Humanitarian Innovations and Professional Networks

A Study on the Role of Professional Networks in the Dissemination of Innovations and Best Practices in the Humanitarian Sector
Background and Rationale
Since its inception, humanitarianism has grown from the practical efforts made by a few initiatives towards the relief of human suffering into an international movement engaging between 210,000 - 595,000 workers [1]. The number of humanitarian workers is estimated to be growing at an average rate of around 6% per year [1]. There are currently over 250 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) involved in humanitarian work, running a multi-billion combined annual budget. In addition to these are thousands of local/national NGOs (LNGOs) and community-based organizations (CBO) which can play a key part in the humanitarian delivery system in many settings: United Nations (UN) agencies and INGOs often depend upon them for the end-stage implementation of their aid activities [1].
Despite the rapid growth in, and magnitude of people impacted globally by the humanitarian sector, there is currently no internationally-agreed framework defining what a humanitarian worker is, what standards should guide one's activities, or what the training and skills needed to be defined as such are. 
Humanitarian action remains inherently a multi-faceted field of practice drawing from various technical and scientific fields including, among others, communications, engineering, law, logistics, medical and social sciences, and organizational management. 
In addition, there are no established paths to disseminate information on innovations and best practices across the humanitarian sector, mostly due to the limited professional development and training capacity within humanitarian organizations. As described in the recent major Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) report, Global Survey on Humanitarian Professionalisation, much effort is needed to systematize professional training opportunities for humanitarian workers [2]. The humanitarian workforce is composed of distinct segments with varying degrees of access to professional development opportunities: from local staff engaging in frontline operations at the field level to transient workers and managers migrating from one region to another based on their agencies’ needs.  As a result, there is not yet an agreed set of professional benchmarks or curricula encompassing all the required knowledge, competences and skills of humanitarian professionals [3].
As access to professional development opportunities varies considerably among humanitarian workers, so do demands for particular competences and skills. Recent studies show that most professional training efforts currently target new hires at an induction level and that the proposed proficiency standards remain agency-specific [3]. While there are a growing number of opportunities for advanced professional development in humanitarian action, the vast majority of them are provided by institutions of higher learning in the North and remain inaccessible to the majority of humanitarian workers in the South [4].  As a result, according to the ELRHA survey, half the humanitarian workforce do not have access to professional training opportunities to develop their capabilities and fulfill their professional expectations. This lack of access is most prevalent among local staff in countries affected by humanitarian crises [5].
While the lack of access to traditional professional development activities such as courses and academic degrees has certainly limited the ability of many to develop their humanitarian careers, it has not prevented them from performing in often challenging and complex humanitarian environments.  It is apparent that the essential professional knowledge, competencies and skills needed to perform in the humanitarian sector are actually acquired on the job through informal guided practice and mentoring by more seasoned professionals, rather than through the means of formal training activities.
Humanitarian workers are therefore dependent on their immediate working environment to receive guidance on professional standards, best practices and innovations in the humanitarian sector, primarily from the people they work with directly.  The concept of humanitarian innovations is intended here not only to capture technical or technological ones, but also much broader innovative ideas, such as in education, communication, conflict resolution, leadership, managerial methods and practice paradigms. Since the quality of guidance and pedagogical skills vary from person to person, it is probably a matter of who one actually works with during the early stages of a humanitarian career that sets one's professional attitude and behavior, rather than deployment to or employment by a particular region or organization.  The propensity to find good mentors is also most likely to vary according to region and agency.
This interdependency of co-workers for learning about innovations and best practices implies that professional networks within and across humanitarian organizations play a crucial role in the formation and dissemination of these, as well as of the norms and principles that define this sector.  Evidence of this would indicate that professional development resources may be most effectively distributed along such professional networks and highlight the importance of their normative and transformative function. It may also indicate that the appropriate method to promote professional values and cultures across networks should focus on modulating the experience of the everyday working environment rather than on didactic curricula which can be hard to translate into practice at any significant scale.
