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Professionalizing Voluntarism

Humanitarian action also has some natural confusion over entry requirements. Humanitarian ethics has long been torn between the passion of voluntarism and the importance of professional qualifications. Driven by the universal moral value of humanity, humanitarianism hopes for a world in which everyone is motivated by humanitarian impulses to care for and protect each other. Entry into humanitarian aid work is primarily vocational, impulsive and urgent. It is a voluntary response to a moral call that we feel and share, as immediate neighbours and global neighbours. In this sense, humanitarian help is the great domain of the amateur: literally, the lover of something, which in this case is our fellow human beings.

We all can and must respond to become involved in humanitarian action. Because of this, many new humanitarian initiatives and organizations blossom in each new emergency. Humanitarian ecology is a lively and fecund ecosystem that springs to life whenever crisis hits.

G. K. Chesterton once said, "If something is worth doing then it is worth doing badly.” In other words, where the pursuit of the good is concerned we should all try our hand at it and doing something is always better than doing nothing. The humanitarian sector acknowledges this truth. It cannot believe otherwise, because every humanitarian agency is started by a few determined people trying to do something for others, often as first-timers and amateurs. However, we would not want anyone having a go at brain surgery. So it is with many sophisticated fields of humanitarian action like health care, nutrition, shelter, family tracing and many more. Because of this, the sector naturally struggles ethically to find a responsible balance between voluntarism and professionalism. Agencies like MSF have done so very effectively by routinely mixing volunteer first-timers into experienced teams. The sector has worked hard to elaborate technical standards (like Sphere) and requires high-level professional qualifications in many of its staff. Agency umbrella groups are also now considering a system of accreditation and certification for agencies and humanitarian personnel so that they have proof of sufficient expertise and capability. The move to assure professional expertise must be right, but may come at the expense of amateur passion and entrepreneurial flair.

The tension between voluntarism and professionalism not only turns on expertise but on institutional culture. Like other human institutions evolving along the organizational life cycle from front room to board?room, expanding humanitarian agencies are increasingly characterized by managerialism, bureaucracy and institutionalization. These organizational pressures may suffocate and diminish the powerful voluntary spirit of raw humanitarian energy. In humanitarian work, which requires speed, courage, judgement and leadership, big institutions can become slow, risk-averse, procedural, indecisive, and be ruled by managers not leaders. The Weberian struggle between charisma and bureaucracy is alive and well in humanitarian organizational culture today, and the dominance of bureaucracy is felt by many to have a negative effect on the type, tempo, daring and success of operations.16

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