Practitioner Pathways: Establishing a Career in the Humanitarian Sector

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Despite the significant growth of the humanitarian sector in recent years - now employing over 250,000 professionals - practitioners often express concerns over the lack of clarity, predictability or support in establishing and maintaining a humanitarian career. Frequently cited challenges include acquiring the requisite skills, experience, and qualifications necessary to apply for open positions at the entry level, as well as how to continue developing a career from entry to mid-career to senior management.

Organizations like the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, RedR, the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, and Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), have increasingly responded to the growing demand for training and professional development in the humanitarian sector, but a number of important gaps remain. For one, potential humanitarian practitioners struggle to enter the field. Once there, they may struggle to access mentorship, professional development opportunities or specific skills trainings - all of which can be difficult or costly to pursue. Given the often short-term nature of contracts in the humanitarian sector, and the high degree of mobility for international staff in particular, it can be difficult to establish the types of longer-term networks and relationships critical to career development in any field. Moreover, practitioners with diverse profiles - including national staff, women, LGBTQ, minorities, persons with disabilities, etc. - often face additional professional development challenges not commonly reflected in available offerings.

The challenges faced by humanitarian practitioners as they enter and attempt to move up in their career paths are not only important to individuals, but are also tied to important questions for the sector itself. What values does the humanitarian sector hold and reflect? What makes a good humanitarian, and how can the sector continue along its course of professionalization? What are the most critical skills or qualifications, and how do these skills and qualifications connect with the broader aims of the humanitarian sector? How can the humanitarian sector find the right people for the job, without overlooking those who lack access to traditional pathways into the field.

In conversations with experts, trainers and practitioners, this podcast will explore humanitarian education and professionalization, pathways into the field, and opportunities for professional growth within the humanitarian sector.

Key Questions

  • How do humanitarian practitioners define themselves as professionals?

  • What are the most important skills or qualifications for an aspiring humanitarian to acquire?

  • What are some current options for humanitarian education and how well do lessons taught in a classroom or online apply to the field?

  • In what ways has the growth and professionalization of the humanitarian field impacted recruitment and retention of staff?

  • How can aspiring or new humanitarians find mentorship and career guidance?

Brooke Hirschfelder
Vice President of Human Resources Adminstration, Concern Worldwide
Stephanie Kayden
Director of the International Emergency Medicine Fellowship, Brigham and Women's Hospital
Director of the Lavine Family Humanitarian Studies Initiative, HHI's Humanitarian Academy  
Chen Reis  
Clinical Associate Professor and
Director of the Humanitarian Assistance Program, University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies



Konjit Kefetew's picture

The humanitarian profession is not yet developed well and it is linked with short term humanitarian response and many sees it as a job ending and not as a professional career to be continued. More focus should be given in a way that resilience and coordination , leadership and management areas. Online training with practical skills should be strengthened.

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