The push for change in humanitarian learning and development

October 2, 2014

Catherine Russ

Kate Davis

Global Information Management Workshop in South Africa

Learning needs in the humanitarian sector have been extensively researched by a range of initiatives These include ELRHA, the ECB, the Start Network, RedR, Bioforce, CORE, CaLP, Building Better Response and the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA). . In 2013, research and consultations undertaken by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) identified the following obstacles to addressing learning needs The research involved consultations with 300 people in 15 countries. .

  • A lack of sustainable and strategic approaches to investing in learning and organisational development.
  • The current system does not consistently deliver learning and training or capacity strengthening – activities that meet professional quality standards.
  • There is little evidence of the impact of capacity strengthening, or research on what approaches work best. Approaches to learning in relation to humanitarian action generally are often inappropriate to the context.
  • There is insufficient high-quality learning and development provision for people engaged in humanitarian and disaster risk management activities across all levels and ranges of skills.

To prepare adequate numbers of people to respond to disasters, manage risk and adapt to climate change, the humanitarian and development sectors must work together. Humanitarians need to work with and learn from development colleagues, the private sector and social innovation actors and, most importantly, local communities. Future capacity strengthening requires:

  • Sustainable resourcing (both of funds and people) that is not bound by project cycles;
  • Investment in structured learning and development (rather than ad hoc training) and in the expertise and capacity needed to deliver it; and
  • Greater collaboration between capacity strengthening initiatives to avoid duplication and create links between initiatives, such as learning pathways.

Sustainable, strategic investment in structured learning

Historically, capacity strengthening to enhance humanitarian action has been fragmented. Research on professional development Professionalisation of the Humanitarian Sector in Australia and the Asia-Pacific Region, report commissioned by the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), January 2013; ELHRA, Scoping Study on Professionalising the Humanitarian Sector, 2012; ELHRA, Global Survey on Humanitarian Professionalisation, 2010. has highlighted that, despite having a huge range of capacity-building initiatives, the sector lacks the professional development architecture and systems to support widespread delivery and minimum recognised quality standards. In South-east Asia, East Africa and the Pacific, those consulted by the Academy consistently emphasised the need for greater connectedness between institutions and initiatives. Independent studies also highlight the lack of systems to capture and respond to the learning needs of individuals and agencies.

Although the Red Cross movement, the UN and other humanitarian agencies collaborate to strengthen capacity through networks and consortia, multi-stakeholder programmes such as those developed by the Emergency Capacity-Building Project (ECB), the Start Network, CORE, CaLP and BBR, competency frameworks and quality-assured and accredited training, these initiatives do not explicitly link with or build on each other. There is huge potential for cross-promotion and rationalisation of effort to create learning pathways between these various initiatives which could lead to tangible recognition or qualifications.

Since 2012 ELRHAs Professionalisation Working Group has been building links and support to create a globally applicable and coherent system to recognise and certify the experience, skills and competencies of humanitarian workers, particularly those at local and field level who have not been able to obtain formal qualifications. This multi-stakeholder, strategic collaboration involving the UN, the Red Cross movement, NGOs, academics, training providers and the private sector represents an opportunity to develop a coherent and consistent approach to the professional development of humanitarian workers. In parallel, the European Universities on Professionalisation on Humanitarian Action (EUPHRA) is developing a Humanitarian Action Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning, which will act as a reference point and guide to different qualifications in the sector. Coordinating both initiatives would strengthen the links between vocational and academic qualifications.

Information and guidance

In the absence of a coherent approach to qualifications in humanitarian action, it is difficult to work out what level or type of learning is good enough to certify competence, especially given that perceptions of quality may be contextually dependent. For example, a mapping exercise suggests that there are more than 150 training providers in South-east Asia offering training of varying standards and relevance to the sector Yasmin O. Hatta, Disaster Management Training Institutes (DMTIs) in Southeast Asia: Preliminary Mapping Research, December 2012. . In the absence of agreed standards or a ranking system, it is impossible to identify good-quality providers. There is a need to create a focal point for accessing and distilling this information, so that learners and those who recruit them can make better sense of what is available. Establishing a mechanism to access and filter this information would enable individuals to make better-informed choices regarding which learning programmes best fit their needs.

Agreed professional quality standards

There is a clear need for globally recognised standards for workplace learning and development in the sector. The lack of a professional development infrastructure has resulted in few formal, recognised practitioner qualifications and learning pathways, particularly at entry and mid-levels. ELRHAs global survey found little quality control of humanitarian training: While most people reported that courses provided detailed learning outcomes it was clear that fewer courses provided assessments, and only a fraction provided a pass or fail grading the majority of training courses that people attended were informal, presenting certificates of attendance at the end ELRHA, Global Survey on Humanitarian Professionalism. . It is therefore difficult to identify baselines for measuring the impact of learning. Lack of assessment reduces the currency of courses because it makes them ineligible for recognised quality assurance and credit rating processes.

Few NGO internal learning and development programmes are pegged to globally recognised standards. Exceptions, benchmarked against recognised quality assurance mechanisms, include Project Management for Development (PMD) PRO 1&2, developed by LINGOs in partnership with APMG and PM4NGOs, and programmes accredited through delivery partnerships with universities and vocational institutes.