Paradoxically, the lack of access to professional development opportunities is mirrored by an absence of standardized assessment tools to measure the overall proficiency of a humanitarian practitioner according to established evidence, international norms or professional consensus of best practice.  While various components of the UN system have adopted particular sets of standards (e.g. pertaining to the selection and training of humanitarian coordinators), courses and testing tools centered around these are technical in nature and limited to a particular institutional domain. Consequently, humanitarian workers are unable to readily assess and compare their respective professional backgrounds nor easily identify priority areas for further development.
HPCR and OCCAH are committed to the professionalization of the humanitarian sector as well as supporting the dissemination of innovations and best practices across the humanitarian sector. Through improving the training, competence, efficacy, efficiency and safety of practitioners, it ultimately aims to maximize the impact of international assistance and protection on the suffering of those the sector seeks to help.  In view of the significant scale and wide distribution of the global humanitarian workforce, HPCR will focus its energy on the elaboration of professional development strategies and tools based on existing professional networks and their normative characteristics within the humanitarian sector.  
Specifically, HPCR plans to map and analyze professional humanitarian networks and their role in the dissemination of innovations and best practices among humanitarian workers, from headquarters to the field level and across regions and agencies. The goal of the project is to understand the function of experienced professionals (tentatively termed 'leaders' here) in the transmission of professional culture, including attitudes, behaviors and best practices within and across organizations.  It will also research and develop standardized self-testing tools to allow for the self-assessment by humanitarian workers of their proficiency in functional knowledge as well as legal and professional norms which reflect a consensus of real-world best practice standards. Doing so, HPCR intends to map out the dissemination of professional norms in the humanitarian sector and identify the most effective tactical approaches for the professionalization of the humanitarian workforce through the utilization of established and emerging humanitarian networks.  It will also aim to identify and harness, where possible, the influence of key network nodes for the purposes of communication, education and capacity building.
HPCR and OCCAH are aware that although much common ground is shared between the Anglophone and Francophone humanitarian communities, there is also a divergence of culture and philosophy which can manifest as tangible differences in humanitarian practice.  This project will therefore also aim to characterize and incorporate into its pedagogical objectives an understanding of such differences with a view to enhancing humanitarian professional development and cooperation. The primary role of OCCAH will be to engage the Francophone humanitarian community in this endeavor.    
The key objectives of this research project are to:
  • Engage in the mapping of professional networks within the humanitarian sector and analyze how such networks foster and propagate professional innovations, best practices, cultures and norms;
  • Develop a qualitative methodology to capture the experience of leading humanitarian professionals to inform the terms and key themes of each domain of self-assessment;
  • Develop standardized self-assessment tools adapted to the humanitarian sector;
  • Produce a bank of validated standardized multiple-choice questions to measure the proficiency of participants in the constituent domains of humanitarian action;
  • Pilot a module in the already established domain of Humanitarian Protection to allow for calibration, modification and improvement of the standardized multiple-choice questions;
  • Provide a self-assessment and learning experience for participants through identification of their practice strengths and weaknesses;
  • Provide evidence-based analyses of the proficiency of humanitarian workers in both the Anglophone and Francophone communities across agencies, regions and age-groups to support the development of appropriate training tools;
  • Expand the knowledge gained through the outcome of the pilot module to support the development of a comprehensive set of self-testing modules to cover all the defined domains of humanitarian action as identified by this project;
  • Compare and correlate the structure of humanitarian professional networks and the performance on self-assessment tools across domains, agencies and regions to characterize the substantive and normative role of these networks;
  • Analyze pathways for the dissemination of innovations and best practices in the humanitarian sector;
  • Formulate recommendations on the use of professional networks and self-assessment methodologies for the purpose of professionalizing the humanitarian sector.



