Innovation and Humanitarian Action — a long overdue conference recap

A couple weeks ago I attended the 4th annual Frontiers of Humanitarianism Conference: Innovation and Humanitarian Action. It was organized by the Consortium on Security and Humanitarian Action, and hosted by Fordham.

There were four panels on the following topics:

  1. lessons learned or spurned
  2. national humanitarian actors
  3. Dunantist humanitarian values vs. a rights-based framework
  4. professionalization
My apologies, dear blog readers, for an incredibly overdue recap. I feel confident that the industry is not advancing so rapidly as to render this post obsolete. What follows is a summary of several speakers’ comments. My own commentary is clearly labeled as such.

Panel 1: Twenty Years of Lessons Learned or Spurned by Inter-Governmental and Non-Governmental Organizations

The conference organizers asked me not to blog about this panel. I found that odd. I understand that the panelists could be more open if they weren’t on the record, but it really defeats the purpose of “lessons learned” to make them available only to the people who attended that day. Still, I’ll respect their silly, misguided request.

Panel 2: National and Regional Humanitarian Actors: How the international system can more accurately measure their contribution and support their independent capacity

Abby Stoddard (NYU’s CIC) described ALNAP’s recent “State of the Humanitarian System” report, which laid out three groups involved in humanitarian assistance: donor governments; UN agencies; and the internationally operating NGOs and their local partners, including local NGOs and CBOs. These local NGOs are part of what Stoddard called the “national aid actors” — a group that includes national/local aid agencies in countries that receive international humanitarian assistance, plus the national staff of international aid agencies. The ALNAP report recognizes the importance of local actors but, as Stoddard points out, it provides scant details on their size, contribution, or capacity.

This gap in information may impact how international organizations relate to their local partners. The lack of information may be even worse in a given country. Stoddard pointed out that even though the cluster approach has increased the potential for local/national actors to be involved, this has not actually led to increased involvement in planning. Local actors seem to be involved only when security risks lead international NGOs to transfer responsibilities (and therefore risk) to local actors.

The transfer of risk raises an ethical question. National aid workers face most of the security risks, and comprise upwards of 90% of staff at most international aid agencies. However, the national staff receive little in terms of security training or resources, which are designed with expat staff in mind. Some international NGOs are trying to remedy these inequalities. Further steps are needed to ensure equality of care across staff, better partnerships with local organizations, and a more nationalized (and less Western) face of humanitarian assistance, in order to improve community acceptance and reduce risks.

Stoddard closed with a few questions for researchers: How can we better measure the national aid sector? How dependent is the national aid sector on the international system? And are we approaching the question in the right way — conceiving the national aid sector as a component of an international system, rather than something the international sector is engaging or supporting?

Rania Hadra (UN OCHA) offered her personal perspective as a former national staff member with the UN in Sudan. She described how UN agencies in-country usually have a ratio of 2 national staff to 1 international staff. For UN agencies, hiring national staff can bring nuanced local knowledge and language skills, and promote acceptance and buy-in for humanitarian and development programs. It can also build national/local capacities. Most humanitarian organizations don’t do capacity building, but hiring national staff and providing on-the-job training has a similar effect.

There are also challenges to consider when hiring local staff. The first is risk transfer, as described by Stoddard. Hadra pointed out that the nature of security analysis has to be different for national staff, because there are different threats and opportunities. Second, national staff face the perception that they might be biased toward their own ethnic group, region, etc. But we all have biases; a true professional leaves them at the door. Third, national staff often have limited knowledge of the international system, and have to be brought up to speed on how the UN works in terms of budgets, staffing and other systems. Fourth, the UN might be poaching staff from local NGOs and governments. This is bad for those NGOs and governments, but on the other hand, a UN job might keep a talented person in the country when s/he might otherwise leave.

Hadra’s concluding observation was that national staff are under-utilised, often because of perceptions of bias. Agencies need to focus more on training and building capacity of national staff. They should also be encouraged to use diaspora nationals as staff. Finally, the issue of the disparity between national and international pay looms large.

Connie Robson (IRC) described the trends she sees from her post as a recruiter at the International Rescue Committee. There’s obviously still a disparity between ex-pat and local staff — which she described as a “glass ceiling” — but Robson has seen the landscape change dramatically over her career. Recruiters are starting to ask different questions, pushing country directors to promote local staff from within rather than hire an ex-pat.

