Wanted: Humanitarian Leaders… with a Dose of Humility

Sudanese refugees in Iridimi Camp in Chad, 2004
Image credit
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The next generation of humanitarian aid workers faces a far more challenging world. The old days of waltzing into a disaster or health emergency high on idealism and light on skills and landing a job are over. And threats of protracted conflicts, climate change, and rampant disregard for human rights and the sanctity of health care are intensifying.

“Wearing an ICRC vest now longer protects you,” said Yasmin Haque, deputy director of the Office of Emergency Programmes for UNICEF, speaking at a symposium on the future of humanitarian leadership sponsored by the newly renamed Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health (formerly the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health yesterday.

Paul Spiegel, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health at the Bloomberg School, called upon Haque, Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID and Anne C. Richard, assistant secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration to share their best advice on humanitarian leadership in a changing landscape.

A humanitarian leader should be principled, pragmatic, politically savvy and trustworthy, and adaptable, Haque said—and those qualities are key not just for the head of a department but for everyone working in the field. And they have to bring those skills to their interactions with everyone from the “head of a state to the woman and child a under the tree.”

Haque also highlighted the importance of humility. “You have to be humble, open to being criticized.” That comes from working with people and seeing their stress, she emphasized, adding “…unless you work in such situations, you don’t get a feel for it.” A leader should be an enabler, not a controller—and create an environment where teams can deliver.

Konyndyk agreed, saying, “You’ll be going, most of the time, to a country you’re not from, where your understanding is substantially less than a random 10 year old on the street. You always need to keep that in mind in how you’re comporting yourself it’s super important and a critical quality of leadership in this field.” He also advised leaders to:

  • Know when to stop, ask for help, and take care of yourself and your team … this field attracts passionate people who don’t necessarily know how or when to stop. OFDA is now making a big investment in stress management.
  • Know when to say you don’t know: “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of confidence … and it’s a very important management capability.
  • Know what to read—and what you can afford to not read in a world of inundated email inboxes.


Willingness to compromise to get things done is another essential, Spiegel said—one that can prove challenging for the highly idealistic people the field tends to attract. He asked the panelists to explain the specific challenges for providing humanitarian leadership in government, and how to describe that to younger people without dampening their idealism.

Konyndyk said that you need to navigate and find solutions within the possible—you can’t just fax denunciations all day, and you need to remember that not everyone you deal with is guided by the same set of the humanitarian principles.

Working with children affected by conflict, for example, you might have to interact with rebel forces and non-state actors—as Haque experienced working in Sri Lanka, where she negotiated with the rebel forces on the release of children.

Richard noted that bipartisan support in the US for humanitarian efforts could collapse. Anti-refugee sentiment, Islamophobia, and racism are surfacing, betraying a lack of perspective and a misunderstanding of risk. Humanitarian leaders now face question: Should they stay [in government], and try to limit the damage, or walk away?

Leaders need to be comfortable with dissent, too, Konyndyk said. This might be easier, he noted, tongue-in-cheek, in the NGO sector where “by nature most people are contrarian, don’t care what their boss thinks.” It’s tougher in government, where the culture is very hierarchical—but, he said, “Actively cultivating and signalizing a culture of constructive dissent is an absolutely vital correction on any mistake that you’re going to make.”

A final piece of advice: Avoid the savior complex. “No foreigners are principally the saviors. The bulk of the work, the bulk of the risk is taken on by the national staff. They should also get the bulk of the credit. Anyone who goes in thinking they’ll be the savior… doesn’t belong there,” Haque said.



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