The State of Humanitarian Professions



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.

The study included the following humanitarian organisation groups: local, national and international NGOs conducting humanitarian activities; UN humanitarian agencies; the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement; host government agencies and authorities and regional/ intergovernmental agencies and donor agencies: primarily government agencies, but also trusts and other donors.


The survey methodology was complex and attenuated. It spanned the period from July 2019 through to the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic and culminated in the publication of the “The State of Humanitarian Professions”. (ISBN 978-2-9538789-7-4 by Bioforce in December 2020. The work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial Licence: CC BY- NC 3.0).

98 interviews were undertaken with key informants representing 24 profession areas. A total of 753 humanitarians contributed through a survey.  Findings from the interviews and survey were then discussed in eleven local workshops with 121 participants in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Colombia, France (2), Senegal, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Uganda, UK and USA. In all around 1000 people were consulted. As such, this complex research project is one of the most comprehensive of its type in recent years and provides information and insights not previously available.


There were two main limitations to the survey. First, the respondents to the survey were self-selected, meaning everyone that received the survey could choose whether or not to open it. This non-probability sampling technique means that not all individuals in the population had an equal chance to be represented in the survey results. Second, the population the survey was aimed at was not clearly defined. There is no clear definition of a humanitarian worker, nor are there any precise numbers on the size and demographics of the group of humanitarian workers. This means that it is impossible to check if the respondents to the survey formed an accurate representation of the people working in the humanitarian sector. The implications of these limitations can be summarised as follows: the results are not representative of any group other than the group of respondents. Similarly, any disaggregated group of respondents, including a group of respondents with the same profession, is not representative of that profession in the entire humanitarian sector and therefore also cannot be compared to each other.

  • Vitas Consult will be publishing selected extracts from the report for the benefit of clients. These extracts will focus on the findings of the research focused on a number of the most significant occupational groups within the humanitarian system (or sector).

Setting the scene

As a scene setter, this first article makes available an overview from the Bioforce report which examines the following question …

What is changing in the humanitarian environment?

The OECD estimates that 1.8 billion people live in fragile contexts and 80% of the world’s poorest could be living in fragile contexts by 2030. In addition, the number of displaced people is the highest it has been since the Second World War 1. Humanitarian needs are growing fast and outstripping the funding available for response, and 90% of funds are now directed towards protracted crises2. Since 2015, appeals for crises lasting five years or longer have spiked and now represent the most funding received and requested (80% compared to around 30% in 2015)3. The challenge is growing and changing in nature. Protracted crises mean that humanitarian organisations are involved for longer periods and there is greater demand for effective interoperability between traditional humanitarian and development actors, as well as collaboration with private and state actors.

Humanitarian organisations are noting fundamental changes in their operating environment. Changes in socio-economic patterns, politics, and power dynamics affect the rules and regulations governing operating environments. Security challenges and changing meteorological conditions affect both the needs of affected communities and humanitarian access to them 4. Despite the increasingly acute humanitarian needs in areas of conflict, studies suggest that humanitarian actors’ presence in active conflict zones is reducing 5 6.

What is changing for organisations?

Given this context, the demands on humanitarian organisations are wide-ranging. This study focuses on four areas of change within humanitarian organisations, that are likely to impact humanitarian professions:

Adaptation, Localisation, Technology Coordination and Collaboration

A. Adaption

Humanitarian organisations are being challenged to be more flexible, better adapting to the needs of the situations they are operating in. This means erasing their traditional operational boundaries between humanitarian and development programmes as well as working across sectors.

In responses ranging from Ebola outbreak in West Africa, to the European migration crisis, to the ongoing Syria response, development actors have been criticised for not gearing up to humanitarian response quickly enough, and humanitarian actors for failing to manage transition to long term support programmes. The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2016, UN Secretary General António Guterres’ focus on the Triple Nexus, and the UN’s New Way of Working, have placed greater focus on better humanitarian-development collaboration. There is likely to be increasing demand for professionals who can work effectively across the nexus.

It has been argued that humanitarian actors struggle to respond optimally in complex environments, when they define the problem through existing sector-based assessments. This makes it difficult to respond to affected people’s priorities if they cross multiple sectors or evolve over time. Traditional project management, that focuses on fixed timeframes, defined needs and set objectives also leaves little room for adaptation. Emphasis is likely to grow on multi- sectoral approaches and adaptive management. This could lead to less focus on professionals with technical knowledge and more on critical thinking, openness to learn, creative problem-solving willingness and ability to make informed decisions quickly and with minimal or no supervision 7.

B. Localisation

The WHS further increased growing focus on the role of local and national NGOs in humanitarian action. There is widespread agreement on the need to increase the amount of funding going directly to local and national organisations, the importance of working collaboratively rather than contractually, and the role of international organisations being to reinforce not replace local and national systems.

