Challenges of Disaster Management Education

Georgetown University & Fritz Institute

March 13 & 14, 2003






On 13-14 March 2003, Fritz Institute and the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) of Georgetown University hosted a meeting on the “Challenges of Disaster Management Education” in Washington DC. Participants included academics, practitioners, and representatives from international organizations, NGOs and foundations. The meeting opened with welcoming comments by Robert Gallucci, Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and Lynn Fritz, Director General of Fritz Institute.


The Fritz-Georgetown meeting offered a unique opportunity for academics and operational agency staff to examine the “supply and demand” issues in humanitarian education and training. Participants in both operational and academic communities were selected because of their established commitment to expanding cooperation among their respective organizations. Acknowledging that systematic training for humanitarian agency staff is not a luxury but a necessity, the practitioners sought to identify the most productive training content, forms and venues, and the role of training in career development and advancement. Likewise, recognizing the importance of preparing the next generation of humanitarian professionals, the university representatives assessed the means by which courses, seminars, programs and university resources overall could be better suited to preparing students for careers within and related to public service and humanitarian work. All saw the advantages of building relationships that would foster knowledge sharing and joint training activities.


At the outset, participants identified major problems and gaps facing organizations involved in disaster management and complex emergency response, which should be addressed in training. They cited problems ranging from knowledge sharing mechanisms to fundraising from coordination and partnering to ethics. These themes were repeated throughout the proceedings. Training itself constitutes a serious challenge because of wide staff dispersal, multiple languages spoken and rapid turnover. These difficulties are exacerbated by a lack of resources, due especially to donor pressures to reduce indirect costs. Most donors have yet to be persuaded that systematic training and capacity building programs are essential elements for effective disaster and emergency responses and there is an evident need to bring more donors into discussions like the Georgetown-Fritz meeting. Additionally, there is paucity both of appropriate materials and of faculty who have the necessary balance of academic knowledge and practical experience.


The remaining discussion covered four overlapping themes: 1) Defining the humanitarian “profession,” and the role of training and education within that definition or, as the discussion demonstrated: those definitions; 2) The challenges both to agencies and universities in designing and implementing relevant training and education; 3) Opportunities for and limitations on collaboration related to different organizational cultures; 4) The importance (and inherent difficulties) of measuring effectiveness and evaluating performance.


Professionalism and Humanitarian Response


After these introductory discussions, the meeting turned to the issue of professionalism. Some suggest that humanitarianism is evolving into a profession. The growth of graduate and other certificate programs in humanitarian emergencies exemplifies the trend toward increased professionalism in the field. Whereas most current practitioners describe having turned to humanitarian work almost accidentally and without specific preparation, many of the new people in the field embark on their careers with graduate degrees in humanitarian or related professional fields.


The participants discussed the pros and cons of this trend, identifying what skills and what kinds of knowledge need to be emphasized to best prepare humanitarian leadership for the kinds of emergencies emerging in the 21st century. A paper, “What does it mean to be a Professional Humanitarian?” and presentations by Peter Walker from Tufts University on professionalism and Dan Curran from Harvard University on humanitarianism and entrepreneurship guided this opening discussion.


Assuming there is a disaster management/humanitarian field, is it characterized as other professional fields are, by standards, educational degrees and membership requirements? The answer is, partially yes. This field, and the organizations within it, identify with specific value sets, skills and systems for organizing knowledge and procedures. The participants considered the increasing professionalization of the industry to be generally positive in view of the benefits gained from greater knowledge, higher standards, and technical competence.


Nevertheless, many participants also acknowledged disadvantages to the extent that establishing a professional corps for humanitarian work might mean excluding competent and innovative people who lack advanced formal education and professional degrees. Finding people with the intrinsic qualities such as motivation, critical thinking, communication skills, team building, problem solving, innovation etc. should remain a priority for recruitment efforts. Training can fill the gaps.


The discussion turned to barriers to greater professionalism of the field, as well as better management of operations. First, the field is poorly financed. It depends on few donors who make only short-term commitments. Second, decision-making throughout the system tends also to be short-term, reactive and opaque. Third, because of the unpredicatability of the location and size of disasters and emergencies, it is a challenge to recruit and train staff and expensive to retain them between crises. Thus, the industry is characterized by high turnover with little or no job security. Fourth, the public, private and international entities in the humanitarian field operate with overlapping roles and a lack of specific focus. The result is poorly managed competition and great difficulty achieving rationally coordinated actions.


