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What can humanitarian learning providers learn from the 2022 SOHS Report?

The 2022 State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report was published by ALNAP last week, and paints a picture of a humanitarian sector faced with an increasing caseload, insufficient funds, and the need to adapt fast in order to be able to respond to the challenges of a fast-changing world, and practically address the commitments to localisation set out in the Grand Bargain.

As a staff member at the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, I read the report with a view to identifying the key lessons for those involved in providing learning and training for humanitarian workers. These are the key points I found:

1. An expanding audience for humanitarian learning and training

The report states that the humanitarian workforce is growing in response to deepening crises (‘an estimated 40% rise in humanitarian staff working in crisis contexts since 2013’), suggesting that the audience for humanitarian learning and training is also increasing in size.

However, the key point for humanitarian learning providers is the make-up of this audience. According to the report, ‘national staff make up over 90% of humanitarian workers in emergency settings’, and a 10% increase in humanitarian organisations over the past decade is driven largely by local and national NGOs. Whilst in recent years there have been some great steps in democratising access to humanitarian learning by making some of it freely available online, it’s important we continue to focus our offer on the majority of humanitarians who are based in countries where crises happen, ensuring that learning is contextualised and translated appropriately, and indeed that local learning providers are resourced and funded to lead the process.

Local humanitarian workers remain ‘extremely under-represented in the leadership of the international system, both in-country and at headquarters’. This suggests that one key focus of learning programmes should be to develop leadership pathways which target local talent, in order to support initiatives to address this issue. Project management, and resource mobilisation and management training may also support the goals of localisation, given that roles in these areas have been often Western-dominated to date.

The report also has a strong focus on partnership, highlighting that the sector needs to better complement the activities of the diaspora, private sector and religious organisations in order to achieve its aims. These are potentially underserved audiences for humanitarian learning and training, as are donors which may benefit from better understanding the downstream effects of different funding models, in order to improve their practices. With the donor landscape changing, there may be increased need for learning in this area.

2. Learning content to meet the fast-changing needs of the sector

A key theme of the report is the fast-changing nature of humanitarian crises – a call to action for those involved in humanitarian learning provision. The report highlights increased global threats during the reporting period including Covid-19, the impact of climate change on displacement, food insecurity and malnutrition, and increasingly protracted conflicts. Conflicts are more likely to be fuelled by the spread of misinformation on social media, and humanitarian aid workers are now more likely to come under attack. Combinations of the above factors add to the complexity of humanitarian situations across the board. These fast-changing threats suggest that humanitarians and their organisations need to be able to regularly update their skills and knowledge, and that we will need to develop innovative ways for humanitarians to carve out learning time despite busy and unpredictable schedules.

The report also highlights the need for continued focus on areas such as accountability to affected populations, reaching the most marginalised, and prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, where little progress has been made in recent years, and the need for the sector to take practical steps towards delivering aid in ways that promote diversity, equality and inclusion.

Perhaps where the humanitarian learning providers can really increase their activity is in sharing what works and lessons learned to support the sector to adapt to new realities, redress power imbalances and implement new funding models. The report highlights the effective global implementation of Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA) as a paradigm shift in the way that aid is delivered. Similarly, where models of, for example, preparedness funding or locally-led response have been effectively implemented, humanitarian learning providers have a role to play in incorporating this into up-to-date training for the sector’s workforce, in order to help facilitate change.

3. Access to learning in the digital age

The pandemic precipitated a major change in the way that humanitarian learning and training is delivered, with almost everything moving at least temporarily online. To some extent this has opened up access to humanitarian learning and reduced its carbon footprint, however the SOHS report also reminds us that we need to remain aware of the digital divide. For humanitarian learning providers this means ensuring that workers with low digital literacy and internet bandwidth can also be reached. Strengthening local learning providers and their revenue streams will be key to ensuring that humanitarian learning is accessible and relevant.

4. Supporting sector transformation

Ultimately, the SOHS report depicts a sector struggling to meet the increasing needs of disaster-affected populations worldwide, and to put in place practical measures to address power imbalances both within the sector, and between those who deliver aid and the people they serve. As the sector seeks to adapt itself to the increasing complexity of disasters and proportionately shrinking resources, humanitarian learning providers will need to work harder than ever to ensure their offer remains current, targets people living and working in areas affected by crisis, and facilitates sector transformation by sharing the lessons learned from experience, with the expanding range of actors involved.

Esther Grieder is a staff member at the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and leads on the HPass initiative.