What competencies does it take to be a good aid worker? – Coffee with Uma Narayanan

18 February 2018

Listening skills, flexibility, risk awareness, accountability, ability to work under pressure… How can the aid sector make sure that humanitarian workers have the competencies they need to provide quality assistance to people and communities affected by crisis?

We had a coffee with Uma Narayanan, who, together with our former colleague Gemma Prescott, helped the CHS Alliance revise the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework (CHCF) and produce a set of new tools to help practitioners introduce competency-based approaches. We asked her what competency she believes to be the most important as a humanitarian worker and what she learned while revising the framework.

Why did the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework need a review, and what themes emerged?

The framework was first published in 2011 and, since then, the humanitarian and development sectors have changed, new challenges and opportunities have arisen. The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) was developed, for instance. We needed to reflect on these developments and ensure that the framework is still fit for purpose. It turned out that humanitarian practitioners still find it useful. We found out that the framework is used by the organisations that  contributed to its development. There were encouraging cases of how the framework has been used in various contexts by members of the START Network, for instance. This suggests that the framework is an important tool to professionalise the sector. The review also revealed that it would be helpful to have more tools on how to use the framework.

What changes were made after the review? 

Minor changes were made to the framework in terms of its content. A few behaviour descriptors were added following the review process, and the format was made more user-friendly. In addition, we developed materials and tools to support the application of competency-based human resources (HR) management practices.

Do you think that the updated version of the CHCF works well alongside the CHS?

I believe that the CHCF complements the CHS neatly. Commitment 8 seeks to ensure that communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers. The framework and its related tools should be seen as a mechanism to apply the CHS and live up to Commitment 8 in particular.

How does the application of a competency framework improve the overall effectiveness and accountability of an organisation?

The framework provides a reference point and common language for both managers and individuals seeking to further enhance their skills and improve their behaviours. The aim is to ensure that we have competent and professional staff who can deliver a high-quality service to affected populations around the world. This is the very least we can do in the sector to demonstrate our accountability to affected people and communities.  I am really proud to have contributed to the revision of CHCF together with my colleague Gemma Prescott. It was encouraging to feel the support of many colleagues who have been part of this process.

You have held a few workshops to raise awareness about the CHCF. Did you get positive vibes from participants?

The framework was very well received, especially by NGOs that do not have the resources and the technical expertise to develop a tailor-made competency framework from scratch. The CHCF guide and toolkit have been produced in order to allow organisations to adapt and use the framework so that it suits their own context and specific needs. As in any change process, I believe small steps and changes are sufficient to kick-start a wider uptake of the framework. We have also learnt a lot during these workshops, for example, it came out that HR staff from national and local NGOs have fewer opportunities for capacity-building compared to their counterpards from international NGOs.

Where should organisations start if they are interested in adopting competency-based approaches?

It is important, of course, to get ‘buy-in’ from the leadership so that the introduction and application of competency-based HR management is supported and role-modelled. In the face of competing priorities reluctance the leadership may be reluctant to leap forward. Having said that, the beauty of the framework and its accompanying tools is that they can be introduced and applied gradually, bit by bit. For example, many organisations have chosen to just competency-based job descriptions and interview questionnaires, as these are areas that are fairly straight-forward and easy to introduce.

Personally, what did you enjoy about this project?

In the past two years the CHS Alliance team has helped take competency-based HR managed to the next level, especially for the benefit of smaller organisations. It has been an interesting journey and a great pleasure to work with many HR practitioners and staff from various organisations. Any tool will remain a tool if not actively promoted and tested. I will continue to promote CHCF.

I can’t refrain from asking you what you think is the most important comptency or behaviour a good aid worker should have…

I believe the most important thing is that aid workers are accountable to affected people and communities.

Download the tools from our dedicated CHCF page