Examining the humanitarian workers of the 21st Century

13 December 2013


The Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) is to host a conference on December 17 looking at humanitarian workers and critical issues for researching the optimal type of 21st Century humanitarian worker.

This conference will centre on the premise that individual humanitarians play a significant role in shaping the practice of humanitarian action, and that a better understanding of the individual humanitarian will have a positive impact on the sector as a whole. Recent academic literature on humanitarian aid has focused mainly on macro-level analyses of political and operational challenges; a detailed discussion of the personal motives and lived experience of professionals or volunteers who do humanitarian work is largely absent from mainstream academic literature in humanitarian studies. Yet a more nuanced understanding of the individual experience of national and international humanitarian workers will likely enhance the growing research and policy making on humanitarian professionalism and will also contribute to agency efforts to value and invest in human resources, and improve personal effectiveness, staff care and retention.

With the human face of humanitarian aid going through significant changes in recent decades as a result of the growing professionalisation of the field; increasing reliance on the language of rights; increasing empowerment of local staff; the internationalisation of “southern” staff; and the emergence of non-traditional humanitarian actors, agencies may well benefit from deeper academic reflection on the ethical motivation, psychology and experience of individual humanitarian workers who manage today’s multi-billion dollar programming.

Entitled Humanitarian Workers: Personal Ethics, Psychology and Lifestyle and taking place as part of ELAC’s Humanitarian Ethics Project, the event will include participants representing the British Red Cross, Oxfam, World Vision, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as People in Aid and ALNAP. In addition to informing the Humanitarian Ethics Project, the conference is intended to help identify key areas and potential partners for future research by the Oxford Humanitarian Group.