While nearly everyone agrees that better management and marketing would increase the efficiency of humanitarian programs overall, there is still resistance to adopting lessons and practices gleaned from successful business operations. The resistance reflects a real gap in understanding between private and public sectors. Few schools of business offer courses targeted at the non-profit sector and fewer still attract students interested in the humanitarian field. While there may be a desire in the private sector to engage, partnerships with humanitarian organizations seem to be few and confined to the donation of cash or goods when disasters occur. There does not seem to have been a discussion of how the humanitarian and corporate sectors can collaborate with respect to expertise, talent or technology. In a nutshell, it seems that humanitarian organizations must more clearly articulate their needs and develop the ability to engage the private sector if they want access to their resources.


Training: Its Potential and Place in Humanitarian Careers


The next session identified the specific kinds of training and other forms of learning and competence building that should be incorporated into the activities of (different kinds of) humanitarian agencies, and at what stages of the staff development/ career path. Barbara Murphy-Warrington from CARE and Barbara Howald from OFDA introduced the discussion.


As explained by the organizational representatives around the table, training is essential to establish and maintain certain levels of skills and knowledge among their employees. Additionally, training for humanitarian staff, like training for today’s new business managers can, and indeed must, emphasize imaginative thinking and motivation, as well as concrete knowledge and technical skills. Providing training also helps to retain employees as they see prospects for advancing their career paths. For employees, training is beneficial not only because it increases skill levels but it also increases their commitment to the field.


That said, there is still considerable latitude in defining what core competencies need to be developed and in what balance. The discussion emphasized the importance of training in a wide variety of subject areas because employees need more than sectoral skills; they also need knowledge and skills that they can apply in a range of situations. Frequently staff members have mastered technical skills or country knowledge related to a specific position only to find that they are dealing with rapidly changing situations that modify their duties, and therefore require a wider breadth of knowledge. Participants listed a range of fields they felt to be relevant and amenable to training, including social, political and economic analyses, protection norms and practice, participatory methodologies, rights-based and gender sensitive approaches, psycho-social considerations, capacity-building and conflict management.


At the present time, humanitarian staff members are offered opportunities for training in a variety of forms: They receive on-the-job training for their specific tasks. Those in technical areas generally are given skills updates. Workshops are frequently offered both for agency personnel and, especially in the field, for local partners. And, increasingly, individual university faculty and inter-disciplinary university programs are assuming responsibilities for training humanitarian agency staff. All of these alternatives can be valuable depending on the purpose and circumstances. Each entity needs to take stock of its training needs and determine the format, venue, frequency and content of training options that most effectively meet these needs. The meeting participants explored the relationship between learning needs and the educational or training forms suited to meeting the needs. Both content and venue of training will vary depending on the purpose to be served, that is whether training is intended to impart specific skills, to enhance general knowledge or to inculcate the values of an organization in its employees.

Exploring the Effectiveness of Academic Programs


This session focused on university-based degree programs that prepare students for careers in humanitarian institutions. It explored the sustainability of such programs, as well as the content of the curriculum, educational methods and materials, and similar issues. The discussion was opened by Carolyn Makinson from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jennifer Leaning from Harvard University.


            Both universities and internal training structures have important contributions to make. Better overall results can be produced by closer collaboration between the two. Schools of public health, nutrition and terminal masters programs have been able to establish especially successful partnerships with operational organizations because of the technical content of these areas and the expectation of outreach among these departments. There are greater obstacles to partnerships in the social sciences where academic advancement is more likely to depend on theoretical formulations than practical applications, and where publications in scholarly journals are valued over communication outlets that are more accessible.


Nevertheless, reciprocally beneficial partnerships have taken place in both social and applied sciences. Universities have provided research opportunities and contextual knowledge that are of potentially great value for operational agencies. There is solid groundwork on which to build. Increasingly university settings may serve operational agency staff who are prepared to reflect, write and publish on the insights they have gained from their experiences. Academics, for their part, already derive considerable advantage when operational agencies facilitate their access to the field. In both applied and social sciences, essential field data may be difficult or impossible (or dangerous) to gather without an affiliation that is accepted and locally trusted. It was suggested that organization employees and university faculty members should have the opportunities to spend time in each other’s programs. While academics might be able to conduct field research under the umbrella of a nongovernmental or international agency, the agency staff could be given the opportunity to spend learning “sabbaticals” at universities.


Fostering Greater Collaboration between Humanitarian Organizations and Academic Institutions


Building on the discussion of training and education needs and capacities, the discussion turned to ways to promote greater collaboration between operational agencies and academic and training institutions. This session discussed successful models of collaboration, different organizational forms that academic collaboration may take, and ways to increase the synergies between universities and humanitarian agencies. Angela Raven-Roberts from Tufts University opened this discussion.


