The SOHP Conference

The SOHP study is a snapshot of the sector; based on the experiences, views and opinions of humanitarians. Retaining this concept of engagement, the SOHP Conference was planned as an appropriate way for humanitarians to gather and reflect on the findings of the study, and to discuss and propose recommendations.

Format and participation

The conference was initially planned, as an in-person event, to take place in May 2020. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the event was postponed until November 2020 and conducted as a virtual event, supported by PHAP – to whom the author wishes to express their thanks.
The conference was designed in two parts – morning and afternoon (based on Central European Time) :


The morning event was open to anybody who wished to subscribe and attracted 566 participants – 403 in the event platform, 150 via the YouTube video livestream, and 13 via the audio livestream. The core purpose of the morning event was present the main findings of the study and to hear reflections on those findings from sector experts. The format was as follows:




Invitations for the afternoon event were sent to selected humanitarian professionals with interest in human resources, learning & development, and professionalisation initiatives.
The afternoon event involved 63 participants. The afternoon event was designed to generate recommendations from the SOHP study, using the following format:






Outputs from the SOHP Conference

Audience constitution and interaction

The audience seemed weighted towards Europeans working for INGOs and, as to be expected, included a higher number of professionals working in HR.

  • 52% of the respondents stated that they worked in international NGOs; 8% in national or local NGOs; 9% in UN agencies; 6% in the RCRC Movement; 6% in academia; and the rest were spread across host governments, donors, private and others.
  • 59% of respondents were based in Europe with 19% joining from Asia and 14% from Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 respondents affiliated most closely with HR as a profession area.

Aside from the high number of HR professionals, the distribution of other professions in the audience, including the notably high number of people who affiliate most closely with project management, was not significantly different from the profile of respondents to the initial survey.
The conference provided a good opportunity to add to the SOHP knowledge base. A series of audience polls, during the presentation of results, allowed further data to be gathered on some of the questions included in the original survey. Polling was optional and the number of respondents varied. Most questions received between 130 and 216 responses. Two questions were targeted at certain audience groups and received fewer responses.




Input from the audience at the SOHP Conference

Much of the interaction at the SOHP event appeared to reaffirm several key findings from the SOHP study. Participants also provided some useful additional inputs.

Suggested additions to the list of profession areas

During the event, two additional profession areas were proposed, and gained some support, via the chat function:

  • Capacity Building
  • Innovation

Changes in work patterns

When presented with this list of the most commonly identified changes in people’s jobs, around two in every three respondents, said that the list affiliated mostly or completely with their own experience.


Recruitment and professional development

85% of poll respondents said they had difficulty recruiting and retaining talent within their organisation. In the subsequent poll, 83% of respondents who were new to the sector said they found it very hard to break into humanitarian work.

Using the chat function, one participant highlighted the additional issue of talented staff pursuing a departure from their own country to earn more, and have greater influence, in expat roles elsewhere. Others suggested that access to professional development opportunities was more restricted than the results of the study suggest.

Career paths in the humanitarian sector

When polled, the respondents from the audience at the conference did indicate a less transient approach to work in the humanitarian sector than respondents to the SOHP survey had done:

  • The number of humanitarian professions that audience respondents affiliated with was centred around three. This differed from our survey results, where nearly half of all respondents selected “five or more”.
  • 79% of audience respondents expected to work 10 years or more in the humanitarian sector (compared to 54% in the survey)
  • 79% of audience respondents (versus 61% of survey respondents) expected their involvement in humanitarian work to be continuous, rather than broken by spells in other sectors.

Distinguishable competencies for humanitarian work exist and are valuable

A total of 86% of audience respondents believe that their humanitarian profession requires competencies that are distinguishable from an equivalent non-humanitarian profession, or that their profession has no non-humanitarian equivalent (and is therefore unique). This compares with 82% from the survey results.



Perhaps most importantly, audience members also affirmed the value of the list of distinguishable humanitarian competencies developed by the SOHP study. As the list was not created before the survey, this was the first time its value to humanitarian organisations and practitioners could be tested.
97% or respondents confirmed that it would be useful to their organisation, with two thirds of respondents identifying that the list would be useful “to a great extent”.


