350 W The professional humanitarian and the downsides of professionalisation Eric James Co-Founder/Director, Field Ready, Moffett Field, California, Uni

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The professional humanitarian and the
downsides of professionalisation

Eric James Co-Founder/Director, Field Ready, Moffett Field, California, United States

Criticisms lodged at humanitarian relief often include the belief that professionalisation is needed.
The problems associated with humanitarianism would end, it is assumed, if the delivery of aid,
and relief workers themselves, were more professional and ‘business like’. To explore this further,
the paper asks what comprises a profession, and offers four criteria: 1) specialisation of knowledge;
2) establishment of the profession as a livelihood; 3) organisation and institutionalisation; and
4) legitimacy and authority. A model for understanding professionalisation, as developed by the
author, is then presented. The analysis compares six other professions against the same criteria to
argue that the humanitarian community already constitutes a profession. Finally, three potential
downsides of professionalisation are offered: the distance of the relief worker from the beneficiary,
barriers to entry into the humanitarian sector, and adding to risk aversion and a decline in innova-
tion. Based on these findings, professionalisation should be approached with some caution.

Keywords: ethics, institutionalisation, humanitarianism, leadership, management,
organisational development, professionalisation

In the days that followed the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, international humani-
tarians—paid full-timers, short-term volunteers, missionaries and newcomers—
arrived in the country to provide relief.1 Despite decades of international assistance,
Haiti was desperately ill prepared for a disaster of that magnitude.2 Indeed it was
the country’s acute vulnerability that directly contributed to the massive destruc-
tion. Yet the international community, including the long-standing UN Mission
(MINUSTAH), was also unprepared. Logistics were a challenge, coordination was
not efficient and responders were often overwhelmed. It was easy to say that some
of these aid workers were professional and others not but it is unclear if this simple
conclusion adequately holds.
Out of this situation, and others like it such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and
the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, come calls for the professionalisation of humanitar-
ian practice (Eriksson, 1996; Karan and Subbiah, 2011). There is a strong impulse
to do better in circumstances that are ‘no place for amateurs’ (Barnett, 2011, p. 217)
and there is currently headway being made across the sector.3 There is also a power-
ful assumption that professionalisation is a good and necessary endeavour. In the
literature and among many workers in the field, there is a belief that if the delivery
of aid, and if relief workers themselves, were more professional and ‘business-like’,
the problems associated with humanitarianism would be a thing of the past. Rather


Disasters, 2016, 40(2): 185−206. © 2016 The Author(s). Disasters © Overseas Development Institute, 2016
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA

Eric James 186

than being a domain of any one field, excellence in management and performance exists
in all fields (Collins 2005) and humanitarian practice is no different. Professionalisation
is normally accompanied by efficiencies in the field, relative prestige and recognition,
and better compensation for its membership. Thus:

since at least the mid 1990s, the international humanitarian system has been heavily com-
mitted to improving its performance and to becoming more professional. There are numerous
initiatives associated with this—codes, standards, discussions about accreditation of aid
workers—to name just a few (HFP, 2009, p. 7).

While there is certainly a need to improve humanitarianism, the process of pro-
fessionalisation has downsides and a clear cost. To explore this further, this paper is
divided into several sections. First, the question of what comprises a profession is
asked. To answer it, four criteria are offered:

• specialisation of knowledge;
• establishment of the profession as a livelihood;
• organisation and institutionalisation; and
• legitimacy and authority.

Next, a model for understanding professionalisation, as developed by the author, is
presented. This analysis compares six other professions against the set of criteria.
The position taken in this paper is that the humanitarian community already con-
stitutes a profession. Finally, three potential downsides to a tightening of this process
including the distance of the relief worker from the beneficiary,4 barriers to entry
into the humanitarian sector and adding to risk aversion and a decline in innovation
amongst those in the field. Based on these findings, professionalisation should be
approached with some caution and not seen as a panacea for perceived ills.

