It’s become increasingly common over the past few years to describe the Aid Industry as the Aid Industry. An industry. And rightly so, because it is an industry.
What’s this mean? In my mind it means several things:
It is absolutely possible to regulate the aid industry, to standardize both the product that aid providers provide, as well as the ways in which they provide it, down to the capability of the individuals who are part of that provision. The healthcare industry does it. There’s no good reason why we cannot do the same.
It is absolutely feasible to certify the humanitarian industry workforce. It is possible to articulate a professional standard for every job, every role and function currently represented in the humanitarian industry. Microsoft and Apple can internally certify tens, maybe hundreds, of kinds of “engineer,” and Wall Street can identify tens of kinds of “accountant” (non-profit accounting is its own thing). Heck, even the Government of Australia has classified the levels of “bartender and barista.” It’s absurd to try to argue that aid industry cannot also specify and establish standards for its workforce. [Interesting discussion around certification.]
It is time to dispense with the traditional, romantic notion of the “aid worker.” We are professional people with specific, identifiable skills who work in the humanitarian industry. Moreover, understanding and acknowledging the diversity of possible occupations within the aid industry has huge implications for everything from how we market, to how we analyze and describe “quality” and “efficiency”, to how we recruit and manage career trajectories. The stereotypical image of the haggard foreigner jack-of-all-trades hipster MacGyver out on the border just kind of “figuring it out” is an offensive relic that demeans both aid workers and aid recipients. We need to react against it at every possible opportunity.
It is time to dispense with traditional notions of where the heavy lifting happens. Anyone who’s ever had the experience of taking a flight that actually arrived safely, was fed during the flight (if it was international), landed on time, with luggage, knows that taking making it all happen is whole lot more complicated than just getting the plane up, and then down again, without crashing. There’s even an argument to be made that the pilots are simply technicians—highly trained and regulated bus drivers—and the real front-line service providers are flight attendants.
And in the same way, bags of food off the truck and into the hands of refugees, or live vaccines out of the cold box and injected into people, are simply the last motion in a long sequence of highly-choreographed moves by an entire global cast of characters. Understanding that this is, in fact, a global industry, means also understanding that every single person in the industry is part of a larger whole. I think we’ve failed to articulate to those who want to enter this industry the possibilities and limitations, based on the actual jobs that need doing. Not everyone who works for Lufthansa or Virgin Atlantic gets to sit in the cockpit.
To understand the aid industry is it’s own kind of subject-matter expertise. There is inherent qualitative value and quantitative efficiency in understanding how the aid industry works. Historically, and in my opinion much too often, the assumption is simply that the aid industry is an endearingly incompetent version of a for-profit sector. Not only is this insulting and offensive to those of us who have intentionally planned for and implemented professional careers in the aid industry, but it’s just plain incorrect. Like any other, the aid industry has its own unique dynamics, its internal political economy, its underlying values and core assumptions. Being successful in the aid industry requires understanding the aid industry.
It’s not unheard of for airline execs to take over as the CEO of NGOs. I want to see the day when a relief manager gets head-hunted for top leadership at a Fortune 500 company.