By Josie Flint, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, at Humanitarian Advisory Group.

This blog is part of HAG’s 5th birthday series. To see our story, check out our 5-year timeline.

Investing in young humanitarian practitioners is one of our core values as a social enterprise. We want to work with the most creative and independent thinkers of the upcoming generations – those who enlighten us, challenge us and those who will be future leaders in our sector and beyond. We recognise the richness of ideas, and energy and passion of young professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds, and we want to work with them through our internship program.

Over the past five years, we have had eleven interns work with us – I was one of them. As Humanitarian Advisory Group Director Beth Eggleston outlines here, the last two and half years has been a wild ride. The agility and creativity, and adventure of working in a small social enterprise with strong female leadership and operating a business in the humanitarian sector has been terrifying and exciting, and sometimes both at the same time.  For a recent graduate, this has shaped not only my perceptions and views of the sector, but the way I work and what I value in a workplace.

It also led me to reflect on the way the sector invests in young practitioners, and to think about how the humanitarian sector invests in its workforce, and how this has changed over the last five to ten years. Why is it that young professionals are invested in comparatively less than in other sectors? Why are there such limited entry level graduate programs in the NGO sector? Why is it that the average number of internships people undertake have increased?‘

The challenge

In 2017 the humanitarian sector globally faces a deepening set of challenges, not least increasing humanitarian needs, and ever more thinly spread resources. Humanitarian actors are required to be more strategic with what they have, and even as initiatives such as the Grand Bargain set out to reshape funding flows, the issue of careful resource allocation remains for both traditional and new, and international and national humanitarian actors.  The localisation agenda also outlines a need to strategically think through investment in young practitioners at the national level for local organisations.

Cost-cutting, along with the process of professionalization of the humanitarian sector over the last two decades means that for young practitioners, getting into the sector has become increasingly difficult. Whilst professionalization has been integral to improving the quality and outcomes of humanitarian assistance, one of the perhaps unintended results in some contexts has been the swelling numbers of highly-qualified postgraduate students unable to secure paid employment. In other contexts, demand for skilled labour has meant a resource drain of educated young people moving into larger international humanitarian organisations that offer formal graduate programs and higher wages.

Great expectations

Whilst there is a diversity of paths available to young people for getting in to the sector, in the diminishing of aid programs, funding cutbacks and reallocation of resources, formal graduate programs in large humanitarian organisations are often among the first to be reduced, or done away with completely. The common story I hear in our engagement with university degree courses is one of postgraduate students on a multiple run of unpaid internships, or volunteering for extended periods of time, trying to get a foot in the door. Just recently I had a conversation with a graduate who had interned and then volunteered part-time for two years in a technical capacity with a key humanitarian player without being paid. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves where the line is between gaining experience and outright exploitation?

In fact, this is not unique to the humanitarian sector but anecdotally it seems to be relatively widespread. It also seems to be an expectation of young practitioners held by the sector at large. There is currently a lack of  data on the amount of unpaid labour conducted by young people in the aid and development areas, especially for those that are on their third, fourth and fifth rounds of unpaid internships or volunteering, and where those programs are not linked with formal higher education programs.

With the increasing professionalization of sector, there needs to be a parallel recognition that working in the humanitarian sector is a job, and like any other job, has the same rights of a wage given for a day’s work. By creating an expectation that young practitioners must pay their dues through multiple and extended periods of unpaid work, we undermine not only our own sector, but the impetus for professionalization in general.

In the shift from ‘vocation’ towards ‘profession’ for the humanitarian practitioner, has the sector effectively adapted the way it invests in young people?

Investing in young practitioners – making a business case

  1. Knowing your most valuable asset – The humanitarian sector is made up of people. Humanitarian organisations are made up of people as are just about all businesses, social enterprises, corporations, government bodies and UN agencies. And the common thread is that their most valuable asset is the knowledge, skills and technical expertise held by their employees. Investing in employees is a question of strategic value for all humanitarian organisations.
  2. Investing resources – Take top Australian law firm such as Allens that invests substantial resources in their highly-regarded graduate and clerk programs, recognising that graduates are a key asset to business effectiveness and efficiency, as well as reputation for excellence. They consider it a sound business decision to invest in a significant number of graduates through formal programs as ultimately this is valuable for the business and enables retention of skilled labour.
  3. Recognising the strengths – Diversity of skills and experience, alongside less traditional approaches combined with new ideas, and drive make young practitioners a valuable asset. Those not yet indoctrinated into the at times inflexible system and way of doing things are sometimes well placed to envision what the future of the humanitarian system and assistance might look like and to suggest new approaches, and ideas.
  4. Recruitment practices – Humanitarian actors should strive for excellence in recruitment of young people, and investment in skilled labour, attracting the best and brightest. This should include requirements for creative and diverse skill sets that will engage young people from diverse backgrounds.