Defining the characteristics of a profession
Definitions of professionalisation have been offered that are ‘an imprecise Protean
term which explains nothing’ (Morrell, 1990, p. 981) yet further analysis reveals an
intricate process that has worthwhile practical and policy implications. The term
‘profession’ is traced to the medieval Latin word professiōn, meaning to take vows to
a religious order. At a basic level, professionalisation is a social process that changes
structure and notions about an endeavour that come about as a result of specialisa-
tion and formalisation. There are some obvious elements of what sets a profession
apart from other domains and perception plays an important role. In many cases, a
profession has evolved to mean a class of livelihoods that have status, privileges and
responsibilities distinct from occupations. This progresses as key criteria are intro-
duced. In the modern era, Weber’s notion of bureaucratisation, with its associative
issues of power and rationality, is useful in understanding how this process has come

The professional humanitarian and the downsides of professionalisation 187

about (Weber, 2005). The tendency in organisations towards centralisation and for-
malisation (as opposed to organic and networked) have been consistent themes among
not just society at large but the humanitarian community in particular.5

Thus the concept of a profession has developed to distinguish different occupa-
tional classes. For instance, certain characteristics set the clergy, doctors and lawyers
apart from farmers, cooks and bricklayers. Particular fields such as law, medicine, the
Christian clergy, accounting, business management and the academy have distin-
guished themselves from others (this is looked at further in the next section). There
is also a separation of these fields from pursuits that people do voluntarily or for the
pleasure of the activity (the root of ‘amateur’ comes from the Middle French word
for ‘love’). The motivation for volunteers is often not for the pleasure of the activity,
but rather to serve an ethical or spiritual calling, sometimes even a norm. In medi-
cine, law and psychology, for example, a certain amount of public service is expected
as a part of the normal ethical behaviour within these professions.
Professions are heavily laden with notions of socio-economic class and assump-
tions about the characteristics of different professions—and who gets to occupy them—
do not always bear out. Historians of this subject have stripped bare the silos that
separated the professional and the amateur, ‘replacing it with dynamic social analysis
of how such categories were constructed and conceived’ (Lucier, 2009, p. 702).
Understood this way, discussions that lean on simple characteristics, such as the
requirement of having ‘qualifications’, fall short in explaining the process. Yet a distinct
set of criteria can be discerned that have heuristic value in illuminating what endeav-
ours constitute a profession. These are specialisation of knowledge, the establishment
of the profession as a livelihood, organisation and institutionalisation, and, finally,
legitimacy and authority. Each of these will be looked at here in greater depth.

Creation and use of specialised knowledge

In many cases, professionals seek to acquire and monopolise specialised knowledge.
There may be a variety of reasons for this such as the complexity of a particular field
and the sustainment of a market for professional services. Broman (1995), when ex-
amining medical history, sees the ability to join practice with theory as an important
part of professionalisation. This comes about when there is a complex body of knowl-
edge relating to the administration, methods, procedures and technical practices that
accumulates over time. The usual result is that it mystifies information and under-
standing for those who do not undergo extensive training and who lack the expe-
rience that is required for a profession.6 There are three ways in which professionals
concentrate the subject matter around their field.
First, there is thorough training for those entering the field and ongoing training
for those within it to stay current with the evolving standards and body of knowl-
edge of the profession. For a variety of fields, the establishment of professional schools
has been a critical development. The training of clergy members led to the founding
of the first universities, especially in the United States. Harvard University, for example,
was founded in 1636 to train Congregationalist and Unitarian clergy. In medicine,

Eric James 188

the founding of the first US medical school was at the University of Pennsylvania
in 1765, but the widespread presence of medical schools did not occur until the
process of professionalisation picked up pace more than a century later and with gov-
ernment subsidy.
For humanitarians this process is underway now. Until recently, efforts to improve
humanitarian practice have focused on increasing the capacity of organisations, not
necessarily individual aid workers (Hein, 2010). The current focus is therefore on
creating an association for these individuals and increasing the quantity and quality
of individual training (this is closely linked to organisation and institutionalisation
discussed later). While there has been a significant increase of training and educa-
tional programmes, the argument has been made that ‘much of the education and
training remains outdated’ (Burkle, 2010, p. 197). For example, both within a decade
of its founding and again in the past few years, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) made
the explicit decision to move away from its heavy use of volunteers and towards fully
qualified professional full-time staff (see, for example, Barnett, 2011).7 Similarly, in
adding a standard for aid worker ‘performance’ (Core Standard #6) to the revised
Sphere Standards of 2011, the Core Humanitarian Standards were formed in 2014.
There has been a significant growth of training and educational programmes in the
humanitarian sector. For example, the UK branch of RedR trained more than 7,000
aid workers in 2012. New groups, notably Leadership for Humanitarians, seek to
increase the competency of aid workers. University programmes have also expanded
significantly worldwide, from eight to more than 80 over the past decade (Walker
and Russ, 2010). What is important going forward is maintaining the quality of
these programmes.
Second, qualifications are awarded through a recognised process and documented
with a certification, diploma or degree. Occupations often, but in many cases do
not, require documented qualifications but all professions do and in fact some pro-
fessions require multiple prerequisites. Evidence of advanced qualifications, such as
an abbreviation after a person’s name, is a hallmark of most professions. This gener-
ally takes years to develop and often includes some form of entry-level experience
where mentorship takes place such as residencies, practicum and internships. This is
in contrast to occupations where the acquisition of skill generally requires much less
time. It is through this training and experience that ‘professional detachment’ is
acquired, which serves professionals in the field. This might be a strange attribute in
humanitarian practice where ambiguity is a defining factor and the fact that those
affected by disasters are often far more knowledgeable about their own context and
situation than those who are considered professional. Even with the acknowledge-
ment of technical expertise, there is tension between this professional detachment
and the idealism that is so much a part of the humanitarian profession (Hopgood,
2008). What is important in the discussion here is that there is a set of skills that are
developed and become a distinguishing feature of the field. These skills often centre
on analytical abilities and the processing and application of knowledge such as admin-
istration, management and programme technical areas.

