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?

Does health and safety matter in other countries 2?

This is the second of my two blogs about health and safety. The first one is here.

Part 2: Construction & Sport

The Guardian newspaper has recently been reporting on the conditions construction workers have to bear working in the Middle East; with a strong focus on Qatar and the 2022 world cup. Many of the workers are effectively slaves, with passports and pay withheld and no rights, under a system called Kafala. Accident rates are hard to find, but the Guardian has established that 382 Nepali workers died in Qatar in 2012 and 2013 (with the real figure likely to be higher). Nepali workers make up only one sixth of Qatar’s entirely immigrant construction workforce. That suggests to me that possibly thousands have died. This is a scandal, or it should be. Sadly the conditions construction workers are subjected to in the Middle East have been well known the construction industry for as long as I’ve worked in it[1]. It’s similar in many countries around the world, especially those that rely heavily on migrant labour.

The fact is that it’s only on highly visible projects like major sports events where anybody takes any notice. That however means that these events are an opportunity to raise standards and awareness; and indeed there is evidence that such improvements occur at many games. The European Institute for Construction Labour Research has investigatedpractices at several Olympic Games and notes that often the opportunities for workers are good and the pay and conditions better than normal; but it also notes some pretty shocking practices. Even in Beijing it is noted that improvements were made on normal practices. Athens is an exception, where construction practices and safety took a big step backwards, while London set new standards and achieved record low accident rates and zero fatalities, for the first time in the Modern Games’ history.

The table below shows the best data I’ve been able to find about fatality rates at various games. The background fatality rate in the wider construction industry is given where known.

Games Deaths Background rate: deaths per 100,000 per year, from ILOStat Reliability
Barcelona ‘92 2 26 (1999)10.6 (2008) 12 deaths have been claimed by theEuropean Institute for Construction Labour Research, but it notes that the accident & fatality rate was lower than for normal construction in Spain.Sources: 1, 2
Atlanta ‘96 1 10 (2008) Can’t find any official statistics – at least one person was killed. Sources:1, 2
Sydney ‘00 1 4.4 (2008) Sources: 1, 2, 3
Athens ‘04 14 Not known Real number likely higher, as documentation of deaths is not good. Higher numbers are widely claimed. Sources: 1, 2, 3
Beijing ‘08 6 Not known Confirmed by China, but a figure of 10 or more is claimed. Sources: 1, 2
Delhi Commonwealth Games ‘10 43 Not known Real number may be higher. Sources: 1
Vancouver ‘10 1 8.7 (2008) In a road blast accident. Source: 1
South Africa World Cup ‘10 2 Not known Source: 1
London ‘12 0 4.5 (2006) One worker died on site of a heart attack unrelated to his work. Sources: 1, 2, 3
Brazil World Cup ‘14 9 26.4 (2000) Source: 12, 3
Sochi ‘14 25+ Not known Sources: 1, 2
Brazil ’16 0 Not known
Russia World Cup ‘18 3+ Not known Sources: 1
Qatar ‘22 100s Not known Sources: 1, 2, 3
Know any better sources? Please add a comment below – I’ll update the table.

Against a background of continual improvement, and sports events generally improving on the status quo, Sochi and Qatar seem to be very regressive steps. FIFA has been forced to admit that the conditions in Qatar are “absolutely unacceptable” – a tacit admission also that it must do better in choosing hosts in the future. Let’s hope it lives up to this. Qatar has been forced to improve conditions for workers, but will only do so for those working directly on the stadia – a pathetic fraction of the workforce involved in constructing the World Cup infrastructure. There are no plans to make lasting changes to the Kafala system.

There has been quite a lot of research into what made the London 2012 construction so safe, and it’s freely available. The major international sporting bodies and their sponsors must take an active role in promoting these lessons and the large body of knowledge about safety in construction, and in promoting good working practices. And not just promoting, but requiring. It can’t just be down to human rights organisations to campaign for such improvements, and major events are such a big opportunity to showcase how well things can be done.