This will take on five conceptually distinct but temporally overlapping phases: (1) Mapping of professional humanitarian networks and their normative impact; (2) Interviewing of influential humanitarian professionals; (3) Development of a self-assessment tool in the domain of Humanitarian Protection; (4) On-line release of the self-testing module for open usage by all; and (5) Analysis of the substantive and normative roles of professional humanitarian networks
Phase 1: Mapping of professional humanitarian networks
The first stage of the project consists of identifying professional humanitarian networks and the influential members within them; these will be individuals identified by members of the networks themselves to be influential practitioners from either directly within their organization or more remotely from external to it. HPCR thus aims to identify a core group of around 50 - 150 leading humanitarian professionals as seen in the eyes of their peers for their role in the dissemination of professional norms. The process will involve the invitation of humanitarian workers from all geographical regions via identified networks to participate in an electronic survey; amongst other questions, this will ask for the naming of five living practitioners who they consider to be leading humanitarian professionals today in terms of innovations and best practices. These participants will, in turn, be encouraged to forward the survey to others they deem to be humanitarian workers suitable to participate in it. Communication and survey materials will initially be available in both English and French; translation into other languages will be according to interest and resources. The output of this phase will be a virtual map of global professional humanitarian networks as well as a list of professionals identified as their nodes of influence.
Phase 2: Interview of influential humanitarian professionals
Influential humanitarian professionals thus identified according to carefully pre-defined criteria will subsequently be extensively interviewed by HPCR according to rigorous qualitative research methodology.  The goal will be to characterize the normative aspects of the humanitarian sector based on their experiences and perspectives in terms of domain themes, concepts, and vocabulary of humanitarian action.  These elements will be compiled, sorted, and integrated with the knowledge content being taught in existing professional humanitarian curricula and academic courses; they will also form a repository of a consensus of best practice in the areas of humanitarian action not currently guided or governed by established evidence or the law.  This information will be used towards the composition of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) to form the self-assessment module on Humanitarian Protection to be developed in Phase 3.
Phase 3: Development of self-assessment tools in the domain of Humanitarian Protection
HPCR will develop a set of standardized MCQs based on data gathered in Phase 2 and validate their answers with technical experts in the domain of Humanitarian Protection, which includes the themes of humanitarian and human rights law. Evidence-based and accepted question-writing and test-scoring methodologies as employed in other standardized professional examinations utilizing MCQs will be used to ensure their validity and reliability [6, 7].  It is recognized that the use of typical MCQs is most effective in the assessment of functional knowledge recall, much less the testing of practical skills or behaviors and attitudes, which are better assessed by other modalities such as simulated scenarios and self-reflective writing, respectively.  Cognizant of this, some MCQs will be specifically constructed so as to enable the assessment of elements of these important aspects of humanitarian professionalism which extend beyond mere knowledge recall. 
HPCR plans to trial the MCQ module in the domain of Humanitarian Protection on a group of humanitarian professionals from different regions and agencies with various profiles and a range of experience against a set of appropriate controls.  The module will be trialed in English and French.  Results will be analyzed to allow for the calibration of the level of difficulty of the questions and to ensure their reliability. HPCR appreciates that the benefit of this self-testing exercise to its users will depend on its recognition as an authoritative, valid and reliable tool to assess the knowledge and competencies of participants fairly and in a standardized manner.  It will, therefore, from the outset of the project, keep in sharp focus the following:
  • A clear and transparent protocol for the evaluation of self-assessment participants
  • An evidence-based and accepted methodology for question-writing and test-scoring
  • The regular calibration of questions to ensure their validity and reliability
  • The safeguarding of the integrity and privacy of test results
  • The establishment of authority in the field of professional self-assessment for the humanitarian sector through research rigor and engagement of the community
  • The gathering of substantive and technical knowledge gained throughout the project to inform the future development of a comprehensive set of self-testing modules to cover all other domains of humanitarian action
Phase 4: On-line release of self-assessment module
HPCR will make the proficiency self-assessment MCQ module in Humanitarian Protection openly available via the Internet to all initially in English and French, then a selection of official UN languages.  The self-test will be anonymous and request only some profile data for research purposes.  Participants will receive an individualized result at the end of the test with concrete recommendations and links to authoritative resources for further learning and development.  They will also receive an assessment of where they stand relative to other participants of the test.  
Phase 5: Analysis of the roles of professional humanitarian networks
HPCR will conduct a series of analyses on the data collected from the anonymously completed on-line self-assessments.  These will be used to establish the proficiency of humanitarian workers in general in the domain of Humanitarian Protection, and also of various different sub-groups within the humanitarian community.  Conclusions will be shared and studied with other humanitarian training centers, agencies, NGOs, and donors as a means to guide the development of further professionalizing efforts.  These data will also be used to corroborate evidence of the role of network 'leaders' in the dissemination of professional norms and cultures within their agencies or regional communities.  Doing so, HPCR aims to characterize the importance of professional humanitarian networks in the propagation of innovations and best practices within this sector, and to harness their utility for professional development strategies.
