In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Andrea Steinke
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Since the late 1990s, “the humanitarian sector has bureaucratized, rationalized, and professionalized with an unpredictable passion” (Barnett 2012: 188). Historically, the urge to professionalize was a reaction to the manifold shortcomings and failures of humanitarian organizations, such as the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which traumatized the humanitarian community and triggered a series of internal evaluations such as the one “held the year after [which] sadly concluded that, once political failure led to the crisis, many more lives could have been saved had humanitarian organizations better coordinated and acted more professionally” (Hilhorst 2002: 359). Since the 1990s, alongside increased budgets and an ever-growing number of people employed by humanitarian organizations, the importance of humanitarian intervention in global politics has risen.

Professionalization in humanitarian contexts has a set of meanings that all imply processes of specialization and diversification. First, professionalization refers to the acquirement of the necessary competencies and skills represented by the individual humanitarian. This points both to respective professions, such as engineering, nursing, logistics, and international humanitarian law in general, and also to specific training for the provision of professional assistance in the context of a humanitarian mission. Today, a growing number of universities offer specialized master’s degree courses in humanitarian aid and international assistance, many of which are part of the Network on Humanitarian Action. Secondly, professionalization implies that the humanitarian organization holds itself and is being held accountable to its beneficiaries, donors, and employees. Systems of control are increasingly being put into place to make sure humanitarians work in professional ways. Thirdly, professionalization is coined through the set of codes and standards arranged in and through key humanitarian actors. The level of professionalism is measured through adherence to those principles. The last three decades have shown a variety of concerted efforts to regulate, standardize, and professionalize humanitarian intervention (Roth 2012), from the 1994 “Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief,” over projects such as Humanitarian Accountability Partnership and Sphere, to the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action network. Those initiatives are meant to safeguard the professional conduct of intervention and heighten the efficiency and the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention.

Professionalization is as much an outcome as it is a strategy of aid organizations working within the increasing complexities and demands of humanitarian contexts. Today, humanitarian organizations have to navigate a “dense professional world of NGOs” (Bornstein 2005). While professionalization aims to provide improved assistance, it can also be used to enact and enforce hierarchies between different sets of people involved in the humanitarian encounter: national and international staff, humanitarians and beneficiaries, headquarters and field offices. Those dynamics are a reflection of a structural lack of balance that is inscribed in the humanitarian system as a whole. During the processes of codification and standardization that often accompany the larger process of professionalization, the universal is emphasized over the contextual (Lewis and Mosse 2006). Tensions between the different levels of intervention and between standardized technocratic knowledge and contextual value--driven commitment remain at the heart of processes of professionalization.


  • Barnett, M. (2012) Faith in the Machine? Humanitarianism in an Age of Bureaucratization. In: Barnett, M. , Stein, J. eds. Sacred Aid. Faith and Humanitarianism . Oxford University Press.

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  • Bornstein, E. (2005) The Spirit of Development. Protestant NGOs, Morality, and Economics in Zimbabwe. Stanford University Press.

  • Hilhorst, D. (2002) Being Good at Doing Good? Quality and Accountability of Humanitarian NGOs. Disasters. 26(3): 193212.

  • Lewis, D. , Mosse, D. eds. (2006) Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies. Kumarian Press.

  • Roth, S. (2012) Professionalisation Trends and Inequality: Experiences and Practices in Aid Relationships. Third World Quarterly. 33(8): 14591474.

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