Humanitarian professions: recruitment, development and progression overview


In mid-December 2020 Bioforce published “The State of Humanitarian Professions”. Through consultation with nearly 1000 humanitarians, the study provides an invaluable snapshot of humanitarian professions, today.

  • Many of the findings of the research will be of considerable value to individuals who are involved in, or want to be involved in, humanitarian work. “The State of Humanitarian Professions” offers deep and current insights into the state of 24 key humanitarian professions and their likely futures. 


The study set out, ambitiously, to capture the experiences, views and opinions of people working in the humanitarian sector today. The research focused entirely on humanitarian action and distinguished between humanitarian and development work. This approach was not meant to perpetuate silos, or to ignore the growing recognition of the importance of the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. (You can read more about the aims and achievements of this major survey here).

Recruitment, Professional Development and Career Progression

The 2020 Bioforce report found that humanitarian organisations frequently cite challenges in recruiting adequately skilled staff, and even talented individuals find it hard to break into the humanitarian sector. The study showed that supply and demand related to candidates for humanitarian roles seems to be highly specific to context and, overall, quite balanced. This reinforces the idea that the challenge lies in matching candidates with opportunities.

The study emphasised the importance that humanitarians place on humanitarian experience when recruiting. Findings suggest that new candidates were more likely to be hired from within the sector and that humanitarian experience was regarded as the most important factor when recruiting (ahead of “demonstration of professional skills”).

Contributors highlighted efforts to address diversity imbalances in recruitment and to nationalise (formerly international) roles. The drivers for this remain unclear, with many contributors feeling that economic factors have greater influence than commitment to localisation or diversification. Humanitarian work continues to be highly reliant on staff with short term contracts. Worryingly, there is ongoing concern about transparency and potential nepotism in recruitment processes.

The number and type of professional development opportunities available to humanitarian staff appear to be increasing. Face to face training seems to remain the most widely accessed method, with online training close behind. Almost a third of survey respondents had recent access to coaching, mentoring or workplace shadowing. Despite this, there are outstanding concerns with regard to professional development opportunities, namely:

  • Many learning programmes are still not getting to the people who need them most and there is considerable inequity in terms of who accesses these opportunities.
  • The quality and impact of many of the interventions is questionable.
  • Professional development opportunities are not keeping pace with changes in expectations on staff.
  • Going forwards, contributors felt that greater access to face to face training would be most useful, followed by coaching, mentoring, and workplace shadowing.

When asked how long they expected to work in the humanitarian sector, over 45% of respondents said 10 years or less. This could challenge the notion of humanitarian work as a career choice or reflect a general trend to more transient work patterns, where fewer people dedicate their career to any single sector. Those who intend to spend less time in the sector are also more likely to take periodic (rather than continuous) work in the sector.

Contributors highlighted the main reasons why they saw colleagues move away from the humanitarian sector as; burnout (partly related to longer placement to protracted crises), high workload, lack of sufficient psychosocial support, desire to spend more time with family, lack of career opportunities, limited support to advance within their own organisation, and salary levels.





Author: Vitas Consult