How does professionalization impact international human rights organizations?

What does it mean to “internationalize” an organization? I suggest that both the field of human rights work, and the organizations through which that work is implemented, are increasingly technical and (not just international) but explicitly transnational. In other words, the work they are doing is anticipated to transcend borders, not to simply apply in different locations.

Human rights organizations increasingly rely on legal apparatus to enforce rights. Some human rights advocates are concerned that this orientation will displace grassroots social movements, while others feel there is space within the field for the involvement of both volunteer-based, grassroots advocacy as well as trained professionals. Regardless of how we feel the field should look, the reality is that work within the sector increasingly includes professional expertise and technical solutions. This dovetails with an employment trend towards work relationships that are increasingly temporary, with short-term contracts prevailing over career-length organizational commitments. Finally, this portability of skills and organizational relationships combines with technology that facilitates the bridging of distance to result in a transnationally mobile workforce. In this workforce, individuals trade connections with organizations and places for connections with a professional identity and a set of technical skills.

As human rights groups become both more international (working across national borders) and transnational (blurring those borders), they are more likely to hire human rights professionals, with their own unique set of knowledge, training and values. This rise in professionalization involves career-length commitments to the field of human rights, which necessitate that human rights workers negotiate between their personal and professional needs more than ever before. This is accompanied by demonstrated findings that younger workers are less willing to sacrifice a personal life for their commitment to work. Questions about workforce health, work-life balance, and sustainability therefore come to the forefront of discussions.


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A career-length commitment to human rights NGOs requires workers to constantly negotiate between the goals of the sector and their own needs for career advancement, sustainability, and work-life balance.

This trend is not unique to human rights organizations, but rather occurs against broader processes of professionalization across the landscape of non-governmental organizations worldwide. As a general rule, the professionalization of any field is associated with creating a shared body of scientific knowledge, along with credentialing systems to evaluate that knowledge, norms and systems to apply it, and membership associations to spread and share it. In addition, professions often hold a set of shared values that align with and underpin the field’s formal knowledge. In human rights, these shared values include a set of normative principles explicitly contained in international human rights instruments – protecting and ensuring the integrity, dignity, and equal worth for all human beings. Finally, professionalization involves the use of full-time, career-length, paid staff with specialized, formal training, rather than harnessing the energy of short-term volunteers. This process therefore requires a close analysis of how these workers balance their personal and professional needs over their life course.

What impact does professional-ization have on the values that are held by the workforce?

Without engaging in the myth that all volunteers are altruistically-motivated, the question, then, is this: What impact does professionalization have on the values that are held by the workforce? To what extent are professionalized human rights workers still deeply motivated by the normative standards of the field, and to what extent are they forced to consider the more practical aspects of managing their own careers?

Consider professionalization of the nonprofit sector more broadly. In the US, the nonprofit sector began its journey firmly rooted in the associational values of volunteerism and charity. The turn towards professional training and scientific assessment took place in the late 19th and early 20th century, beginning with the privately funded US Sanitary Commission, which utilized an analytical approach to Civil War public health and relief measures. After the war ended, those who led the work of the Sanitary Commission applied the same technical methods to the reform and reorganization of the public welfare system. Far from a new arrival to the sector, efforts at professionalization of public service work blossomed during the progressive era (1890-1920), characterized by an attempt to achieve modern efficiency through scientific, medical, and engineering solutions. This transformation considered deficiencies of economic, social, and political institutions as remediable by the application of technical principles and professional expertise.

To what extent are the US nonprofit sector’s original associational values complemented by considerations coming from a professionalized workforce? In my analysis of nonprofit workers across three US-based international NGOs involved in long-term development and short-term humanitarian relief, I found that the workforce placed relatively equal value on public service, intellectual stimulation, working conditions, and financial security. These findings suggest that professional aid workers balance their dedication to the mission of their work with both intrinsic and extrinsic features that are common for career-length employees across sectors.

When it comes to how these values influence job satisfaction, however, the findings diverge. The strongest predictors of job satisfaction were associated with intellectual stimulation (learning and professional development opportunities; increased job responsibility; promotions; and engaging in new and different types of work) and working conditions (being valued at work; receiving recognition for doing a good job; being treated with respect; having a fair and considerate boss; and having a sense of camaraderie with colleagues), not those associated with public service or financial security. Moreover, even when the individuals at these three organizations perceive their organizations to be more “effective” at alleviating poverty, providing relief, helping others, and ensuring equal opportunities, they do not have higher job satisfaction. It is unclear whether these findings apply to the international human rights workforce, but as human rights groups professionalize, the impact of these more intrinsic features of work on job satisfaction seems likely.

Why does this matter? Human rights workers filter the field’s normative principles and broad organizational missions through their own values and goals. The work is affected, therefore, by what motivates them. Professionalization brings a level of sophistication, consistency, and accountability to human rights work. At the same time, a career-length commitment requires human rights workers to constantly negotiate between the goals of the sector and their own needs for career advancement, sustainability, and work-life balance. At times these needs complement the field’s formal values, but in other instances they may contradict them.

Professionalization and the increasingly transnational nature of human rights work go together, and are likely to impact the values and identities held by the human rights workforce. If human rights workers must negotiate between their personal and professional advancement and their advocacy for the world’s most vulnerable, this is something that should concern us all.