Contested Professionalization in a Weak Transnational Field

Book title: Professional Networks in Transnational Governance

Publisert: 23. aug. 2017

I analyse the contested emergence of so-called needs assessments and the push towards ‘evidence-based action’ within humanitarian organisations. The introduction of evidence-based action since the late 1990s inaugurated a systematic change within humanitarian organisations: it implied that practical experience from humanitarian crises - since long a hallmark of authority among humanitarian professionals - was no longer sufficient alone to establish authority and dominate humanitarian organisations. The push to use ‘objective’ methods to assess humanitarian needs came primarily from donors, who demanded that humanitarian organisations better demonstrate efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability. While humanitarian professionals across different organisations can be said to share moral commitments and expertise, they were nonetheless not able to push back against the introduction of standardised needs assessments. The explanation for this is to be found in the fact that the humanitarian field lacks autonomy: Because humanitarian organisations rely extensively on outside actors (donors) for financial and political support, their internal organisation and outlook is heavily shaped by non-humanitarian actors. As a result, the ability of transnationally organised humanitarian professionals - operating in humanitarian crises - to shape humanitarian priorities and modes of work is undercut by their respective organisations´ relative dependence on outside actors. Present-day humanitarian organisations are thus marked by two different strands of professionalism: one with basis in practical experience from humanitarian crises, emphasising proximity to those in need and the role of bearing witness, and one with basis in more abstract models of knowledge of management, resource-mobilisation, and measuring needs through standardised methods.