How recommendations were generated from SOHP 2020


The SOHP study started from an idea; that the quality of humanitarian action is largely dependent on the quality and professionalism of the humanitarian workforce. Therefore, the study aimed to support humanitarians and humanitarian organisations in their drive to professionalise and continuously improve humanitarian action. With this goal in mind, the study aimed to generate specific, practical recommendations, focused on the most important issues highlighted by the research.

The study generated a lot of information and highlighted a wide range of issues. To synthesise these findings and reach practical recommendations from a single afternoon’s work during the conference, required a carefully structured methodology.

Initially, a small group of experts, including members of the SOHP Advisory Group, met to discuss the findings and implications of the research. This discussion highlighted 4 broad and interrelated challenges to professionalisation. These were then articulated as questions and presented to the 4 breakout groups at the SOHP conference.

Setting participants the challenge of answering 1 of the 4
questions provided several benefits:

  • It ensured that discussion was focused on generating solutions,
  • It directed the discussion to the most important issues highlighted in the research,
  • Setting a single question to discuss, made the challenge seem reasonable and not overwhelming,
  • The questions were broad enough, so not to restrict the generation of ideas,
  • The interrelated nature of the topics included in the questions meant that solutions to different questions were often mutually supportive and addressed the overall challenge of professionalisation.

Four significant questions

The four questions were presented with supporting data from the study and a series of related sub-questions to stimulate reflection and ideas. Here are the questions, with a brief explanation of each.

1. How do we drive professionalisation when professions aren’t recognised? Do we need professions to drive professionalisation?

The SOHP study highlighted limited levels of infrastructure to support professionalisation in humanitarian work. It also indicated that, whist humanitarians affiliate strongly with the humanitarian sector, they often don’t recognise professions within humanitarian work. Could this lack of identified professions be retarding the professionalisation of the sector?
Or can professionalisation be achieved without formalised professions? In either case, what can be done to accelerate professionalisation?

2. How do we stop bias making humanitarian recruitment less effective?

The SOHP study highlighted that the system of recruitment in the humanitarian sector is problematic for both organisations and individuals – especially those without existing humanitarian experience. Findings also indicated that recruiters rated humanitarian experience as more important than demonstration of professional skills. Is this bias towards humanitarian experience justified, or is it creating a closed club that prevents a flow of talent into the sector? Are the competencies required for humanitarian work really unattainable for those without experience? Survey respondents also identified other forms of bias, discrimination and even nepotism. Is this restricting diversity in the sector? How do we stop biases making humanitarian recruitment less effective?

3. How do we ensure that humanitarians have the competencies to do their job effectively? And what are the risks of not doing so?

More than ever, humanitarians need to deliver work to standards that justify the investment, and that ensure quality and accountability to affected people. How can we be confident that humanitarians have the competencies to do this? The SOHP study highlighted a lack of recognised certification in humanitarian work. Findings suggested that quality is assessed subjectively and seniority is often measured in “years in the sector” irrespective of performance during that time. Why do organisations not require their staff to have certification? Why
is it so difficult to agree on competency frameworks? How do we ensure that humanitarians have the knowledge, skills and behavioural traits necessary? And what are the risk of not doing so?

4. How can we drive localisation in humanitarian staffing?

Localisation is frequently extoled but slow to materialise. For international organisations, staffing is often built around a system of “international” and “national” roles. Is this system making it hard for talented national staff to progress? Does it encourage talent to leave their own country for greater recognition as expats? The SOHP study showed that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many international staff to relocate, raising questions about the value of their presence and role. What exactly are the competencies that international candidates have that national applicants don’t? Why can’t those be made explicit and built into development pathways? How can we drive localisation in
humanitarian staffing?

Recommendations from the SOHP Study

The following recommendations were generated by humanitarians who engaged in the SOHP Conference in November 2020.

