Mapping the Dissemination of Innovation and Practice through Humanitarian Professional Networks



Anaïde Nahikian, Program Associate, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Harvard University

 Vera Sistenich, Research Associate, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Harvard University

 Francois Audet, Directeur, Professor, School of Management ESG and Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid, (OCCAH), Université du Québec à Montréal

 Claude Bruderlein, Senior Researcher, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Harvard University



Humanitarian assistance and protection has grown into an international industry engaging between 210,000 – 595,000 workers . There are currently over 250 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) involved in humanitarian work, running a multi-billion dollar combined annual budget. Despite this rapid growth of the sector, there is, paradoxically, no internationally-agreed framework to delineate some of the most fundamental aspects of this sector; for example, to define a humanitarian professional, to establish clear and comprehensive standards to guide operations, or to determine the competencies and skills required to practice. Furthermore, there are no designated or recognized pathways by which to disseminate knowledge, innovations, and best practices among professionals that transcend specific regions, agencies, networks, or sectors of the humanitarian landscape.

Despite this lack of a cogent structure and pathway for professional development, it has become apparent that the essential competencies and skills needed to perform successfully in the humanitarian sector are most commonly acquired on the job, during the course of daily practice, supervision, and informal mentorship by more seasoned professionals, rather than through the means of academic or formal training curricula. As a result, humanitarian workers are therefore dependent on their immediate working environment to receive guidance on professional standards, best practices, and innovations in the humanitarian sector, and primarily from the people they work with closely.

The interdependence of co-workers for learning about best practices, standards, and innovations implies that professional networks within and across humanitarian organizations play a crucial role in the formation and dissemination of these concepts, as well as in the articulation of the norms and principles that define the sector. Evidence would also indicate that the most effective method to promote professional values across networks should focus on modulating the experience of the everyday working environment, rather than on didactic curricula which may not resonate in different regions, professional cultures, or networks.

In 2012, through academic collaboration, the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University and the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid (OCCAH) launched a research project to examine how professional networks may be used most effectively to promote the sharing of information, innovation, best practices, and professional knowledge in the humanitarian sector, through analysis of both its Anglophone and Francophone professional communities and networks. HPCR and OCCAH are aware that although much common ground is shared between the Anglophone and Francophone humanitarian communities, there is also a divergence of culture and philosophy that can manifest as tangible differences in humanitarian practice and thus there is a need to engage both networks specifically. In view of the significant scale and global distribution of the humanitarian workforce, and through a multi-step process, HPCR and OCCAH have focused their efforts toward researching, mapping, and analyzing existing professional networks and their normative qualities within the humanitarian sector through the Humanitarian Innovations and Professional Networks (HIPN) project .

Survey of humanitarian professionals and mapping of global networks

The first phase of this ongoing HIPN research project, which was completed in September 2012, involved the identification and mapping of networks in the humanitarian sector. The purpose of this initial stage was to survey not only the characteristics of these professional networks, but also to explore their connections – functionally, geographically and virtually – and to identify a group of prominent and influential humanitarian professionals within these networks, as named by members of the humanitarian community itself.

HPCR and OCCAH began the survey process by creating an extensive list of contacts of professionals in humanitarian action and protection. Through a staggered communication strategy, HPCR and OCCAH distributed over 25,000 surveys electronically to humanitarian professionals, including individuals already connected to the programs’ activities; members of dedicated professional groups in humanitarian affairs on the web-based platform LinkedIn; and from the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), an international professional association comprised of and governed by professionals engaged in humanitarian action. This first survey yielded 930 eligible participants to be included in further phases of the HIPN project. An additional 800 surveys were distributed in French to contacts in the professional Francophone humanitarian community.

Through the questions included in the anonymous survey, we sought to gather information regarding demographic data (specific sectors of humanitarian activity, type of agency, level of education, and years of professional experience); common modes of communication and networking practices within the work environment (methods of communication, assessment of own level of connectedness within the professional community, and sources of guidance); and primary location of work and professional travel destinations.

In total, 812 surveys were completed by eligible respondents, and 126 cities were identified as primary locations in which their humanitarian activities were based. Notably, while the total number of cities counted in the eligible surveys as destinations to which respondents regularly travel for work was 1,344, just 13 of these cities represent nearly half of all of the reported travel destinations (see Figure 1). The maps below illustrate the top three cities identified most frequently as destinations traveled to by humanitarian professionals for work purposes (represented by a star) – namely Geneva, Nairobi and Brussels. The maps also indicate the cities where humanitarian professionals are primarily based for work (represented by the circles) and from where they most frequently travel to the top destination cities.