The professional humanitarian and the downsides of professionalisation 189

Finally, the emergence of specialised journals and publications are a third feature
of specialised knowledge in the professionalisation process. In 1840, well before med-
ical practice was deemed reliable or scientific, the first publication of the Provincial
Medical and Surgical Journal—the forerunner of the British Medical Journal—marked a
key development in the professionalisation of medicine, at least in the United Kingdom
(Waddington, 1990). Humanitarianism benefits from its intellectual big sister, inter-
national development, with its body of literature stemming back to the era of decolo-
nisation. In publications, such as the Journal of Development Practice and Third World
Quarterly can be found contributions to the field of humanitarian assistance in its
different forms. Yet modern humanitarianism assistance is ultimately a response to the
failure of development, which has led to a growing number of publications discuss-
ing these issues including Disasters, the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance and Forced
Migration Review. Indeed some of these sources, such as the Overseas Development
Institute’s Humanitarian Practice Network, attempt to bridge policy, practice and theory
to better address perceived weaknesses in the field. Together, these publications pro-
vide a means for having a ‘process for evaluation and feedback to improve responses’
(Martin, 2001, p. 228) which is a key element of professionalism.

Establishment of the profession as a livelihood

Professions involve a paid livelihood whereby work is undertaken in exchange for
monetary compensation. However, particular levels of compensation (salary) or the
presence of labour movements in support of that profession are not necessary criteria.
As a result, there is also a competition for resources between entities (or companies)
and, in the case of humanitarianism, organisations (Cooley and Ron, 2002). This
competition is brought about by market forces that contain material incentives to do
well. The effort of professionalisation has paid off for those in the fields commonly
associated with professions such as medicine and law. This in turn has not only led
occupations to professionalise but also to grow in size and become increasingly global
in scope. Similar to the pattern of the commercial sector, this progression has occurred
in the humanitarian sector as well (Simeant, 2005). Examples include the global brand-
ing campaigns carried out by larger non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such
as MSF, Oxfam and Save the Children. In this process, professionals engage in a
collective hunt for resources, which brings about the establishment of standards, codes
and common practices (discussed further below).
In this discussion of the pursuit of monetary compensation, motivation is an
important consideration. International humanitarian aid workers are distinguished
by a high degree of motivation to serve. This is the ‘attitudinal’ element of profes-
sionalism that provides a ‘sense of calling’ among its membership (Hall, 1968). Yet
the reasons behind the motivation are often mixed to include a sense of adventure or
a particular ethical impulse (Donini, 2010). Thus the drive to achieve and maintain
a certain standard of living and a particular lifestyle is an important element of
professionalisation (Barakat and Kapisazoic, 2003). In recent years, with a focus on