Question 1: How do we drive professionalisation when professions aren’t recognised? Do we need professions to drive professionalisation?

1. Keep it simple

Professional associations need not be large, expensive or complex organisations. Significant progress in professionalisation could be achieved with simple organisations who manage a body of specific knowledge and a set of certifications. (Participants cited PM4NGOs and the PMD certification of examples of this).

2. Focus resources where there is potential to make greatest impact

Professionalisation of an entire sector does not need to, and could not, happen in one step. Instead professionalisation initiatives could be focused on areas of humanitarian work where there are greatest concerns over quality or performance. Accountability to affected persons and prevention of abuse of power should be amongst initial areas of focus.

Professionalisation could be considered as a vehicle to drive localisation. Developing accessible professional development and certification mechanisms in profession areas that are traditionally dominated by international or expat staff, could shift the balance or control towards local and national staff.

3. Build on existing infrastructure

Well established professions, such as health, law, education and finance, benefit from strong professionalisation infrastructure outside the humanitarian sector. Humanitarian equivalents of these professions can (and in some cases do) connect to existing professional development schemes and certifications. If necessary, additional qualifications could be established around competencies that are unique, or particularly important, in humanitarian work. This would also assist professionals to move between humanitarian and non-humanitarian professions.

4. Consider a single “humanitarian” profession

Given that humanitarians seem to identify more strongly with humanitarian work in general, rather than individual humanitarian profession areas, it may be easier to establish professional development and certification opportunities for those who wish to be recognised as a generic “professional humanitarian”. Some initiatives (such as the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework) have worked towards this aim. The distinguishable humanitarian competencies, identified by SOHP, could be used to further this work.

5. Ensure inclusivity and accessibility

It is important that professional development towards recognised certification is not elitist or discriminatory. Professional knowledge should be open and accessible. Certification should be possible to achieve through working practice as well as courses of study.


Question 2: How do we stop bias making humanitarian recruitment less effective?

1. Clearer and more transparent information

Job adverts should be designed to attract a more diverse range of applicants. Posting adverts in different places, reducing jargon and focusing on competencies rather than specific experiences can all help. Salaries and remuneration details should be more open and transparent.

2. Anonymise the first stage of recruitment processes

It should become standard practice that candidates submit applications that do not contain information that could be used to discriminate for or against them, such as protected characteristics (i.e. age, disability, gender, partnership, pregnancy or parenthood, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation).

3. Adopt a competency approach throughout the employee lifecycle

Taking a competency approach can help individuals and organisations to be most efficient in managing the skills, knowledge and behaviours they need. Recruitment, induction or “on-boarding” processes, pay scales and reward schemes, can all be designed around competencies. This promotes transparency, clarity, objectivity, data-driven decision-making and fairness.

4. Collaborative humanitarian traineeships

In several non-humanitarian sectors, traineeships offer talented but inexperienced candidates a path to a recognised certificate of general competency for that sector of work. Similar schemes have been established by individual humanitarian organisations. A collaborative sector-wide humanitarian traineeship scheme, concluding in a recognised qualification would be a big step forward.

5. Take a change-management approach

Encouraging different types of people into “our” sector is a significant change that will make many people uneasy. Recognising such concerns, openly discussing them, and using change management techniques may help in gaining support and momentum.

6. Recognise our own bias and challenging it with knowledge

Whether it relates to corporate experience, or lack of formal education, bias is bias. We all carry conscious and unconscious bias. Being more open minded to engage with, and learn about, people, organisations and sectors we don’t know as much about is an important step to challenging bias.


Question 3: How do we ensure that humanitarians have the competencies to do their job effectively? And what are the risks of not doing so?

1. Increase efficiency in HR processes

Inefficient recruitment, induction and performance management processes can seem like a waste of time and energy. Busy staff may, therefore, be tempted to avoid applying these processes. This has the potential to lead to the recruitment or retention of individuals without the required competencies. In some cases, this could result in poor performance, abuse of power or lack of accountability. Designing efficient and effective HR systems, and continuously working to refine them, can help eliminate the likelihood of such problems.