As displayed below, and with the exception of Nairobi as the second city, the results have shown that the main hub of the humanitarian system is currently located in Europe. With three cities, Geneva, Brussels and London in the top four spots, Europe represents the primarily crossroads for the exchange of information and norms in the humanitarian sector today.

The HIPN study data has also indicated that the majority of named cities for humanitarian activity are primarily Anglophone – where the primary working language is English and we assume here also for humanitarian professionals – despite the fact that the number one city (Geneva) is Francophone. In fact, with the exception of Geneva, Brussels (2nd position) and Paris (11th position), far fewer Francophone cities were mentioned, compared to the range of Anglophone destinations. On the one hand, this may indicate that humanitarian professionals are currently working in or traveling to Anglophone cities with greater frequency; on the other hand, this outcome may represent a bias in our survey, as our Anglophone humanitarian network is currently better developed than our Francophone one. This, however, may be corrected as we expand our survey towards not only additional Francophone participants, but also other linguistic networks such as the Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. We anticipate that our efforts to promote our study in Francophone regions, such as West Africa, will reveal a more extensive Francophone network than our results have indicated so far, but it is unlikely to sway the conclusion that Geneva is the city, and Europe the region, that is currently at the center of professional humanitarian exchanges.

The cities most commonly traveled to by humanitarians in thesurveyed population

Figure 1: Top 13 cities identified by surveyed professional humanitarian respondents to be the destinations most commonly traveled to for work purposes.

13 destinations fréquentes des humanitaires

 Figure 2: Geneva: Destination City #1 and the cities from where humanitarian professionals travel there for work purposes

Figure 3: Nairobi: Destination City #2 and the cities from where humanitarian professionals travel there for work purposes

Destinations humanitaires

Figure 4: Brussels: Destination City #3 and the cities from where humanitarian professionals travel there for work purposes

Further Research

In a further phase of the HIPN project, HPCR and OCCAH have begun to identify humanitarian practitioners who are considered, in the eyes of their peers, to be leaders in the humanitarian sector. These professionals are being identified through an electronic survey in which eligible participants are asked to name up to five individuals who they consider to exhibit qualities of innovation, leadership, and influence in the creation or dissemination of norms in the humanitarian sector. The survey also includes other qualifying questions, such as whether the named individuals are known to the surveyed professional on a personal, institutional, or reputational basis, and what kinds of characteristics represent professional leadership in humanitarian action.

These peer-identified humanitarian leaders will be extensively interviewed by our team according to rigorous qualitative research methodology. The goal will be to identify through them – via structured conversational probing and critical analysis of their professional experiences and perspectives on humanitarian themes, concepts, vocabulary, and best practices – the key normative dimensions of current humanitarian practice which they are seen to represent and uphold by their professional peers. These elements will be compiled, analyzed, and, ultimately, shared and integrated into existing professional development research, advanced leadership and management modules, case studies, and academic curricula. Furthermore, these interviews will represent an initial repository of qualitative narratives, practices, and values in the areas of humanitarian action not currently guided or governed by established evidence or the law. They will serve to inform the discovery of the role of professional networks in the dissemination of the normative aspects of humanitarian assistance and protection as the project evolves.

The HIPN research project will contribute to establishing an understanding of how values, knowledge, and norms are disseminated through global humanitarian networks, and to assessing the proficiency of professionals in humanitarian assistance and protection. Conclusions will be shared and studied with humanitarian agencies, NGOs, and training centers, as a means to guide the development of further professionalizing efforts. Through this research, HPCR and OCCAH aim to illustrate the influence and importance of professional humanitarian networks in the transmission of innovations, norms, and best practices, and to harness their utility for further professional development strategies in this dynamic and growing global sector.


Anaïde Nahikian, Program Associate, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Harvard University, Vera Sistenich, Research Associate, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Harvard University, Francois Audet, Directeur, Professor, School of Management ESG and Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid, (OCCAH), Université du Québec à Montréal, Claude Bruderlein, Senior Researcher, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Harvard University

ALNAP 2009. The state of the humanitarian system: assessing performance and progress. A pilot study.
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