From identifying a problem to implementing a solution:

By Anne Street, Head of Humanitarian Policy, CAFOD

A couple of years ago when a small group of INGOs were discussing with several National NGO directors what INGOs should do differently in order to ensure more localized humanitarian response there were three things the national NGO leaders were adamant about:  one was communications:  asking us to commit to change the way we communicated about our work with our supporters and the public to ensure that we didn’t ignore their central role in humanitarian response;  secondly  and subsequently very well trailed through WHS and the Grand Bargain, ensuring that more funding went directly to national NGOs;  and thirdly addressing the way INGOs undermine national NGO capacity by recruiting their staff in the immediate aftermath of a sudden on-set emergency or during the first six months of a conflict.

This third issue is a complex one with numerous aspects ranging from career development, salary scales and terms and conditions of employment, through to power dynamics between INGOs and NNGOs. Of course, staff movement and career progression is perfectly normal and to be expected. But it becomes problematic for any organisation if staff turnover happens too quickly or suddenly and an organisation loses too many of its most trained and trusted staff just at a time when it most needs them. This happened to CAFOD’s partner organisation, ECOWEB in the Philippines which lost nine of its trained humanitarian staff in the course of two emergency responses between 2008 and 2011, all to international NGOs and the UN.

But in order for INGOs to address this problem effectively there was a need to understand what the push and pull factors were which motivate national staff to move to work for international organisations. It was just at this point, in the middle of 2016, that Start DEPP Transforming Surge Capacity Project was offering small grants for research and pilot project, and a group of four Transforming Surge Capacity project members who were also Charter4Change signatories (CAFOD, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Tearfund) got together to commission some research to explore the issue and try to identify solutions. Read Time to Move On: National perspectives on transforming surge capacity and Time for HR to Step up: National perspectives on transforming surge capacity.

The results were interesting: One surprising aspect was that amongst the national NGOs surveyed and interviewed their biggest challenge in terms of staff loss came not in the first 6 months of an emergency, when INGOs often surged in their own international staff, but during the second  6 months, the rehabilitation stage, when international organisations were looking to recruit staff to lead new programmes; and it was managerial and technical staff, rather than programme staff, that were most frequently recruited by INGOs.

Many national NGO leaders noted the poor HR practices on the part of INGOs and UN agencies, for example, not allowing appointed staff to work out their notice periods and not taking up references but rushing through the recruitment process.

But it was also clear from the research that both international and national organisations could do more to address these practices, for example adopting a series of retention strategies such as supporting national organisations to put in place a raft of good HR practices such as having clear job descriptions, role profile and  inductions for staff, initiating effective performance management systems, and have  robust compensation and remuneration systems which are transparent and include benefits such as health insurance, defined leave, and career development through training and skills enhancement.

Smaller organisations often struggle to develop their own policies or lack the resources to employ HR specialists. However, initiatives and organisations like Disaster Ready the CHS Alliance the Start Network through Shifting the Power and the Talent Development projects and the Humanitarian Leadership Academy provide free materials and resources to support staff training or the development of HR procedures which smaller organisations unable to develop their own materials from scratch can take advantage of.

But beyond this Charter4Change signatories need to also work out where they stand on this issue. Amongst the issues signatories are taking forward are:

  • how they will work with their own national NGO partners and other civil society organisations to ensure that they minimize the need to recruit national NGO staff who are already responding to a disaster during the initial stages of an emergency response,
  • if and when they do recruit national NGO staff they will adopt policies and procedures which minimize the negative impacts for national NGOs
  • explore how to compensate the national organisations if and when they do recruit national NGO staff.

One option is to develop an ethical code for ethical surge recruitment which would include such aspects as ensuring reasonable notice periods, (for example one month) transparent and open recruitment processes which do not head hunt to entice people away from their current employer and explore alternatives such as secondments or mentoring.

International NGOs may also want to explore providing compensation for the loss of staff, and to discuss this with donors, so that they recognize this as a legitimate expense and a measure to ensure support for national capacity.

Within CAFOD our Human Resources Team is consulting across the organisation as to how best to implement our Charter4Change Commitment on this issue. We intend to develop guidance to add to our recruitment policy and our rapid recruitment guidance. Although we are still working on the exact wording it will need to specify that we will work with local partners to support their recruitment and only recruit CAFOD national staff if it is not appropriate to fund and support a local partner to enable them recruit to a post or carry out the work themselves; and secondly that if CAFOD does recruit a national post, we will work closely with a national NGO if we find that we are recruiting one of their staff members. If the recruiting manager recruits from a national NGO, they will take steps to mitigate the impact for the national NGO. This will include allowing the new recruit to serve their full notice with the national NGO, and it may also mean working out some compensation for the national NGO – either monetary or in the form of a capacity building or mentoring or secondment arrangement. These aspects will be considered on a case by case basis in close collaboration with the national NGO in question.

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