Issue 33 - Article 15

Training managers for emergencies: time to get serious?

April 19, 2006
Nigel Clarke, consultant

Successful relief interventions depend on skilled and experienced managers. Good managers will make best use of the resources at their disposal, and the opportunities that come their way. On the other hand, poor or under-developed managers can make a bad situation worse. There are signs that aid agencies are struggling to resource a growing portfolio of humanitarian operations with managers of the right calibre. This necessarily undermines efforts to raise standards in the humanitarian sector – guidelines are only useful if you have people with the confidence to interpret and use them. There is also evidence that managers themselves often feel ill-prepared for leadership roles which have grown in complexity as the nature of emergency operations has evolved. This article suggests that there is a crisis in the management of humanitarian operations, and makes the case for better training and education for field managers.

The staffing crisis

Writing in a recent issue of Humanitarian Exchange, Maurice Herson identified the lack of experienced managers as a key weakness in the Darfur response. Similarly, a recent ECHO report on security management in humanitarian agencies states that the sector’s failure to recruit, train and keep high-quality managers is a ‘systemic weakness’: ‘Field based managers, who are pivotal in security management, often do not have the competence to manage security reliably and well’.

As a freelance, I am often asked to fill short-term management vacancies in humanitarian programmes, and it is not unusual for senior in-country management posts to be covered by a succession of ‘temps’ for months on end while head offices re-advertise and spread the recruitment net wider. Human resource officers report that field management vacancies are among the most difficult to fill. My direct experience of working alongside dozens of field managers in recent emergency operations confirms that many feel ill-prepared for the complexity of their role – and beleaguered by the unrelenting demands of the job.

In reality, the general degree of overstretch in the humanitarian sector means that agencies are throwing relatively inexperienced managers in at the deep end, or are continually recycling experienced ones to deal with each new crisis. Both practices put huge strains on people and programmes. They are also incompatible with the People in Aid code of good practice, which many agencies have signed up to, and with good-quality humanitarian programming.

There are many reasons for the shortage of experienced emergency managers. Some are structural – and therefore not directly related to issues of human resource management:

  • Globally, the number of situations that call for the deployment of humanitarian agencies seems to be on the increase.
  • Although new agencies are entering the sector, this may just mean that the stock of experienced managers is being spread increasingly thinly. Clearly, quantity is not the same as quality.
  • Individual emergencies are difficult to plan for. Most good humanitarian managers are already in employment, and only the largest agencies can afford to maintain dedicated emergency units for rapid response.
  • Managers may not stay long in the humanitarian sector, seeing it as an interesting experience on the road to something more ‘mainstream’.
  • As Herson also says in his article, experienced mangers have mature lives. The more experienced they are, the less likely they are to be available for long periods of deployment in remote field positions.

Several questions follow from this analysis. If there has been a growth in the number of humanitarian agencies and actors, why is the development of a commensurate body of good managers lagging behind? With so many well-intentioned young people desperate to be aid workers, why do they find it so difficult to enter the sector? If veteran field managers tend to opt in time for more sedentary employment, why is more effort not made to develop the skills of young managers?

As the ECHO security report suggests, aid agencies need to do more to recruit, train and retain sufficiently skilled and experienced field managers. A full examination of issues relating to recruitment and retention is beyond the scope of this article, but two difficulties are worth pointing out:

  • There seem to be insufficient entry points available for aspiring generalists, like good volunteer or intern schemes that people can join at a relatively young age. In the past, many managers have come into humanitarian work ‘by accident’, but this haphazard route is clearly inadequate to current recruitment demands.
  • Although there is a large pool of junior managers among the national staff of international aid agencies, not enough are being nurtured and promoted into senior and international management posts. In particular, too few female managers are in – or have originated in – national staff positions.