Eric James 190

lifestyle, organisational imperatives and personal career trajectories, aid workers ‘are
motivated very differently from the humanitarians of old’ (Hopgood, 2008, p. 112).
As Barnett tells it: ‘For most of its history humanitarians acted as if showing up was
enough [. . .] those who ran these organizations enjoyed their seat-of-the-pants,
jerry-built lifestyle because it reflected their idea of what a voluntary organization
looks like. However, those days are history’ (Barnett, 2011, p. 234). This was a key
step in the process of professionalisation.
With the availability to gather and sustain resources over time, professions have
developed into careers with their own trajectories. Long periods of education and
training, acceptance into the field (not just recruitment but also orientation and
indoctrination), progression from worker to manager and then into retirement has
been the hallmark of professions. In contrast to occupations and voluntary work, in
which progression tends to be short in duration, professional career trajectories are
usually long term and often ‘for life’. The humanitarian sector has developed in a way
not unlike any other professional sector. The existence of more than 250,000 aid
workers worldwide (Walker and Russ, 2010), and now several generations who have
made their living this way, suggests that there is a full career trajectory and that those
engaged in humanitarianism have met the criteria of having a full profession.
The growth of NGOs in particular has driven aid workers to address many of
the problems that have become pronounced during the past two decades, including
poverty and complex emergencies. Their increased capacity has allowed them to
have an ability, albeit small, to influence international public policy on issues they
work on. Thus, as Simeant notes of French NGOs, professionalisation has ‘enhanced
their credibility and authority, and legitimised their “voice” at the global level [. . .]
It was this global expansion of NGOs that gave them the right to speak out from the
front ranks in international bodies’ (Simeant, 2005, p. 856). This is considered further
in the next criteria.

Organisation and institutionalisation

Once a sizeable group of trained and paid professionals is formed, a number of attrib-
utes appear that ensure a collective function between members of the group and
further solidify the process of professionalisation. This process brings members of
the profession closer together, usually through a mechanism that is outside routine
business and allows for cross-cutting concerns to be addressed, such as autonomy
and self-regulation, knowledge sharing and development, and mutual support. This
organisation, and the institutionalisation8 that binds professionals together, gives them
the ability to act independently and, at times, influence public policy (Barnett and
Finnemore, 2004). Independence is a central humanitarian principle and influence
is often actively sought through advocacy and the practice of resource mobilisation.
Organisations explicitly engage in high-level policy advocacy, as well as efforts made
at the grassroots level, in an attempt to influence decision makers in areas of col-
lective interest. But this ability does not emerge without considerable effort. As an

The professional humanitarian and the downsides of professionalisation 191

organisational area of activity, policy advocacy occurs when there is considerable
professionalism in place (Mosley, 2010). In other words, it is not something of which
those without a high degree of organisation (such as the occupations, volunteers or
hobbyists) have the capability. This is based on three developments.
First, individuals and organisations share information and network through con-
ferences and workshops. This practice often takes place while an occupation is pro-
fessionalising. This is linked to the first criteria (mentioned above) where professionals
develop and seek to monopolise specialised knowledge. Humanitarianism now has a
set of global conferences such as the International Humanitarian Summit, the World
Conference on Humanitarian Studies and the Dubai International Humanitarian
Aid and Development conference. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee also holds
conferences. The wide range of internet sites and social media supporting humani-
tarian efforts also attest to this development.
Second, organisations and the institutional networks that connect them are cre-
ated. The creation of a supra-organisation is common. In the field of medicine, the
British Medical Association and the American Medical Association were formed in
the 1830s–1840s and helped formalise medical practice into a profession. Along with
local laws, these organisations were instrumental in regulating the medical field in
their respective countries. Humanitarians are no different in this respect and have
already taken a number of steps in this direction. In the global North, there are
several organisations such as InterAction and the International Council of Voluntary
Agencies that have provided an institutional network. In the global South, many
countries have their own networks that help guide the humanitarian endeavour.
Two examples are the Afghan Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and, in Sri
Lanka, the Consortium for Humanitarian Action. Relatively new organisations with
an aim to further professionalise the humanitarian sector include the International
Humanitarian Studies Association, the Humanitarian Logistics Association and
Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection.
Finally, support mechanisms are established, particularly for issues arising before
(in recruitment), during (crisis counselling and networking) and at the end of a career
(including transition and retirement). These means of support are always present in
professions but not always with occupations, which may resort to unionisation and
forms of collective action such as strikes instead. Within the humanitarian sector,
there have been many efforts to address the inefficiencies of the enterprise such as the
Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action
(ALNAP), the Code of Conduct, Coordination SUD, Humanitarian Accountability
Project, Groupe URD, People in Aid and the Sphere Project.