2. Organisation-wide adoption of a competency approach

To be effective, organisations need to commit to using a competency-based approach. Three key components key to this are: (a) Leadership who understand competency frameworks, their value and use. (b) A Human Resources team that is empowered to use a competency-approach throughout the employee lifecycle (c) Managers and staff that are trained, supported and mandated to use the approach.

3. Contextualised competency frameworks

Competency frameworks that are adapted to the operating context are more useful and more likely to be used. Engaging local teams in the design, or contextualisation, of competency frameworks will increase ownership and ensure that knowledge, skills and behaviours specific to a given context, are included. This may also contribute to driving localisation.

Question 4: How can we drive localisation in humanitarian staffing?

1. Challenge existing aversion to risk

To achieve the power shifts required for localisation, organisations need to be more open to piloting different structures and models for managing work and relationships. They should consider engaging with donors to discuss their commitment to localisation and openly assess the risks associated with new ways of working. Perceived risk of change, and comfort with existing models, are both barriers to localisation. Changes adopted and lessons learned during the Covid-19
pandemic provide opportunities to reshape the structure and division of responsibility within organisations. It is important that these lessons are converted into actions.

2. Focus on competencies and role, not status or administrative titles

Greater focus and use of language related to the responsibilities of a role and the competencies required for that work can help drive localisation. Administrative labels such as “national” and “international”, along with the implications in terms of status, are barriers to change.

3. Value local expertise

Organisations should place higher value on contextual knowledge and the skills to operate effectively in diverse contexts. This should be made explicit in recruitment and remuneration. Local staff who understand the importance of such expertise should be included in recruitment panels, both for national and HQ roles.

4. Use competencies to be transparent about the need for international roles

In some circumstances there is value in involving external staff with specific competencies. In these cases, organisations should define the competencies required and explain why they cannot be sourced locally. At the same time, organisations should implement activities to support local staff to develop the missing competencies.
International staff recruitment should be viewed as a temporary option – until competencies can be developed amongst other staff. The roles of international staff should be weighted towards enabling others rather than implementing tasks themselves.

5. Decentralise learning programmes

Rather than HQ teams developing learning programmes and “pushing” them to country offices, operational teams should define their own needs and request tailored support to meet them. This could include mentoring, hands-on support, knowledge sharing, or informal learning programmes, as well as training. In addition, organisations should promote peer learning across countries and regions rather than relying wholly on centralised resources.

Reflections on SOHP and next steps

The following recommendations were generated by humanitarians who engaged in the SOHP Conference in November 2020.

Usefulness of the study

The study certainly generated interest – 566 people participated in the event and, one week afterwards, 250 had downloaded the video and audio recordings.

Feedback on the event suggested that the study and conference were also useful. 85% of those who gave feedback on the event, said it had improved their knowledge and 77% of attendees rated the event as “very useful”.



In providing feedback, one participant said, “The event and topic responded to the needs of humanitarian practitioners.” In the panel discussion, during the conference, the study was described as “A milestone, and timely research.”
The SOHP study certainly didn’t raise these important topics for the first time. However, much of the feedback from the conference suggested that the study has provided the opportunity to hold discussions about the professionalism and competencies of the humanitarian workforce with a backdrop of focused data on the topic.

Next steps

During the conference, the audience was asked about the value of the study and whether the work should be continued. In a poll, 95% of respondents said that the work of SOHP should be continued into the future.

When asked how the work should be taken forward:

  • 85% of respondents supported the concept of an ongoing observatory on humanitarian professions; and
  • 45% supported the idea of reiterating the study every 3-5 years.

On the question of how the SOHP study could be improved, participants recommended greater involvement of humanitarian donors as well as private sector, and particularly, local and national actors in the study. More specifically, several respondents suggested that the results should be disaggregated and presented through a gender lens – something that was also suggested via the chat function, during the event. Participants at the conference proposed that networks should be established to disseminate findings and recommendations. They emphasised the importance of humanitarian actors implementing those recommendations and the need to evaluate
their take-up.