Young man at a vocational education and training center, Marrakesh, Morocco. © Dana Smillie / World Bank

Making humanitarians

Reda Sadki Learning strategy, Thinking aloud

The industry to tackle growing humanitarian and development challenges has expanded rapidly since the mid 1990s, but not nearly as fast as the scope and scale of the problems have spiraled. Professionalization was therefore correctly identified as a major challenge of its own, with over a decade of research led by Catherine Russ and others clearing the rubble to allow the sector to make sense of what needs to be done. The bottom line diagnosis is a now-familiar litany: a shortage of people and skills, lack of quality standards, inability to scale.

Despite the growth of traditional university programs to credential specialized knowledge of these challenges and how to tackle them, young people armed with multiple masters find that they really start learning upon entering their first NGO. They face a dearth of entry-level positions (sometimes spending years as “interns” or other forms of under-recognized labor) and discover professional networks closed to them because legitimacy is based on shared experience, not formal qualifications.

Certified professional development run by universities fail because these institutions are ill-equipped to deliver sub-degree qualifications, and rely on methods that seldom provide experience. This problem is not specific to humanitarians, but may be more acute because of the nature of the work and the knowledge involved.

Meanwhile, specialized organizations that provide training, like REDR in the UK or Bioforce in France, have become increasingly good at developing competency-based certification for behavior that matches real-world needs. Their business model works best at small scale and high cost. They have also succeeded in establishing that the credential of value is one that is defined by and agreed upon by practitioners. However, their efforts remain mired in a legacy of transmissive training and a tradition of “workshop culture” that are difficult to overcome. Also, by the time a competency framework is described, new contexts and needs that dictate new behaviors have predictably emerged but cannot be captured by the rigidity of framework.

A few organizations are trying to organize the online delivery of click-through information modules. Unfortunately, this approach has yet – to put it politely – to show measurable positive performance outcomes. And, admittedly, it is going to be tough to prove that three hours of clicking through bullet points followed by an information recall quiz corresponds to what 21st century humanitarians need to deliver. (Having said that, it is probably no worse than sitting in a workshop with a ‘trainer’ doing the clicking, whether in terms of learning efficacy or sheer pleasure).

Save The Children’s Humanitarian Leadership Academy stands out in a number of ways in the current landscape. Their analysis is grounded in the rock-solid research by Russ and others, and they have assembled a ferociously professional team that combines all of the right job functions, encompassing both folks from the sector and those who are new to it. The project is rightly ambitious, given the scope and scale of the challenges faced, and they have succeeded in securing a large chunk of their funding needs from the UK government. They aim to serve not just Save’s training needs, but to become the connector for a broad set of organizations working together, trying to convert decades of preaching about capacity building in developing countries into practice. Last but not least, they are trying to think strategically about their use of digital technology for learning.

Has the time come, as a respected high priest of corporate learning recently suggested, for a “Pan Humanitarian College of Conscience”? Could it be as simple as bringing everyone together to share content, resources, and determine quality and credentialing standards together? I don’t think so, mostly because the existing content, resources, and approaches are not getting the job done. We need to do new things in new ways, not an educational “We are the world”.

Truly disruptive humanitarian education leverages the affordances of educational technology to offer continual learning experiences that foster sense-making and network formation linking young and old humanitarians in global practices, strengthening existing professional networks because collaboration and team work are how you complete the mission. Such experiences could focus on precisely what is unsaid and untaught in formal curricula, and considered unattainable by training. Even formal courses that are about acquiring foundational knowledge can have learners co-constructing knowledge together. These peers then find themselves part of a knowledge community where, as alumni, they are now in a position to provide support – and benefit from the new learnings of others in a virtuous cycle. This paradigm shift occurs when how we learn is aligned to how we work: collaboration, team work and leadership are premised on peer-to-peer relationships, across the diversity of contexts and people that humanitarians find themselves in.

Such an approach fosters critical thinking and practice around specific areas of work but – and perhaps more importantly – around cross-cuting ways of thinking and doing. Yes, you could build courses that tap into knowledge communities around climate change, logistics, or market-based approaches. Focus on an area of work, zero in on its wicked problems, and drive learning efforts where they are most needed, producing knowledge that is directly applicable to work. Going further, new ways of learning foster new forms of leadership and innovation in the face of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, through courses that teach and deepen realist evaluation or tap into experiences from outside the sector – linking resilience and sustainability – to help new ways of thinking and doing emerge.

Last but not least, this new humanitarian learning needs to include not just future professionals but also volunteers. As the Red Cross Red Cross Movement has taught us , volunteers are far more than part-time humanitarians. They are embedded in their communities and learn to use the cultural and tacit knowledge from belonging to empower themselves, their families, neighbors, and every member of the community – whatever their status, in a fully inclusive way. Making sense of what happens in your community in this century, more so than ever before, requires that you establish a fluid two-way connection to global knowledge.

While these are admittedly lofty objectives, the science of learning combined with educational technology are poised to make this more than just wishful thinking. Scaling up is currently center stage in both education (thank you, MOOCs) and humanitarian realms. There have been a small but significant number of well-researched, successful, small-scale pilots to foster new forms of humanitarian learning. The learners who participated in such experiments got it – even if some managers and decision makers did not. The missing link remains the network of learning leaders willing and able to think and fund the foundations for such an endeavor, and then to start building its scaffolding. And, who knows, such a group might find that Pan Humanitarian College of Conscience is a good fit to name what we might make together.

Photo: Young man at a vocational education and training center, Marrakesh, Morocco. © Dana Smillie / World Bank