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Bringing sexy back: the state of HR in development work 2013

Bringing sexy back: the state of HR in development work 2013

By Tobias Denskus & Brendan Rigby

In some ways, reading People In Aid’s latest report on ‘The State of HR in International Humanitarian and Development Organisations’ reminded us of going shopping at a local organic grocery store: great local food, friendly staff who work in a cooperative way, making the right choices for ourselves and the environment even if the carrots are not perfect and the potatoes seem a bit overpriced. But, then you pass by the big box store of a global supermarket chain where a full parking lot indicates that shoppers are taking advantage of those low, low prices. The organisations who take part in the report and discussions seem a bit like the local grocery store, but we were also left with a feeling that the big and powerful multinationals of the aid industry are represented less when it comes to best HR practices, critical self-reflections and sharing new ideas to make humanitarian aid work ‘better’ for everybody involved – at least that often seems the case when we speak with friends who work for the ‘global supermarkets’.


One of the biggest challenges that the report tries to address is that it shares best HR practices and presents humanitarian HR as a professional managerial discipline within the aid industry. When it comes to teaching, training and mentoring (see for example the case study on Save The Children’s cooperation with executive management coaches for new country directors, p.15) humanitarian HR certainly tries to look at ideas from other sectors, and an important aspect of the report is that it shares case studies that may raise the bar for the whole industry as people learn what good employers and employees can and should offer.

But, the report also highlights that some metrics, e.g. the cost of security per humanitarian worker or days spent on learning and development, are still largely absent (p.10). On the other hand, the managerial approach is often faced with the political realities of humanitarian situations and can lead to a “high level of disillusionment from longer-term staff” as indicated by studies in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake (p.17). This reminded us of Jonathan Katz’ book on this subject that found political dynamics in post-disaster situations seem to be unchanged, which could sideline well-intentioned HR efforts.

The most interesting aspect, and probably most relevant in the WhyDev context, were the reflections on the “rise of Generation Z” and the prediction that “HR professionals are going to have to employ some very different recruitment tactics if they are to harness the enthusiasm and technical abilities of this new group in the marketplace” (p.22). We think that the challenge will go beyond the ‘espressos & cool food’, but also beyond the “creative, fun and inspirational environment” that the report identifies (pp.23-24). J.’s recent post on ‘Hands-On’ experience is a good example that professionalised, office-focussed humanitarian work may offer neither espressos nor the thrills of ‘making a difference’ – in the traditional sense of the ‘hands-on’ work of helping people and rebuilding schools. But, there is a deeper level of misunderstanding in this paragraph on who the ‘Generation Z’ is, how they communicate and, most importantly, what they are looking for career-wise.

We have doubts that the authors really understand how ‘Generation Z’ engage and use social media, not only in their personal lives, but also in their professional lives for communicating, learning and networking. Just being “open about social media, don’t ban Facebook, LinkedIn etc.” (p.23) may only scratch at the surface. In addition, the paragraph is quite presumptive about ‘Generation Z’, suggesting that they will be less loyal, unfocused and uninterested in building a career. “These people do not stick around and build a career…information security issues, such as loss of trade secrets” (p.23). Not only are we a little offended, but think this shows a gross misunderstanding of the nature of humanitarian work and what it takes to build a stable career in the sector (particularly during an ongoing economic downturn, which is the focus of the report). One of the few avenues to a stable career is through the international civil service. We are not sure the authors know what an uncertain, competitive and fluid marketplace and environment it is, nor what Generation Z really wants.

Another issue that is absent from the report is the lack of linkages back to higher education for skill development and learning for future professionals. Many of the skills identified as lacking or being under-represented and under-addressed – teamwork, leadership, professional management, etc. – are those that can be facilitated and nurtured in higher education programmes. There is a proliferation of courses, both undergraduate and postgraduate, around the world offering ‘International Development Studies’ (IDS). Yet, the current state of higher education for development is perhaps not well-known or understood, nor are IDS teachers and organisational HR engaging with one another. We do not think that many of these courses adequately prepare graduates for working in the sector/s, and open debate around the ‘vocationalisation’ of IDS have not really emerged yet. If we need to address many of the areas identified in this report, then it should start in the emerging university courses being offered.

The report and subsequent discussions also help to shine a light on the importance of good HR in general, rather than perpetuating the stereotypes that The Office’s own HR officer, Toby, represents.

‘The State of HR’ shares some interesting, best-practice case studies on how the aid industry’s human resources can be valued and managed better, but it doesn’t really manage to think outside the box, especially when it comes to engaging with Generation Z and higher education. Furthermore, the report mentions work-life balance, but we were surprised that it did not go into more detail regarding psychological wellbeing, burn-out or PTSD. Although it is tacitly acknowledged under ‘Duty of Care’, there is a distinct lack of recommendations or a way forward offered.

You need only to take a cursory look at research into stress, isolation and burnout in the sector to realise two important things: it is highly under-researched and understood; and as a result, we know very little about the well being of humanitarian workers or how to care for their health. There is still a pervasive attitude, particularly from more experienced professionals, of fatalism. That this is the nature of the work, and we must just ‘suck it up’. The well being of humanitarian aid workers is not taken seriously, and it is time for a culture shift in understanding the mental health needs of humanitarian workers (which a few are coming together to do outside the formal structures of organisational HR: Amanda Scothern, Zehra Rizvi, Marianne Elliot and one of the authors of this post).

There are certainly some areas where the debate needs additional momentum, particularly in: how to engage and cater for the next generation of humanitarian workers; how to creatively and practically address HR issues during a time of budget cuts and restraints; how stronger linkages can be developed with higher education institutions to better prepare students for the workplace; and the recognition of and engagement in mental health issues. In a supply-driven labour market with politically fragile humanitarian situations, and some traditional debates (e.g. about expatriate remuneration or local talent), there is a risk that good aid HR may be for some time remain the equivalent of your local boutique grocer – although we always wish that more of us would spend more money in the them.

Tobias Denskus is a post-doctoral development anthropologist interested in peacebuilding, the ritualisation of aid professionalism & the impact of social media on policy-making and reflective writing.


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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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3 thoughts on “Bringing sexy back: the state of HR in development work 2013

  1. I find it a bit unfair when my generation is accused of not being loyal to its employers- we’re facing an uncertain job market where employers are not always the most loyal to their employees, and I think that creates a feedback loop. Also, the non-profit/development sector is notorious for offering contracts in lieu of permanent employment, which does not help instil loyalty amongst employees.

    1. After reading the report and discussions with Brendan I think that there is very little empirical data on the Generation Z’s engagement with the development sector. other than stating that development studies are popular with students. My feeling was that the ‘People In Aid’ tried to apply some generalized notion of the Generation Z (which is worth discussing, of course) from other sectors to the aid sector as in ‘Research suggests that the Generation Z is less loyal to employers-so what does that mean for our HR practices?’. I hope that the aid sector doesn’t simply follow some hype about a ‘generation’ and starts thinking about more practical ways to learn what younger people expect from a professional career in international development.

    2. I think this is a very valid point. It’s extremely hard to explain to older generations (Hi Mum!), that a 24 month contract in aid and development is the equivalent of a permanent job 30 years ago.

      Further to this, you could say that many employers don’t bother to understand what their younger staff really need. Support for those in entry-level positions would be a good place to start. If employers don’t create incentives for their staff to stay, why would anyone want to?

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