lot wrong with the aid industry.
And sure. You know what? I’ll grant that amateur relief and development, in its various forms, accomplishes some good. Voluntourism, volunteerism, Clowns Without Borders, Waves For Development, TOMS Shoes, random dorks from Montana and a gazillion variants and permutations on those themes (frequently recognizable by the fact that they’re being lauded by Oprah, Kristof, and the Huffington Post) all get lucky on occasion. I’ve acknowledged this before: it would be foolish to argue that amateur aid workers accomplish only harm all the time.
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If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few posts, you know exactly where I stand on the issue of professionalism in the humanitarian sector. In my opinion this is a professional field from which unqualified amateurs should be barred from practice. I know this seems controversial and offensive to some of you, but I honestly don’t see any value in mincing words or pretending that my opinion is something else.
But heck. Let me say it one more time:
Where one falls in the “aid is a profession that should be practiced by professionals” versus “aid is equally open to anyone who wants to help – everyone has something to offer”, ultimately comes down to ones’ tolerance for the possibility of delivering harm along with help.
Keep aid as an open arena for participation by anyone who just “wants to help” and who can afford to take two-weeks off of life is essentially gambling with the well-being of other people on the possibility that making it up as you go just may work. This earns you a malpractice suit in the medical world. But in the aid world it may net you a book deal if you play your cards right.
Professionalizing the aid sector – by definition applying standards which would mean excluding non-professionals from practice – means improving the quality of service provided to the poor. No, of course it will not solve every problem. But it will absolutely solve or eliminate many. Who knows? Maybe I’d even end up out of a job. But even so, professionalizing the aid sector is, or if it ever happens, would be a good thing. Absolutely.
I struggle to see why this is such a challenging concept.