Gaining of legitimacy and authority

The final criterion of professionalisation is the establishment of legitimacy and author-
ity. This is based on two factors: common perception and authoritative recognition.
Common perception originates from practice and custom and includes the creation

Eric James 192

of status symbols. Professionals in the West have cultivated an image that separates
them from those outside their field. They have long used symbols to do this. Since
their inception, the clergy and the military have had distinctive dress (uniforms),
used buildings of particular architecture and followed lifestyles that set them apart
from ordinary people. In medicine, the wearing of white lab coats by qualified
physicians started as an attempt to legitimise the medical profession through an asso-
ciation between medical practice and scientific processes (Dawson, 2008). Although
uniforms of themselves do not constitute a mark of professional class, they are important
signifiers of professionalism. Just as Western ‘business’ attire epitomises professional
appearance, distinct status symbols can be found, and often critiqued, in the white
vehicles and logo-emblazoned t-shirts that signify humanitarians as a distinct pro-
fessional class.9 When combined with the criteria of specialised knowledge and
organisation, along with the context in which humanitarians work, these symbols are
an important element in the creation of the perception of professionalism. Ramalingam
and Barnett (2010, p. 4) note how this distinguishes aid workers from those they
are trying to help: ‘The predominant model of disaster-affected communities is one
of “helpless victims”, elevating the authority and standing of external interveners’.
Authoritative recognition comes from the establishment of norms, codes and
standards. According to Wilensky (1964), moral norms and authority are necessary
and set professionals apart from other domains. A formal code helps weed out the
unqualified and provides a framework of principles in which professionals are meant
to act, even though it is not a mandatory element of professionalism. Often the
acknowledgement by outside bodies is needed to bestow legal legitimacy on these
norms, codes and standards. Several professions rely on loose associations in the form
of governing bodies such as law, medicine and accountancy. In the commercial sector,
in particular, recognition comes from success and not a governing body bestowing
recognition in areas such as management and entrepreneurship.
It might seem that authoritative recognition is connected with certification and
licensure. Clarification between certification and licensure is helpful here. Certification
is generally a voluntary decision made by individuals. It is based on reaching a set
of skills-based qualifications as determined by a non-governmental body. Because
certification is not mandatory, people may engage in the field without certification
while enjoying many of the benefits of those who have been recognised for their
qualifications.10 In contrast, licensure is involuntary in the sense that it is a required
step for those who wish to practice a professional field. A professional license is a
‘must have’ recognition of individuals regulated by a government body. Certifications
and licenses typically require periodic renewal and some may provide designations
after a person’s name. It is important to note that while it might seem necessary for
authoritative recognition to come through a formal licensing process, this is not
always the case. Licensing does not necessarily bestow the other attributes of a profes-
sion. For example, public notaries, cosmetologists and drivers have licensure but lack
a distinct set of moral codes and standards to constitute their occupations.

The professional humanitarian and the downsides of professionalisation 193

A useful way to examine this issue further is by considering the governing bodies,
sources of normative standards and consequences of malpractice of five recognised
professions in comparison to those who work in international humanitarian assis-
tance. As presented in Table 1, these professions are law, medicine, the Christian
clergy, accounting, business management and the academy. Looked at this way, relief
workers have more formal governing structures than business managers, older sources

Table 1. Professional legitimacy and authority


Sources of normative

Consequences of

Law American Bar Association (ABA) ABA’s 1983 ‘Model Rules of
Professional Conduct’ based
on the 1969 ‘Model Code of
Professional Responsibility’
and the 1908 ‘Canons of
Professional Ethics’

‘Disbarment’ and possibly legal
action depending on the sever-
ity of the incident

Medicine American Medical Association
(AMA) and various boards (e.g.
American Medical Association,
American Board of Medical
Specialties, and the American
Academy of Emergency Medicine)

AMA’s 2001 ‘Code of Medical
Ethics’ based on routine revi-
sions (1903, 1957, 1980) of the
1847 code and traced back to
the Hippocratic Oath

Professional censure and pos-
sibly legal action (suit)


Various depending on

Biblical canon particularly the
first five books (Pentateuch)

In certain cases, disciplinary
measures (such as transfer)
and /or legal action

Accounting American Institute of Certified
Public Accounts (AICPA)

AICPA’s 2007 ‘Code of
Professional Conduct’ based
on pamphlets going back to
1917, and various standards
(e.g. ‘audit and attest stand-
ards’ and ‘valuation services

Revocation of Certified Public
Accounting license


No single or group of bodies

Usually developed by individual

Disciplinary action by company,
peers and /or legal action

Academia American Association of
University Professors (AAUP)

AAUP’s 1966 ‘Statement of
Professional Ethics’. Other
codes are drafted by individual
colleges and university systems,
which often combine ethics,
codes of conduct and stand-
ards of professional practice
(e.g. research standards)

Tenured …

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