Opinion: The future for humanitarian workers after COVID-19

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An EU information officer on a field visit to a refugee settlement at Arua, Uganda. Photo by: EU / ECHO / Edward Echwalu / CC BY-NC-ND

"Where have you been recently?" is a common question during small talk in the hallways of international organizations. For a community of professionals who see travel as essential to their work — missions, field visits, delegations — COVID-19 is making a significant cultural and operational shift in the humanitarian sector. It has added extra difficulties onto humanitarian access, contact with vulnerable populations, and operational capacity and led to travel restrictions for many counties.

Yet the number of humanitarian workers is likely to continue increasing during and after the coronavirus crisis. New humanitarian actors will be created, and new sectors will be integrated into the humanitarian ecosystem; an increasing number of people will be considered humanitarian workers. The majority of them will still be staff or volunteers working in their country of origin, while expatriate positions will continue to decline due to the increased capacity of national staff to lead, limited access to some areas, and the localization of some organizations’ management roles.

When it comes to the humanitarian workers of the future, we should look at five important issues:

1. Nationalization

International NGOs will need to work against the current incentive structure to shape their new role in the evolving system. This will require a double focus: continuing to deliver much needed humanitarian aid in the near term while concurrently challenging themselves to make the investments necessary for a successful strategic shift toward the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

Many international agencies will consciously seek local agencies to carry out critical activities, and many INGOs will finally pay extra attention to the importance of nationalizing and localizing interventions.

Community-based interventions and empowering local staff will be among the main themes of the new cultural and operational shift that the pandemic is causing.

We are going to see additional roles for local NGOs in service delivery, and we are going to see more local staff as program managers, site managers, coordinators, and senior members in leadership positions within INGOs. These organizations will need to be proactive in pursuing their own structural change to exert leadership and explore new ways of working with different humanitarian actors.

INGOs can be instrumental in pushing the humanitarian ecosystem to abide by the commitments of localization, cash programming, and networked ways of working that came from the World Humanitarian Summit.

But the question is: Will having a partnership with local NGOs and having local staff in senior roles become a condition of operating for INGOs, or will this trend be challenged by issues of transparency and efficacy?

2. Professionalization

A humanitarian worker after COVID-19 will require education, technical training, expertise, and professional experience. It is going to be a planned and carefully executed career path. As the work of some humanitarian actors shifts, the human resources that they require will also change. And as national NGOs are increasingly funded directly, they may require an influx of resources to manage the additional burdens of accountability and compliance.

Similarly, as INGOs reduce their rate of direct implementation, their staff profiles could shift from that of operational expertise to fundraising, technical support, analysis, advocacy, and strategic leadership positions. Some agencies will keep implementing projects directly without local partners, but that does not mean that they will not need local staff at different levels of the organization structure.

3. Gender

Across the board, closing the gender gap will be slow, and genuine equality in the workplace is unlikely. The aid sector is predominantly female in its workforce — former Amnesty International Secretary-General Kumi Naidoo has said that up to 70% of all NGO positions are held by women.

However, at senior levels, the majority of decision-makers are men. When it comes to sexual harassment cases, humanitarian workers have been particularly vocal about the lack of provisions for women, who are often more vulnerable in volatile contexts than their male colleagues.

Gender equality will remain one of the primary areas of concern, especially when it comes to human resources management. But it will require support from senior leadership within agencies to make serious actions and drive change.

4. Unpaid internships and ‘voluntourism’

Unpaid internships are the controversy of “voluntourism,” which has attracted much attention and debate since 2012. Daniel A. Guttentag, writing in a 2009 paper while at the University of Waterloo’s department of geography and environmental management, defined a “voluntourist” as "any tourist who participates in volunteer work while travelling," if that work lasts less than a year.

Critics have argued that this practice does more harm than good, is "self-congratulatory and disingenuous,” boosts the CVs of those volunteering rather than truly alleviating poverty and suffering, undermines local labor economies, and allows foreigners to do jobs they would be unqualified to do in their countries of origin.

COVID-19 and the public outcry will slow voluntourism, but smaller NGOs that rely on this practice will likely continue to use unpaid volunteers, albeit with more discretion.

The economic situation and safety considerations after COVID-19 will not provide a chance for people interested in unpaid internships to go abroad to support country mission programs. INGOs will not be able to afford the risk of offering such opportunities, and people will not be able to afford working without pay. Unpaid internships and voluntary work will only increase at the local and national levels, but voluntourism will slowly disappear.

5. Safety and security

Humanitarians will continue to be targeted by violent armed groups, and agencies will continue to manage insecurity, often at the expense of access to vulnerable populations. Diseases and infections will be another risk and challenge for aid workers, especially those on the front line.

New ways of working and the development of technological solutions, both to protect humanitarian workers and to access those most in need, could allow agencies to better protect their staff, report incidents, and ultimately ensure the continuity of programming — particularly in areas with conflict or disease outbreaks.

The future is not clear, and there is an enormous opportunity here. Perhaps the long-standing trend toward localization will be sped up inexorably. Maybe the recent move to humanitarian cash transfers and direct aid will be stepped up.

COVID-19 is impacting many things around us, and it will also affect the way we are doing our humanitarian work and implementing our programs. If INGOs wait for the incentive structure to change or put off the necessary alterations to their approaches, they will be left behind.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ali Al Mokdad

    Ali Al Mokdad is a program management specialist in the international humanitarian and development sector. For the last decade, he has spent time in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Turkey, South Sudan, Lebanon, and Bangladesh. There, he has led protection, gender-based violence, and MHPSS interventions working with refugees and internally displaced people directly, remotely, and through partners in complex emergencies.