           Fritz Institute is breaking new ground in recognizing the need for greater private sector involvement and in facilitating mutual learning. Private sector involvement in disaster management has already proven beneficial. The benefits are mutual, because in both cases, management and field staff face similar problems of security, culture and contextual understanding. The case studies that are meant to assist international businesses in problematic and dangerous countries can be used to advantage by humanitarian agencies as well. The agencies, in turn increasingly have been preparing and disseminating their own case studies which may find their way into corporate offices.


           These observations and the opportunities they imply lead to questions of resources. Due to the already inadequate and declining funding for humanitarian agencies, they are facing staff shortages, are unable to fill gaps in service and, as previously mentioned, are under pressure to reduce what donors deem to be “indirect costs,” including training. Because the traditional governmental and international organizational donors will not, or can no longer finance such indirect costs, and because the private sector has long been contributing resources to university programs, attention now turns to possibilities of private sector contributions to long term research, case studies, visiting practitioners and other forms of education to enhance the fields of disaster management, emergency response, and conflict related development challenges.


There are many challenges to raising the level of training opportunities. Moreover, if training falls short of needs for larger agencies in developed countries, it is infinitely more deficient in those countries where humanitarian emergencies are likely to occur. Despite the frequent references to “capacity building” projects and commitments to strengthen local government and NGOs, the amount invested in such activities is minimal and sometimes amounts to little more than lip service. The largest problem, however, seemed to be knowledge sharing and management. Since it is impossible to offer training to everyone in the organization, especially to people in the field, practitioners are seeking ways to share knowledge better. This is of concern in the humanitarian field because of the high turnover and wide geographic spread of employees. Nevertheless, it is essential to expand training opportunities to local employees. Although many agencies keep information on the internet for employees, computer access can be a problem and most of the materials are solely in English.


Many participants pointed to the lack of curriculum related to humanitarian issues and of faculty who want to teach and pursue research topics in this area. Where humanitarian studies programs exist: Georgetown, Tufts, Harvard, MIT, Colombia, Johns Hopkins, Tulane, they are in multidisciplinary programs within a foreign policy or social science school, or schools of nutrition and public health. Traditional disciplines like anthropology, international law and political science have made important intellectual contributions, and less traditional but up-and-coming areas like security studies and conflict resolution often attract students whose interests merge with those of humanitarian studies. Nevertheless, for the kind of collaboration discussed in the meeting, academic resources are still not readily available, nor are there recognized publishing outlets. Humanitarian studies is notably less well established than the closely related and overlapping field of refugee studies, which has attained considerable academic attention—at least in schools of law—and has a number of dedicated journals. Participants at the meeting made suggestions for increasing contact and cooperation among interested academics, for example, by establishing a dedicated academic association and/or a journal, and they urged the hiring of more adjunct faculty. Other proposed actions were online courses and e-learning that reach students and staff, including those in developing country partner institutions.


Evaluating Effectiveness: Indicators, Tracking, Program Assessments, and Staff Stability


The next session discussed measures that may be taken in both academic and operational settings to evaluate the effectiveness of humanitarian programs. The discussion was opened by Allan Jury from World Food Programme, Jonathan Potter from People in Aid and Bobby Lambert from RedR.


The fundamental goals of all people who are devoted to disaster management and emergency response is to be as effective as possible, to empower rather than to create dependency, and to act in ways that are sensitive to culture, gender and individual rights. There are two fundamental difficulties in fulfilling these goals: first, almost every achievement involves some kind of trade-off. One sector gains, another loses; one reconstruction objective is completed, causing another to be postponed. Second, the urgency and complexity of the situations in which humanitarian interventions are required make it difficult to measure successes and failures with traditional assessment tools like log frames, indicators, etc. Accountability is another problem. Humanitarian actions should be made accountable, of course, but to whom? Stakeholders include governments, donors, the institution undertaking the work, and various categories of victims, whose interests do not necessarily coincide. There are further obstacles inherent in the field of humanitarian action related to the fast-paced nature of the work. Time is rarely set aside for quality monitoring and evaluation.


In practice, there is very little follow up to determine the impacts of disaster relief and emergency response. On this point, meeting participants argued forcefully for more monitoring and evaluation, as well as better methodologies for doing the monitoring and evaluation. Without these, organizations neither can be sure what has been achieved, nor can they improve. The notion that action should be based on “lessons learned” has become a well-worn phrase. However, several of the meeting participants noted that lessons do not appear to be learned, and the same mistakes are frequently repeated. The main obstacle to improving monitoring and evaluation are funding and, consequently, training. Thus the donors’ insistence on funding action programs while keeping overhead costs low proves costly because systematic learning is impeded. Participants discussed means to convince, or better said, “sell” donors on the benefits of monitoring and evaluation.


