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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 15, special issue: The Quality of Aid

Learning and humanitarian organisations: A ‘Golden Age’ of learning?
Paul Knox-Clarke

Technological advances and the ‘professionalisation’ agenda have led to a significant increase in the number of training opportunities available for humanitarian staff. But does this training translate into organisational learning and change? And how can we support the change process?

Humanitarian action is a multi-disciplinary sector, bringing together nutritionists, lawyers, epidemiologists, architects, logisticians and many others to mitigate the negative effects of crises and disasters. Knowledge and skills, as much as humanitarian principles and solidarity, have always lain at the heart of effective humanitarian action.

But the technical skills of a town planner in Cambridge might not transfer seamlessly to Kismayo. What is possible for a surgeon in Amiens is unlikely, sadly, to be possible in Aleppo, and what works in the culture and economy of Maastricht might fail in Monrovia. Transferring knowledge and skills to the humanitarian context requires another layer of understanding: an understanding of humanitarian response, of its principles, structures, and ways of working.

Many attempts to ‘professionalise’ humanitarian action take place at this level. Professionalisation is partially about ensuring that humanitarian workers have the relevant professional qualifications (in medicine or engineering, for example), but it is also about ensuring that they have an understanding of the specifics of humanitarian work: the “core competencies deemed necessary to be fit to operate in the humanitarian field” (Walker, P. and Russ, C. 2010 p.2).

Whether or not you agree with the idea of professionalization [1], the trend has led to a significant increase in training and learning activities over the past decade. In 2003, when ALNAP produced its report on Field Level Learning (Beck, T. and Borton, J, 2003), the main approaches to learning were training, networking and peer to peer exchanges. In the decade since then, there has been a sizeable growth in the number of postgraduate courses in humanitarian action (which now include those offered by ALNAP members such as Fordham, Harvard, Manchester, Oxford Brookes and Tufts Universities). At the same time, the peer to peer exchange offered by occasions such as the Annual ALNAP meeting [2] or the Groupe URD autumn school, and by publications such as HPN’s humanitarian exchange, have been significantly augmented by online communities of practice (CoPs) and listservs, such as the Cash Listserv of the Cash learning Partnership [3] and the urban response and humanitarian evaluation CoPs at ALNAP [4]. Improved internet access in many parts of the world have allowed humanitarian practitioners to learn through webinars and online courses [5], and initiatives such as the proposed Humanitarian Leadership Academy [6] aim to offer learning opportunities to humanitarian workers in the global south, who have not, until now, had good access to training programmes.

So – is this a golden age of humanitarian learning? Certainly, there are an unprecedented number of opportunities for individuals to learn. It is probably safe to say that these opportunities are allowing many individuals to develop new knowledge and skills. But is this learning being used? Do the listservs, the training courses and the MAs add up to different, and more effective, behaviour on the ground? And – on the other hand - if the knowledge is not being used, does this really count as learning?


[1] Many humanitarians are concerned about the increased ‘professionalisation’ of the sector: Some are worried that the more technical approach implied by professionalization militates against the values-led ethos of humanitarian action. Others argue that emphasising single, uniform body of knowledge and understanding is not desirable in a sector where context and adaption are so important.

[2] See http://www.alnap.org/news-events/annual-meetings

[3] See https://dgroups.org/groups/calp/calp-en

[4] See https://partnerplatform.org/alnap/humanitarian-evaluation and https://partnerplatform.org/alnap/urban-response

[5] Such as those offered by Disasterready: http://www.disasterready.org/

[6] See http://www.humanitarianleadershipacademy.org/