So you want to be a Humanitarian CEO?7 min read

As reported in The New Humanitarian, there are calls for the next head of UNHCR to be a refugee with lived experience as a refugee. But how likely is that? And who is most likely to rise to the top of a humanitarian organisation?

You’re in luck if you’re aged around 52 years old, from the Global North, and have experience in the sector. These are some of the characteristics of the average humanitarian CEO.

In this story we’re looking at what type of person tends to become the head of a humanitarian organisation by diving into the data. We’ve taken a look at 25 top humanitarian organisations defined by any organisation that leads a cluster, both Red Cross/Crescent organisations, or an organisation that has a presence in at least 15 contexts.

We’ll also be using the term ‘humanitarian CEO’ as a catch-all for the head of an organisation (in other words not the board of the organisation, but the operational head), and we’re only looking at those currently in the job.

How old do I have to be to become a humanitarian CEO?

Most humanitarian CEOs are at least 40 years old on appointment, and the average age upon appointment is 52 across the organisations we looked at. However, the average age of a humanitarian CEO right now is 59 years old as many have been in post for at least several years.

However there are substantial differences between those leading NGOs, and those leading UN agencies. Your typical NGO/Red Cross boss is 46 years old when appointed. However, if you want to be the boss of a UN agency then you’ll have to wait a bit longer, as the average age is 60 years old.

There are two notable exceptions. Both International Medical Corps (IMC) and ACTED are led by female leaders who were appointed in their mid-twenties when the organisations were created or still very small. This alternative path – growing a small organisation into a large one over several decades – is the road less taken amongst those in our sample.

Does my gender make a difference?

There is a bias towards male humanitarian CEOs amongst the organisations we looked at. Of the top 25 organisations, 6 out of 10 have a male leader. However, this bias is more pronounced with UN agencies where just over 1 in 3 UN agencies we looked at had a female leader.

NGOs and the Red Cross/Crescent appear to be doing slightly better on this front, with 43% of selected organisations having a female CEO.

Does it matter where I’m from if I want to get to the top?

Yes. Out of the 22 CEOs we looked at for nationality (we were missing data for 3 CEOs), then 8 out of these came from the United States or the United Kingdom. If you come from these two countries then you’re already starting with a huge advantage.

However, it’s not just the English-speaking Atlantic fraternity that have an in-built advantage. Just over 4 in 10 of the selected CEOs come from G7 countries – compare that to 1 in 10 of the global population who come from these countries.

And then if we look at the world in terms of ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ then we can see clearly that those from the the Global North have a clear advantage in getting to the top. 73% of the selected CEOs come from the Global North, which only comprises 21% of the global population.

Should I go to a top university to lead a humanitarian organisation?

File it under ‘desirable’ but not ‘essential’ on the job description.

Of those we looked at just over 1 in 4 went to a top 50 university. The definition of a top 50 university is wholly subjective and depends on what you think constitutes a ‘top university’. We’ve chosen to look at an index that looks at ‘reputation’ as that’s likely the thing that makes the most difference in this context. In other words, university reputation is a signal of competence and intelligence in the job market.

1 in 4 going to a top university may not sound like a lot. However, consider how many universities there are in the world and how many educational paths there are to an individual. Going to a top university clearly helps you either (a) get the job of CEO, or (b) accelerate your whole career so that you have the momentum to get to CEO.

Having said this, nearly 3 in 4 didn’t go to a top 50 university. So going to one of these universities may help, but it’s not a pre-requisite.

What career path would get me to the top job?

First of all, consider a job in either the humanitarian/development sector, or in politics/civil service. Only 2 out of 25 (8%) had neither of these backgrounds upon assuming the role of CEO.

Secondly, a career in the sector clearly helps. 2 in 3 of those we looked at had a background in the sector. This ranges from being a technical specialist in a specific sector, to those with experience in operations. 3 out of the 25 had both a sector and political background, normally specialising in a certain field before entering politics in that field before eventually returning back to the field.

Thirdly, don’t underestimate a career in politics or the civil service. Climbing the political ladder in the US, the UK, the EU and elsewhere has certainly helped some humanitarian CEOs to leap from politics to the supposedly apolitical humanitarian sphere.

Who runs the (humanitarian) world?

The sector is clearly still quite far away from its leadership looking like the populations that it serves. Most humanitarian CEOs are over 50 – but affected populations tend to be younger. Most humanitarian CEOs come from the ‘Global North’, but most affected contexts are in the ‘Global South’. There’s still a gender bias towards male leaders, and a disproportionate number have been to a “top 50” university.

This is not to cast any aspersions on the 25 people we looked at for this story. We’re not talking about the things they have achieved in their role. But this story is looking at, like many stories on the site, the system as a whole.

So if you want to be a humanitarian CEO, there’s a question you need to ask: does the system give everyone, of every background, equality of opportunity to reach the top?

Sources and References

Data Sources

G7 Population Data: taken from analysis by Statista

Global South Population Data: there are two steps to this. Firstly, we have to define ‘Global South’. Countries are defined as being in the ‘Global South’ as per inclusion in the FCSSC list of Global South countries. Population data is then taken from UN DESA Population Division and filtered by the countries on the FCSSC list.

Information regarding humanitarian CEOs: in the first instance, we examined the profile of the organisation head on their organisation’s website. If this information wasn’t exhaustive enough to collect all the data needed, a secondary data review was conducted. Data sources common in the secondary data review include: organisational press releases (current and previous organisations), publicly available company records, press interviews, and government records.

Missing data: where possible, effort was taken to ensure that data was collected across all variables for each person. However, this wasn’t always possible due to the lack of publicly available information. Age data was collected for 23/25 persons; nationality data was collected for 22/25 persons. and education data was collected for 23/25 persons.


Caveat on age: for two people (heads of ACTED and CRS) we only have an estimated age on appointment as CEO. In the graph on age, the data for these is shown as the mid-point between these two ages (e.g. 25.5 as halfway between 25 and 26). These two data points are included as midpoints in the calculation of the average.

Caveat on nationality: only 22 data points are included, but the sum in the graph comes to 23. This is due to the dual Brazil/Germany nationality of the head of UNDP. Thus, both of these nationalities are included in the graph.

Selected ‘humanitarian CEOs’: ACTED (Marie-Pierre Caley), ADRA (Michael Kruger), CRS (Sean Callahan), DRC (Charlotte Slente), FAO (Qu Dongyu), ICRC (Peter Maurer), IFRC (Jagan Chapagain), IMC (Nancy Aossey), IOM (António Vitorino), IRC (David Miliband), Mercy Corps (Tjada D’Oyen McKenna), NRC (Jan Egeland), OCHA (Martin Griffiths), OXFAM (Gabriela Bucher), Plan International (Stephen Omollo), Save the Children (Inger Ashing), UN Women (Sima Bahous), UNDP (Achim Steiner), UNFPA (Dr. Natalia Kanem), UNHCR (Filippo Grandi), UNICEF (Catherine Russell), UNMAS (Ilene Cohn), WFP (David Beasley), WHO (Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus), World Vision (Andrew Morley).

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