Jennifer Prillaman | Palladium - Oct 18 2019
Elite Only Need Apply: 75% of Humanitarian Workers have a Master's Degree or Higher

Seventy-five percent of humanitarian workers have a master’s degree or higher. This shocking statistic comes from a new Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) report, which concludes that low socio-economic status can be a barrier to entering into the humanitarian sector.

“When we think of unconscious bias we often think about how this relates to race, but it has the potential to impact way beyond this,” says Dr. Rosanna Duncan, Palladium’s Chief Diversity Officer. Duncan contributed to the HAG report by facilitating sessions with its authors and contributors to develop its methodology and shape the survey conducted.

“The sector works with the world’s most disadvantaged communities – so it’s ironic that our workforce is dominated by those who, irrespective of gender or other characteristics, are likely to be from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds,” says Duncan.

Education is one privileged qualification keeping the humanitarian aid sector elite, which may actually be hurting the people this group is working to serve. Being realistic about the educational qualifications required for a role can help the sector recruit from a wider, more diverse pool.

Education and Elitism

The humanitarian aid sector has become more competitive, zeroing in on a group of people with specific educational backgrounds. From the report’s respondents, 69% have a master’s degree as their highest level of education; 21% have an undergraduate degree as their highest level.

One respondent from the UN says, “I think even when you have geographic diversity, if you probe into educational background many of those individuals have been to the ivy league or red brick institutions.”

“When reviewing CVs, built in bias and social conditioning mean that we may find it very difficult to treat candidates from exclusive elite institutions and less prestigious schools equally,” says Duncan. “Many talented people from lower socio-economic backgrounds won’t make it to these institutions, not because of a lack of talent but because of bias inherent in the selection criteria that creates a lack of opportunity.”

“Our requirement for educated people, who are western language speakers…means that the lens through which we see a humanitarian response is an ‘elite lens’,” claims another respondent from an international NGO. “We have to find ways to mitigate this bias to ensure that we are not elitist in our beneficiary selection and response.”

The HAG report’s survey also asked about the educational status of respondents’ parents as a proxy indicator for socio-economic status; 57% of parents had a university degree or higher.

“Lack of Opportunity”

Duncan emphasises that recruiters, managers, and decision-makers can’t just assume that their qualifications are an equitable differentiator. “We need to consider that those from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds may be less likely to achieve these qualifications, not due to lack of ability but through lack of opportunity and financial constraints.”

According to Duncan, what’s required is for the sector to better engage with candidates from a diverse range of educational pathways, “including those who have studied part-time, flexibly, and who have vocational qualifications.”
“If we want to deliver the best outcomes for the communities we work with… we have to think about diversity more broadly and bring a more diverse set of players to the table.”