Is aidwork really a profession?

J (@TalesFromthHood) recently published a post on Aidspeak explaining why using unqualified volunteers in overseas aid and development work is always a bad idea. I won’t re-state his points here, you can read the post.

I agree with everything J says. I’ve seen the effects of unqualified people (both paid and unpaid) on projects and the people involved in them. I also strongly agree that aid work should be done by professional, qualified people.

Some of the comments in the post noted that paid aid-workers can themselves be incompetent, harmful or a waste of time. Others accused aid-workers claiming that only professionals can do aid-work of being arrogant. Of course some aid-workers are incompetent, harmful or a waste of time. The same can be said for some teachers, or some doctors, or some engineers. Teachers, doctors or engineers would never be accused of being arrogant for denying well-meaning volunteers the opportunity to do their work. Both these claims are may or may not be true when applied to individuals, but are clearly not valid arguments for using volunteers.

Nonetheless, I have serious concerns about describing aid-work as a profession. This upsets me, because it really does need to become more professional. Aid-work is, at best, a profession in its infancy.

The dictionary definition of a profession is:

“A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”

Or, alternatively:

“a type of job that requires special education, training, or skill”

Most professions are regulated in some way by industry bodies which register members of the profession, ensure standards and accredit training & qualifications. To become a chartered structural engineer, I had to spend four years at university and a further four years doing professional training, followed by day-long long professional exam with a typical pass-rate of less than 30%. I have to do continuing professional development, which I have to record and is regularly audited. If I don’t meet the stringent standards of my profession I can be fined or struck off. I’m liable under civil and criminal for the quality of my work.

To become an aid-worker someone can get an internship with the HR department of a humanitarian NGO straight after university, transfer to the programme department and be working ‘in the field’ within a couple of years, regardless of qualifications or even suitability for the work. This is a real example, and I wish it was an aberration.

Of course, the majority of aid workers have very relevant qualifications. Many are highly-qualified specialists. Many have done master’s degrees. Many have years of professional experience more valuable than any formal qualification. Aid work is a job that requires special education, training, and skill. It cannot be done by unqualified people, and shouldn’t be, regardless whether they are paid or not.

Most aid-worker are professional, but aid-work, to my mind, does not (yet) qualify as a profession, because it doesn’t have consistent or rigorous ways to ensure the professional standards of its members. It doesn’t even have a way to register its members.

Aid-work needs to move away from its current state of being a highly skilled community of practice. The humanitarian community has developed professional standards, it has organisations which capture and share knowledge and learning. It has all the trappings of being a profession. It is, perhaps, a profession in its infancy. I wish it would go one step further and establish a professional body to represent & regulate the professionals and ensure professional standards are maintained. Perhaps we could then finally stop re-hashing the volunteering/voluntourism arguments over and over again. How does the Institution of Chartered Aid-Workers sound?