About the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University (HPCR)
HPCR is a research and policy program that provides technical assistance and information support for international organizations engaged in humanitarian action and conflict transformation.  The Program was established in August 2000 as a collaborative effort of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.  With the governments of Switzerland and Sweden serving as its core donors, the Program services international organizations, in particular the UN, with innovative and coherent policy inputs on humanitarian law, human security, conflict management, and conflict prevention.  Special attention is devoted to the role of new information technologies in the policy-making work of governments and international organizations.  Situated in one of the world's most dynamic academic and policy environments, HPCR applies its unique access and resources to address new policy challenges.  Valuing flexibility and entrepreneurship, the Program nonetheless measures success in terms of practical impact.
After a decade of activity, HPCR is widely recognized within the humanitarian community as having fostered pioneering policy and professional development methodologies in an effort to support the elaboration of new approaches to humanitarian challenges in armed conflicts.  It has expanded current analysis of legal and policy requirements for the protection of civilian populations, established policy dialogue with practitioners, and advised humanitarian agencies and donors in the development of their strategies. 
About Observatoire Canadien sur les Crises et l'Action Humanitaire (OCCAH)
OCCAH is an independent research group affiliated with the Centre d'Études et de Recherches Internationales, University of Montreal (CÉRIUM), Canada.  The group consists of multidisciplinary researchers of diverse origins who have come together to collaborate on the study of various aspects of humanitarian action, including anthropological, legal,  political and security issues, as well as transnational relations.
Committed to bridging the gap between research and action, OCCAH's mission is threefold. First, it is to contribute to research and critical reflection on crisis and humanitarian action by promoting dialogue and exchange between academics, experts and practitioners in different disciplines.  Second, to participate in public debate through active direct engagement of stakeholders and with the public at large through the media.  Third, OCCAH supports the development of best humanitarian practice and policies. 
Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University
Anaïde Nahikian
Project Coordinator and Teaching Associate
Telephone:  +1 (617) 384-7407
E-mail: anahikia@hsph.harvard.edu
Vera Sistenich
Research Associate
Telephone:  +1 (617) 504-1457
E-mail: vsisteni@hsph.harvard.edu
Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR)
Harvard University School of Public Health
1033 Massachusetts Avenue, Fourth Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA
Observatoire Canadien sur les Crises et l'Action Humanitaire (OCCAH)
François Audet
Executive Director
Telephone: +1 (514) 343 6111 Ext. 0751
E-mail: francois.audet@umontreal.ca
Observatoire Canadien sur les Crises et l'Action Humanitaire
3744 Jean Brillant, Bureau 515-12, Montréal, H3T 1P1, CANADA
1. ALNAP 2009. The state of the humanitarian system: assessing performance and progress. A pilot study.  Available at: http://www.alnap.org/pool/files/alnap-sohs-final.pdf. Accessed 7 May, 2012. 
2. ELRHA Global Survey on Humanitarian Professionalisation. Available at http://www.elrha.org/news/elrha/globalsurvey. Access 14 May 2012.
3. Professionalizing the Humanitarian Sector: A scoping Study ELRHA Report. Available at: http://www.elrha.org/uploads/Professionalising_the_humanitarian_sector.pdf. Accessed 7 May, 2012.
4. University Training and Education in Humanitarian Action CERAH Geneva 2011. Available at: http://www.cerahgeneve.ch/conferences/colloques/humanitarian_studies_guide.pdf. Accessed 7 May, 2012.
5. ELRHA Global Humanitarian Professionalization Survey, p.20. Available at http://www.elrha.org/uploads/Global%20Humanitarian%20Professionalisation%20Survey.pdf. Accessed 7 May, 2012.
6. Rodriguez MC. Three options are optimal for multiple-choice items: a meta-analysis of 80 years. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 2005;24(2):3-13. 
7. Haladyna TM, Downing SM, Rodriguez MC. A review of multiple-choice item-writing guidelines for classroom assessment. App