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Top 15 Traits Of An Effective Humanitarian

Thursday, Apr 13, 2017
by Humanitarian Institute


Humanitarians come from different backgrounds and work in a wide variety of sectors - health, education, logistics, agriculture and so on. Yet, research suggests that effective Aid Workers possess similar characteristics.

While many people dream of being international aid and development worker, it's a truth that not everyone is right for the job.

Working in humanitarian aid is incredibly demanding, and it takes a certain type of person to do it well.


So it's important that we understand the critical traits of those working on the world’s greatest challenges. What follows is a list of the top 15 qualities a humanitarian aid and development worker should have:

1. Goal-Oriented 

Effective, modern humanitarians are skillful in laying out short and long-term goals, setting specific benchmarks, implementing activities to meet those goals, and following through to achieve them.

2. Great Communication Skills

Aid professionals provide and solicit critical information, engage in two-way communication, and interact with stakeholders in transparently and honestly in a variety of contexts. Simply put a large part of a humanitarians job is communicating - speaking and listening. You must listen to communities tell their stories, explain what they've experienced, and contribute to solutions. Humanitarian's must also be able to talk to people in order to calm emotions, diffuse situations, and determine the way forward.

Effective communication skills are one of the hallmarks of a good humanitarian.

3. Coordinated

You must have the ability to create team cohesion, coordination and integration. Your role as a 21st century humanitarian is to build the capacity of those around you - transferring capacity to enable the country, community and  individuals you’re working with to determine their own path forward.

4. Decisive

An effective Aid Worker should be able to make the right decisions under pressure. Any inappropriate hesitation or reluctance to act can undermine the results you’re there to achieve.


5. Results Driven

Effective humanitarians achieve results. Good intentions alone don’t get it done. You want your projects to generate sustainable impact - this means implementing contextualised initiatives. Bottom line; you are driven by positive results.

6. Able to Deal With Stress

Long work hours. Food, living, transport and work conditions that may be less than optimal. An effective humanitarian must possess the capacity to remain calm, stable and focused even during the most chaotic periods. What are your coping mechanisms?

7. Great Facilitator

Your job as a humanitarian is to leverage input from others - creating a situation in which a community makes decisions in a collaborative manner. This is not as easy as it sounds - differing viewpoints and motivations must be handled with openness and care.

8. Open-Minded

Humanitarians in the 21st century must be able to think outside the box when considering solutions to complex issues. You must also be able to interpret and understand different ways of looking at situations - you facilitate solutions not determine them.


9. Commercial Awareness

Humanitarian initiatives need money to work. You need to have the confidence and capacity to work with budgets and donors. You may be responsible for managing hundreds of millions of dollars!

10. Responsible Professionalism

An effective Aid Worker takes ownership of and responsibility for the work they are undertaking. A true humanitarian seeks out professional development opportunities and never stops learning. If you, and your organisation, want to tackle the greatest challenges facing humanity you’re going to need dedicated professionals not amateurs.

11. Can Prioritise

Overwhelming challenges and limited resources - what do you do? Competent development professionals must have the ability to recognise what issues need to be tackled first and which variables are critical to resolving other issues.

Aid doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

12. Critical Thinking

You must have the capacity to define, analyse and understand the complexities of each intervention - the intended and unintended! Development is never as simple as point A to point B.

13. Adaptive

Do you have the capacity to adapt and respond to unique and changing situations? There are very few occupations that require a person to work in the middle of complex emergencies and developing scenarios - a humanitarian can not hesitate or panic in such situations. If the thought of sleeping in tents, eating less than optimally, or having limited access to sanitation makes you quiver, being an Aid Worker might not be right for you. Either way, you must source the training you need in order to handle yourself in complex situations. You need to be able to stand and face what others would flee from.

14. Prepared

Effective humanitarians must be knowledgeable of the context, the sector and the profession. Social change is complex and nuanced. You must be skilled - good intentions are not enough.


15. Make No Excuses

Do you stick to your commitments? Never flake? When you contribute to something, do you do your best to make it happen? Are you a problem solver? Great humanitarians persist until they find a way.

How do you measure up?

The beauty of these traits is that they can be learnt and developed. The important message is that humanitarianism is uniquely complex and requires a balance of characteristics in the people who make it their profession.

Outside of Angelina Jolie movies, and Sean Penn’s outbursts, we tend not to hear a lot about the rigours of performing humanitarian work. But there are thousands of men and women committed to changing the world who are performing their humanitarian jobs with integrity and honesty. If you possess the qualities above and are thinking of becoming a humanitarian, you're making a very cool choice!


Our world's greatest challenges require prepared and talented people... like you!

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