Method in the madness? Some new ways to learn from staff experiences in humanitarian crises: the historical case of UNICEF


  • Jeremy Shusterman


humanitarian learning, staff debriefing, tacit knowledge, UNICEF, international organizations, humanitarian crises


This article reviews why tapping into tacit knowledge of relief workers to inform humanitarian responses is seen as a valuable exercise that paradoxically often fails to live up to expectations. This paradox is explored through the example of historical efforts undertaken by the United Nations Children?s Fund (UNICEF) to learn from the tacit knowledge of its staff. The article briefly reviews the challenges to learning within humanitarian organizations, and why humanitarian organizations may see tacit knowledge as an attractive alternative source of evidence. System-wide challenges in ?learning to learn? (Minear, 1998: unpaginated), identified in the 1990s, have largely remained the same. A counter-productive ?thirst for immediacy?, and the nature of emergency relief staff?s relationship to knowledge continue to make the commitment to learning a difficult one to sustain. The article, however, argues that should such learning exercises be reframed more firmly as a research endeavor, some of these obstacles might be overcome. It provides leads on a possible way forward in the context of a pilot initiative for humanitarian learning at the UNICEF Office of Research ? Innocenti.


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