Sport is meant to bring us together and celebrate human achievement. It surely can’t do that when the whole event is built on the suffering and exploitation of the builders.

Does health and safety matter in other countries 1?

This is the first of a two-part blog I’m writing about health and safety. It’s forty years since the UK’s Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 came into force. It, and subsequent legislation, has transformed all UK construction places, but has had a particular effect on construction sites.

Part 1: Construction safety & NGOs

We’ve all seen them: the proud photos in fundraising literature of people in disaster-stricken countries rebuilding with money from relief agencies. In bare feet or sandals, without gloves, balanced on the roof, young men are helping provide new houses, or a school, or a clinic. This is evidence of people being helped. It’s definitely a good thing.


But is it good enough?

Construction work is consistently amongst the most dangerous professions in the world. From the ILO[1]:

“In the construction industry, at least 60,000 people are fatally injured on building sites every year. Many hundreds of thousands more suffer serious injuries and ill health. In fact, these estimates are conservative. In many countries, less than 20 per cent of construction injuries are reported, and little account is taken of the longer-term impact of occupational diseases. The main causes of fatalities in the sector include falls, fatal crush injuries and the impact of falling objects, and electrocution. Major health problems range from deafness to vibration syndromes, back injuries, other musculoskeletal disorders, and exposure to hazardous substances (solvents, isocyanates, pesticides in timbers, chemical treatments for damp courses, fire retardants, welding fumes) and to dust and fibres (cement dust, silica, wood dust, fibreboard and, worst of all, asbestos). Stress is a frequent problem brought on by the other factors, notably the fear of falling. Construction workers tend to live away from home in substandard accommodation, especially in the developing countries. Tuberculosis, cholera, dengue, malaria and HIV/AIDS can therefore pose particular risks.”

The construction industry is dangerous everywhere. In the UK, which has world-leading health and safety practices, only agriculture and fisheries have a higher fatality rate, and the number of injuries and people suffering long-term ill effects is large[2]. The UK has strong legislation to protect construction workers. The Health and Safety Executive will prosecute breaches of legislation and workers are well insured and will be compensated if injured at work.

In most countries around the world this is not the case. Most construction workers are uninsured and cannot expect support if hurt because of doing their jobs. NGOs build quite a lot; they employ trades people and labourers all the time. Some NGOs build a huge amount, it’s pretty much what they do. In most cases (not all), the safety provisions they put in place for local labour are minimal. Rarely is decent footwear provided. Scaffolding, to allow safe working at height, is usually considered too expensive (and remember that falls are a leading killer). Training in safe working and good site management, which are totally free – are not often seen.

None of this would be acceptable in the rich countries in the north, but somehow it’s deemed too much trouble and expensive in poor countries. This while in countries with no social security systems, with no safety nets, the impact of an injury at work can be destitution for whole families.

If NGOs are serious about disaster risk reduction, perhaps they should start with reducing the very real risk of disaster to individuals working in construction by training them in safe construction methods and by providing them with safe working environments. I’m not suggesting we can achieve the very low accident rates of the UK; after all it’s taken the UK over 40 years of concerted effort to get there. But surely we can do much better, and we shouldn’t accept dangerous working practices just because the workers are poor?

The ILO has a code of practice for Safety & Health in Construction[3][4], which should ideally be followed, but there are some simple things NGOs should ensure are included in the budgets and project plans for all projects involving construction:

  • Train workers in safe working practices.
  • Provide, on loan, personal protective equipment (hard hats, gloves, high-visibility jackets, steel toe-capped boots, safety glasses).
  • Ensure scaffolding is provided for all working above ground, or at least minimise working at height.
  • Maintain a tidy site, to prevent trips and falls.
  • Have access control for the site to keep children out, ensure nobody is below people working above (and to keep track of your stuff).

None of these are difficult, none are expensive. It would be out of the question not to provide them in the west. There’s no excuse for not providing them anywhere else.


PS. It’s been said to me before that decent footwear is too expensive, and surely it’s not that important? This is what happens if your skin is exposed cement – I warn you, it’s not pleasant: