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Refugees arrive on the shores of the island of Lesbos

Building humanitarian capacity

In this step Markus Forsberg, of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), discusses capacity building, or the ways in which individuals, organisations, and even whole societies develop and maintain the capabilities needed to set their own development objectives. In the humanitarian sector this broadly includes coordination and support of training and capacity building activities, development of learning resources, dissemination of best practices, and standardisation of common tools and processes.

Capacity building is a frequently used concept in humanitarian work and it is important to be clear what is meant by it, at what level you are aiming to develop capacity, and the clear and concrete goals of such an activity. The most common underlying notion is that international donors and humanitarian organisations should build the capacity of local or national organisations in crisis-affected countries, including through health systems strengthening.

Building whose capacity and how?

Although the term is often used for response-wide capacity at an organisational level, when speaking of ‘building capacity’, we primarily focus on building the capacity of individuals within an organisation and among both national and international humanitarians. Capacity building initiatives benefit from a planned approach including:

  1. Analysing current capacity. You might ask questions such as: What do you need to achieve? What knowledge and skills are needed to achieve it? Which standards and guidelines are relevant?
  2. Identify capacity building methods. What is the most effective method given resource constraints? How can a flexible approach be used to accommodate different learning preferences? Is the goal better achieved by short term or continuous/ongoing programmes?
  3. Evaluate the outcomes. Was the capacity building effective? Did it contribute to achieving goals? How could the approach be improved? What gaps remain that need to be addressed in the future?

There are a number of capacity building options, including:

  • Strengthening learning ‘on the job’, with more structured sharing of experience between colleagues using mentoring support
  • Taking part in formal trainer of trainer schemes or institutionalising more informal channels for disseminating knowledge and skills gained during training within organisations
  • Onsite professional development courses and workshops
  • Online learning opportunities
  • Encouraging staff to participate in a cross-sector professional association and/or communities of practice
  • Professional certification and continuous education
  • Professional training and academic learning.

Professionalisation of the humanitarian sector

It is clear that there is increasing demand for high quality, rigorous capacity building opportunities using the highly specialised knowledge of humanitarian workers, and within the sector there have been attempts to strengthen and harmonise professionalisation through investments in training and career pathway development1.

Standards and guidelines

There are a large number of standards developed specifically for humanitarian action. The bulk of these are organisational standards, whether they are technical, such as the Professional Standards for Protection Work, or related to more generally to quality, such as the Core Humanitarian Standard2,3. In most cases standards outline agreed best practice in their area of focus, and building your familiarity with them is a good place to start when aiming to build your own capacity or that of your organisation.

Competency frameworks

Although competency frameworks are primarily an internal tool used within organisations, outlining the necessary competencies needed for individuals in various job roles and at various levels, there have also been attempts to build sector-wide agreement for certain areas of competency.

For organisations these serve as a complementary tool to their internal frameworks for recruitment, staff development, and so on. They can be focused at core competencies that should be shared by most or all actors involved in humanitarian action. Examples include the Core Humanitarian Competencies Framework, originally developed by the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies, and the more recent Humanitarian Action Qualifications Framework, which structures core competencies using the eight-level European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning. Although useful at an organisational level, competency frameworks can also be an important guide for individuals thinking about their immediate professional development.

Professional certification in humanitarian action: The PHAP Credentialing Program

Focusing on the individual level and responding to long-standing concerns about capacity issues across the humanitarian sector, PHAP is launching a new programme in the area of individual standards and recognition of competency. The PHAP Credentialing Program combines the established and rigorous international standard for professional credentials with solutions that meet the specific needs of the humanitarian sector.

The certifications currently under development will provide a robust yet inexpensive means for humanitarian practitioners to demonstrate competencies and for employers to know whether staff members or job candidates possess specific knowledge or skills, while also reinforcing high standards of commitment and competence at the individual level. The three initial certifications to be launched in 2017 are:

  • Understanding the humanitarian ecosystem
  • International legal frameworks for humanitarian action
  • Applying humanitarian principles in practice4.

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This article is from the free online course:

Health in Humanitarian Crises

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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