The funding gap promises to grow more severe due to the withdrawal of support from the Mellon Foundation. Nearly every participant in the Georgetown-Fritz meeting had benefited from Mellon support and expressed concern about preserving important projects in the coming year. Funding mechanisms under Mellon also fostered collaboration and coordination among academic centers. In the future, these centers will have to develop permanent mechanisms for continued cooperation.


On a more positive note, over the past years the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) has dedicated itself to improving the “quality and accountability of humanitarian action.” ALNAP’s activities include programs to improve monitoring and evaluation and to improve measurements, thereby increasing the likelihood lessons will, in fact, be learned. Again, there is solid groundwork on which more can be built.


Conclusions and Next Steps


The workshop ended with discussion of next steps to promote improved training, education and collaboration between humanitarian organizations and academic institutions. For the agencies and donors, training must be recognized as a core activity, as essential to the operations of an agency as any other activity. Donors need to understand that training is the underpinning to successful completion of all other activities. However, simply increasing training opportunities is not a solution in and of itself. Equally important is to correctly diagnose what kind of training is needed based on the activities of the organization and the profile and assigned tasks of the individual. Moreover, although it may be more difficult to measure, trainings should cover not only technical skills, but also teach other skills that enhance innovation and problem-solving.


Training has been and will continue to be improved by greater collaboration between universities and agencies. The participants discussed how the increasing exchanges of staff between both universities and agencies through agency staff sabbaticals and field opportunities for university faculty are improving performance and products in many cases. Such exchanges could further assist training within both contexts by giving agencies and universities respectively a greater understanding of what the other has to offer. For example, case studies from the field could be used in university classrooms to teach practical problem-solving skills.



Suggestions for Agencies:

• Hire staff with intrinsic qualities needed for successful humanitarian work such as motivation, critical thinking and communication skills and use training to teach other needed skills

• Train staff in widely-applicable skills beyond technical ones

o      Include universities, university faculty, and academic resources for social, political and economic analyses related to ongoing programs

o      Include universities, university faculty, and academic resources in training related to rights based and gender sensitive approaches; protection norms and practice; participatory methodologies and; psycho-social considerations

• Ensure that training increases staff capacity-building.

o      Involve staff in determining training and education needs

o      Use online courses and other e-learning methods to increase training opportunities for field and local staff

o      Provide training in languages besides English

o      Ensure that training is provided even in emergency situations

• Encourage private sector involvement

o      Use private sector case studies for training in problem-solving.

o      Show how increased funding for humanitarian activities helps private sector as well

• Incorporate “lessons learned” in future programming

o      Set aside resources and time for quality monitoring and evaluation

o      Encourage honest appraisal of difficulties and failures

o      Use lessons gained from monitoring and evaluation to design future training programs

o      Convince donors to fund quality monitoring and evaluation


Suggestions for Universities

• Work with agencies to design educational and training programs that meet the needs of the agencies

• Develop multi-disciplinary curricula to prepare students for careers in humanitarian work

• Seek faculty within the various disciplines who want to teach and research humanitarian issues

• Increase awareness in the university community of the benefits of providing programs focusing on humanitarian fields, especially in the social sciences

• Make available adjunct faculty and short-term sabbatical research opportunities for operational agency staff

• Encourage faculty who are embarking on field research to contact and gain the assistance of humanitarian and development agency staff operating programs in the research areas

• Facilitate cooperation and communication among university programs devoted to aspects of humanitarian studies and research

• Create partnerships with developing country institutions

o      Devote resources to capacity building as appropriate

o      Encourage faculty and student exchanges

• Consider establishing an academic association of humanitarian studies and/or a dedicated journal


Suggestions for Donors:

• Recognize training as a core activity and fund it accordingly

• Recognize monitoring and evaluation as essential to improving programming and fund it accordingly

• Develop donor staff expertise related to training and to evaluation needs of humanitarian agencies

• Make long-term funding commitments to allow agencies and universities to develop comprehensive training and education programs

• Make long-term funding available for effective north-south partnership.

• Fund proactive training and education programs for agencies and universities

• Promote and fund collaborative programs between and among agencies and universities

o      Support adjunct faculty from agencies

o      Support faculty sabbaticals to the field

o      Support training and education programs developed from agency-university collaboration

o      Support partnerships and exchanges among universities, nationally and internationally


Private Sector Organizations

• Encourage collaboration with and contributions to humanitarian training

• Provide professionals to conduct training or provide expertise to help create training modules

• Encourage the use of private-sector case studies by humanitarian agencies with funding and increased dissemination

• Learn about the humanitarian issues and institutions working in the places where business is being conducted