Whilst there is a great deal of support for the “Grand Bargain” commitments from the WHS, a significant shift of power has not been realised. By 2017, funding reported to UN OCHA Financial Tracking Service (FTS) channelled directly (or through 1 intermediary) to local and national NGOs accounted for 3.6% of total humanitarian assistance. This is an increase from 2.3% in 2016, but significantly short of the Grand Bargain target of “at least 25% of humanitarian funding to local and national responders as directly as possible”. It is also important to note that most direct funding to local and national actors (84%) was directed to national governments 9.

Despite slow progress, the localisation agenda could have a profound effect on humanitarian professions. The role of international actors is likely to move further towards advice and capacity building activities. As local actors gain more trust from donors, the relative costs of hiring local, versus international, actors could create a shift in humanitarian funding. Increasing demand for skilled, local actors could also lead to growth in local professional development initiatives.

Localisation might also lead to demand for multi-skilled professionals. In smaller organisations, valuable professionals are often those who can manage multiple roles – e.g. HR, Finance & Logistics 10.

C. Technology

An estimated US$2.8 billion of humanitarian assistance was delivered through cash and vouchers in 2016, a 40% increase from 201511. Cash programming is increasingly recognised as a faster, more effective and more beneficiary-centred way of delivering assistance. It is one of a range of emerging approaches in humanitarian work that has been facilitated by technological advance. These include the use of participatory mapping, satellite imagery, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, blockchain, as well as social media and mobile technology 12.

“Digital Transformation” is listed as one of seven key transformations that make up the Red Cross, Red Crescent 2030 strategy. As leading humanitarian organisations adapt to embrace technology in future humanitarian action, they will need professionals who are technologically competent. This may mean recruitment of specialist technical professionals, more frequent professional development initiatives across all staff, and digital competency becoming a baseline requirement across all professions.

D. Coordination & Collaboration

Some studies that attempt to estimate the future role of humanitarian organisations point towards a consolidation of actors. This could mean fewer, larger organisations; or increased consortia-working. In either case, the outcome would be a strong, multi-sector approach that could shift between humanitarian response and development programming with ease. Successful organisations are likely to have a diverse workforce and a broad geographical spread of staff 13 14 15. Another shift in coordination is being realised through area-based approaches – where a multisector response is focused on a discrete geographical area, led by local authorities and engaging a wide range of public, private and third sector actors 16. As humanitarian needs grow faster than funding, it is also likely that public-private partnerships will become more commonplace 17.

All of these changes would require organisations to reflect on their role and mandate and enhance their ability to work in collaboration with new actors. Humanitarian professionals will need specific skills in collaboration and relationship management, they will also need to be adaptable to work with a range of actors with whom they may have had limited exposure to date.


1.  OECD (2018) States of Fragility
2. OECD, DAC (2019) Recommendation on the Humanitarian- Development-Peace Nexus, OECD/LEGAL/50
3. UNOCHA (2019) World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2018
4. Obrecht, A. with Bourne, S. (2018) Making humanitarian response more flexible. ALNAP Background Paper. London: ALNAP/ODI
5.De Castellarnau, M. and Stoianova, V., Bridging the emergency gap: Reflections and a call for action after a two- year exploration of emergency response in acute conflicts, Emergency Gap Project, Médecins Sans Frontières, Barcelona, April 2018.
6. Haver, K. and W.Carter (2016) “What It Takes: Principled pragmatism to enable access and quality humanitarian aid in insecure environments”, report from the Secure Access in Volatile Environments research programme: SAVEresearch. net, Humanitarian Outcomes, November.
7. Obrecht, A. with Bourne, S. (2018) Making humanitarian response more flexible. ALNAP Background Paper. London: ALNAP/ODI
8. ALNAP (2018) The State of the Humanitarian System. ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP/ODI
9.Angus Urquhart and Luminita Tuchel, Development Initiatives – global humanitarian assistance report 2018
10. CHS Alliance, Humanitarian Accountability Report 2015 11.Angus Urquhart and Luminita Tuchel, Development Initiatives – global humanitarian assistance report 2018
12. WEF (2017) The Future of Humanitarian Response World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017
13. J. Streets, A. Binder, A. Derzi-Horvath, S. Krüger, L. Ruppert. GPPI – Drivers and Inibitors of Change in the Humanitarian System. April 2016
14. IARAN (2018) The future of Aid NGOs in 2030
15. Lawrence, Penny (2018) The future of big INGOs: ways forward in a fast-changing world (
16. IRC (2015) Humanitarian Crises in Urban Areas: Are Area-Based Approaches to Programming and Coordination the Way Forward?
17. WEF (2017) The Future of Humanitarian Response World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017

Author: Vitas Consult