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Are humanitarian aid and professional ambition mutually exclusive?

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The professionalization of human rights organizations is only effective if management adapts their strategies. An amateur mentality simply will not work. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on internationalizing human rights organizations. Français

Jacques Stroun
29 July 2015

Carrie Oelberger's concerns that the professionalization of human rights organizations is shifting the values of its employees are not without merit. As first a line manager, and then the human resources director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—an organization that protects victims of international and internal armed conflicts, and is a three-time Nobel Prize Laureate—I have certainly seen this evolution of career advancement and the tensions that can arise. However, many of the changes she discusses are not only positive, but highly necessary. Amateurism in international human rights work doesn’t benefit anyone.

In 1980, as a young doctor coming out of university, I joined the ICRC to work in a district hospital in Cambodia. I was motivated by a desire to discover the world and assist people in need. We were a group of Swiss expatriates trained on the job to achieve one of the greatest assistance actions since World War II; the logistician had architect training, the doctor in charge had two years of surgery experience in Switzerland, and the person responsible for emergency food relief had a literature degree. Together we invented our work using our motivation, experience and common sense.

After this term, I caught the humanitarian “bug” and ended up giving the ICRC more than 30 years of my life. During this period, humanitarian action became fully professionalized and internationalized. In 2013, during my last term in Bangkok, I worked with professionals from Azerbaijan, India, Ireland, France, the Philippines and, of course, Thailand.

Now, standards exist in all areas, impact measures are the rule, and performance indicators are essential in the planning process. This was necessary in a world that has become more connected and more demanding, but also more complex, unpredictable and dangerous. Today, humanitarian interventions are more exposed to the public eye, and both donors and recipients have the right to demand accountability. It is no longer enough to "do your best". We owe the people we are assisting an intervention that meets professional excellence criteria, and we owe our donors the assurance that their money is managed with utmost rigor. Now, standards exist in all areas, impact measures are the rule, and performance indicators are essential in the planning process.

But does this shift from an “amateur” to a more “professional” style mean that humanitarian and human rights organizations may become less effective than in the past? Does it mean that people in need may perhaps have received less assistance or protection? Overall, I do not think so. That said, there are new constraints and risks of which we must be aware and manage.

In 1980, we were amateurs working closely together. Today, there is a danger of fragmentation of operations between several areas of expertise: lawyers, doctors, engineers, and others, each in their field with their own frame of reference. But in the complex emergencies we face, the problems are global, and so must be the answers. Good coordination between specialists is essential. Training and career management must give professionals the feeling that they are part of a whole to which they all contribute. This is also the role of field managers, who have become much more important than they were 30 years ago. Knowing how to work together as a highly diversified team is a skill that international organizations must acquire and develop.

One of Oelberger’s concerns is that professionals are less altruistically-motivated and more concerned by managing their own career. The research that she mentions shows that intellectual stimulation, learning and professional developments are key to job satisfaction. She is right on this point. As an example, I remember a young delegate responsible for the protection of detainees in Kabul, who asked me to change his job, saying: "I love my job, but I do not learn anything new and I am not improving myself anymore."

But I believe that this attitude is also the consequence of a more competitive labour market, where we are all forced to pay more attention to our career path and consequently expect (rightly) our hierarchy to be concerned by the development of our competencies. Organizations must take this into account and managers must dedicate time to training their staff and to keeping an open dialogue with them on their future.

In the extreme situations in which ICRC intervenes, those affected need professionally delivered assistance. They also, however, need an international presence, a gesture, or a word that restores hope and dignity. The authorities with whom our employees deal with are not only sensitive to technical arguments, but also to the power of conviction. Our people do not only have to be competent professionals, but also strong personalities. In 1992, the head physician of a hospital in Azerbaijan reminded me of this when I introduced myself as an ICRC doctor, saying sharply: "I do not care about your organization and your title. Who are you, you?" This is one reason why ICRC places major importance on the evaluation of social and relational skills in the recruitment process.

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Flickr/International Committee of the Red Cross (Some rights reserved)

An ICRC medical team operates on a wounded combatant in South Sudan.


Finally, humanitarian and human rights organizations often act in unstructured and unpredictable situations. Professional skills are not always enough. We must leave some room for creativity and personal initiative, which must start from the field. Although we need competent experts, we need to know how to keep adventurous personalities who think outside the box. These people may be difficult to manage in everyday life, but they will make a difference in extreme situations.

After all, it was Louis Haefliguer, who in August 1945, as ICRC delegate at Mauthausen concentration camps, disregarded instructions and convinced SS guards not to execute Himmler's order to blow up all installations, saving more than 40,000 deportees, It was Henry Dunant, a mystic dreamer who ended up bankrupt and had to leave his city of Geneva, but whose initiative of treating the wounded of both sides in the battle of Solferino in 1859 inspired the humanitarian laws of modern warfare.

The humanitarian world needs also people like this. And it is certainly worth the effort to recruit and retain some of them.

Overall, I am pleased with the professionalism and progressive internationalization of ICRC staff. I am convinced that it was beneficial for the humanitarian sector and for the people we are trying to help and protect. But this evolution is positive only if international organizations fully accept it by assuming its constraints and risks, and adapt employee management accordingly.

If human rights organizations want to motivate their professionals and reap the full benefit of their expertise, they should review the recruitment process, develop continuous training programs, make career management more transparent and above all, keep managers accountable in their "team building" role when managing a diverse group of people.

We cannot hire professionals while keeping an amateur management mentality. Humanitarian professionals may have a genuine desire to help, but most also want to advance in their careers. Why can’t they do both?

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