She offered a few examples from a variety of organizations. First, many NGOs are developing mechanisms to ensure that highly qualified national staff gain experience outside their own countries, typically in 1-3 month temporary assignments. Second, another NGO has a “Leadership Capacity Building Program for National Staff” that seeks to build a pool of candidates for management positions. Third, she mentioned a country director who has started to put a line item in all proposals with 3% labeled a “learning fund.” Most donors don’t look at it, and if they do ask, the director says it’s to develop national staff.

Robson offered a few next steps around moving the conversation to focus on competencies and qualifications, regardless of country of origin.

What I wanted to ask: Isn’t this, at least in part, a collective action problem among donors, UN agencies and NGOs? That is, donors expect to see certain qualifications on a chief-of-party’s CV, so all of the NGOs only provide candidates with those qualifications. If so, are there any collective efforts to overcome this problem? Also, are there any local labor market assessments being done? It’s one thing to do a cross-national study of national actors, but much more important to actually look at the national actors in a given country.

Panel 3: Replacing the Dunantist Humanitarian Values with a Rights-Based Framework

If you’re not familiar with the Dunantist principles, here’s the primer.

Yasmine Ergas (Columbia) presented the argument for the rights-based approach. She approached the issues from the perspective of human rights law, rather than humanitarian action. When humanitarian organizations operate in certain populations, they often act as de facto forms of government. Therefore on a moral level, they should be adopting a human rights frame.

Duncan Mclean (MSF) made a plea for modesty. Humanitarian organizations have no role to play in rights-based work, e.g. political protests against a dictator. It would undermine them practically, as MSF’s work depends on not being seen as having any ulterior motive. But furthermore, MSF has no expertise or even right to get involved in such activities. It would be too much to expect that aid organizations will be able to enact broad change in a society. Going beyond highlighting suffering and providing succour may be ineffective and counter-productive.

David Rieff (author of various books) echoed Mclean’s comments about modesty. Northern NGOs have a problem with thinking that they can determine how things work out. They should admit that what they can accomplish is limited and probably only palliative — and that’s okay. Rieff agreed with Ergas that when NGOs take on governmental roles, then they should be taking on a rights-based approach. But if they’ve gotten into that position, something has gone horribly wrong. Rieff described it as a “usurpation and an abuse of NGO power.”

An interesting aside from Rieff: “The clusters I think are total rubbish. It’s just one more bureaucratic boondoggle.”

What I wanted to ask: If you follow the Dunantist principles, how do you think about the impact of humanitarian aid on the conflict itself? Or do you think about it at all? Do you make any effort to analyze and avoid unintended (possibly negative) consequences?

Panel 4: Professionalization as innovation

Michael Barnett (GWU’s Elliott School) started with the stereotype that aid workers are either mercenaries, missionaries or misfits. The history of voluntarism often meant amateurism, with aid workers reinventing the wheel. More recently, the sector is trying to expunge such amateurism. New norms and processes have brought professionalism and a certain amount of technocracy. The hope is that professionalization increases quality, and helps workers maintain their autonomy.

However, there are dangers. Expertise is a form of power. Credentialing with education promotes a sense of superiority, promoting book knowledge over local or experiential knowledge. This kind of power is related to paternalism, which restricts the discretion of those it claims to help. This technocratic power is fundamentally un-democratic. Professionalization increases efficiency, but at what expense to other values?

Larry Hollingworth (Fordham’s IIHA) described the masters program in humanitarian action that he helped develop over the past 15 years. Students are required to already have field experience, and many have other specialized degrees (e.g. in law or medicine). The degree is conducted as a one-month residential course, with classes running from 8:30am to 8:30pm. It involves extensive teamwork with a multinational class of wide age and professional range. Everyone in the course gets the full range of education in shelter, water, psycho-social, and more.  About a third of the students in each class come from front-line countries, and the institute also takes the course on the road once a year. Hollingworth sees professionalization as a necessary step to preventing the private sector involvement from undermining humanitarian aid.

Alex van Tulleken described the limits of professionalization and the danger of technocracy. Specifically, technocracies are vulnerable to political manipulation. A discourse of professionalization that focuses on expertise draws us to a focus on outcome metrics and measures. However these indicators will always be proxies, and they fundamentally obscure or remove complexity. Such technocratic simplicity is not always the result of professionalism, but it is a danger because professions are bad at thinking through second-order outcomes. Education must reveal the complexities, rather than promote homogenization of thinking.


You may have noticed that my notes got more sparse as the day progressed. I’m told that the videos of the second, third and fourth panels will be available online, but I haven’t been able to find them. I’ll post them once when I do. In the meantime, you can also check out Fordham’s recap of the same conference here.