The training needs of managers

Part of the responsibility for the apparent crisis in humanitarian field management must lie with aid agencies, and their collective failure to pay enough attention to the professional development of managers. Admittedly, managers have not been singled out for neglect. Agencies with a poor track record in human resource development have failed to invest in all kinds of staff. However, there are aspects of being a field manager that mean you are likely to be among the least-trained people in your organisation:

  • By contrast with your technical colleagues, you are unlikely to have had a basic professional training in your chosen area of expertise: you have probably learned about management purely through experience.
  • Similarly, unlike the technical humanitarian sectors, there are few, if any, basic texts on the management of humanitarian operations – the relevant literature is spread far and wide.
  • If humanitarian managers are jacks of all trades, then the number of trades they are expected to know is increasing as the sector grows more complex. Recent additions to the list might include advanced security management, international humanitarian law, protection, humanitarian standards and dealing with the media.
  • Field managers rarely prioritise training for themselves. Reasons for this include the fact that they cannot absent themselves from their posts for long periods, and cannot be easily substituted; feelings of guilt about prioritising their own training above that of subordinates; the reasonable expectation of donors that training budgets will favour local staff and local partners; and lack of access to information about training opportunities when working in remote locations.
  • A myth that aid management can only be learnt through experience and that, paradoxically, there is no place for inexperienced people in aid work. In almost any other industry people are expected to gain experience after they have had a basic grounding in the techniques of their profession, albeit with close supervision from senior colleagues. This includes high-risk sectors such as medicine and the military.

Individual agencies obviously need to do more to nurture and support their emergency managers. This is in keeping with Principle 6 of the People in Aid code, which states that ‘we must provide relevant training and support to help staff work effectively and professionally’. Examples of good practice, such as World Vision International’s in-house Pathways to Leadership MBA programme or Save the Children UK’s Leadership Development Programme, are the exception rather than the rule, and they tend to be aimed at senior managers who have already gained experience in field positions.

The demand for basic field management training is high, but it is not being matched by appropriate provision. I recently had the opportunity to examine the training opportunities available to aid workers in the East, Central and Horn regions of Africa when, together with a colleague, I worked on a strategic plan for training for the Nairobi-based Inter-agency Working Group on Emergency Preparedness (IAWG). This followed a previous, more limited, assessment done by a different team of consultants in 2004. Both studies revealed a surprising degree of consensus among participating agencies that the key gaps in training provision were in management and leadership skills, and that filling these gaps was the major challenge for human resource development in the humanitarian sector.

Independent training providers also need to respond to the specific needs of managers. A review of the advertised training programme of one specialist provider (RedR) reveals that, out of 38 planned courses, only two are aimed specifically at managers, although several others are of general relevance. The evidence from Nairobi suggests that training providers should carry out more detailed research on what perceived training needs are.

Beyond short training workshops, however, there does seem to be growing recognition of the need to provide specific education for managers of humanitarian aid. Whereas a few years ago humanitarian education was mainly subsumed within development studies, one can now study disaster management in a variety of formats, ranging from distance learning materials (e.g. from the University of Wisconsin) to fully-fledged Masters programmes (e.g. from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in association with Bioforce). It is now even possible to study humanitarian aid at undergraduate level (e.g. at the University of Coventry).

Conclusions and recommendations

There is evidence of a crisis in the management of humanitarian programmes at the field level. There are simply not enough competent managers, and it is difficult to think of any other industry which is so negligent in training and developing its leaders. More optimistically, there is growing recognition that humanitarian aid management is a vocation in its own right, and that practitioners need specific education and training. How can aid agencies ensure the development of a competent body of professional managers?

I suggest that three things need to happen in order to strengthen management capacity. This is not a comprehensive set of solutions: many structural problems will remain. But they constitute realistic, achievable steps towards the professionalisation of humanitarian management. First, through their formal networks, aid agencies need to agree on a set of core skills and knowledge for humanitarian managers at various levels of responsibility. The nucleus of this is already available in the form of generic job descriptions (e.g. that devised by Bioforce) and the existing curricula of specialist courses.

Second, there needs to be an agreed system of accreditation for the training and practical work experience gained by managers – leading to commonly recognised qualifications. Credits can be gained for exposure to a flexible mixture of residential courses, distance learning and hands-on experience. Points can be awarded for prior management training and relevant experience from other walks of life. Obviously, the provision of formal learning opportunities for humanitarian managers needs to increase substantially. The boldest step of all would be to develop a joint professional training college for young managers entering the sector. Some would see this as a threat to agency independence, but most management skills are generic: the methods and styles of individual agencies are relatively superficial elements of aid workers’ knowledge.

Third, agencies need to invest much more heavily in the development of their managers by providing structured employment which exposes them to experience in a supportive environment, and allows them sufficient time for formal training and education. As with any other industry, this process needs to include attracting and nurturing people who are just starting their careers. If the humanitarian sector wants to have sufficient competent managers, it needs to get serious about growing them.

Nigel Clarke is an independent consultant working on humanitarian aid. His email address is


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