Establishing a humanitarian action qualifications and professional development framework is an important step towards a more coherent approach to training that supports career progression.

Recognising the skills and professional status of the humanitarian learning and development community

Recent research highlights the need to improve the quality of training provision, particularly for field staff DFID, Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, 2011; People in Aid, The State of HR 201, 2013. .Progress has been made in streamlining approaches to training trainers and creating a longer-term skills development process. Developed collaboratively by RedR UK and Institut

Bioforce, with input from other agencies, the International Development and Humanitarian Trainer Competency Framework is a recognised benchmark endorsed by seven organisations. It could be further developed in line with global learning and development industry standards.

Training remains the dominant delivery method despite evidence showing that diversifying delivery methodologies can yield better results. Adopted in an increasing number of large corporations, the 70:20:10 approach (see Figure 1) provides a basis for organisational learning and a framework for extending traditional training to include on-the-job learning and other forms of social learning which encourage creativity, innovation and experimentation.

Maturity models like that developed by Hart and Cross (see Figure 2) support organisational learning in ways that are more relevant to today’s humanitarian workforce.

Figure 1 Rev 2

These approaches are gaining greater recognition, but to achieve real progress a step-change is required to build the learning and capability of practitioners, particularly in-house NGO trainers; integral to this process is building competencies in change management, organisational development and digital technologies.

Building evidence of learning impact

The 2011 Humanitarian Emergency Response Review highlighted the need to improve professionalism within the humanitarian sector through increased investment in skills and training. While considerable funding has been provided for capacity- building initiatives, there is still no evidence of what works.

Figure 2 TP

Evaluating learning and development outcomes, and the extent to which learning provision is aligned with organisational objectives, is crucial. Innovations in learning analytics will present new opportunities for evaluation by providing a way of integrating learning with other organisational processes, for example integrating data from people and talent systems, finance and accounting, learning assessments and programmatic evaluations to determine returns on investment and best fit approaches.

Adapting to local contexts

More needs to be done to further a true sense of partnership between international and national NGOs. Although local and national organisations are increasingly important deliverers of humanitarian aid, local communities and organisations consistently report insufficient investment in and recognition of their capacity. Individuals are increasingly requesting recognition of informal learning, evidenced by the take-up of certified courses such as PMD-PRO (over 10,000 participants have done the course and taken the exam) and other university credit rated and certificated courses. One of the most effective ways of adapting learning approaches to local contexts is translating courses into a wider range of local languages, but very few initiatives provide for this. Exceptions are CORE, RedR and Bioforce, which provide learning programmes in local languages including Arabic, Singhalese, Tamil, Bahasa Indonesian and Creole.

Widening audience access and participation

The internet is giving people greater access to resources and building learning networks. In today’s humanitarian workplace learning is as much about building skills to learn more effectively as it is about enhancing humanitarian effectiveness. Webinars and virtual learning, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), social networking, mobile learning and smart devices can support professionalisation and the democratisation of learning in the sector. While some local stakeholders will continue to lack access to technology, increasingly people are able to access resources using their personal mobile devices. Similarly, it is through the internet that people in countries like Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, almost entirely cut off from mainstream provision, will be able to engage in professional development. Resources will, however, still need to be made available in local languages and contextually adapted. The Cornerstone Foundation Disaster Ready Portal has made significant progress in collating online learning into one platform, and LINGOs online platform has seen some of its materials used creatively, such as Plan Academy’s blended management programme which incorporates LINGOs online materials with face to face and self-directed learning.


The increasing range of disasters facing the global population requires accelerated change to support local communities capacity building. The EUPRHA qualifications and competencies framework and the ELRHA sector-wide professionalisation initiative together provide an opportunity to create professional pathways for a range of humanitarian disciplines at field and practitioner levels. The plethora of provision which has been developed in the sector over the past decade provides a firm base to progress things to the next level, linking learning programmes to assessment, recognition and qualifications.

Introducing mechanisms for recognising non-formal learning will finally provide currency for the sectors disparate capacity-building initiatives and provide opportunities for local learners to have their competencies and learning assessed and recognised; this will ultimately lead to a reduction in duplication of training, help the sector to recognise the key skills and competencies needed by the people who work in it and protect its core values and principles as it continues to expand.

Catherine Russ is an accredited partnership broker with the Partnership Brokers Association. She works as an independent partnership broker, trainer and facilitator.  She has occupied senior roles in the humanitarian sector with Save the Children, ELRHA and RedR. Kate Davis is Acting Head of Learning and Development at the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, Save the Children UK.


Comments are available for logged in members only.

Can you help translate this article?

We want to reach as many people as possible. If you can help translate this article, get in touch.
Contact us

Did you find everything you were looking for?

Your valuable input helps us shape the future of HPN.

Would you like to write for us?

We welcome submissions from our readers on relevant topics. If you would like to have your work published on HPN, we encourage you to sign up as an HPN member where you will find further instructions on how to submit content to our editorial team.
Our Guidance