NGOs urged to nurture talent, as cuts bite

By agency reporter
February 2, 2009

As the bleak economic climate forces NGOs to scale back staff, human resource experts say managers should focus as much on developing skilled staff for the long term as they have on cutting back.

"The right skills and talent are still in short supply in the aid industry," said Ben Emmens, human resource director at People in Aid, an NGO network focused on management in the aid industry. "In these difficult times we need fewer people to do more, and better. Humanitarian disasters won't disappear because of a recession - in fact, they're likely to be exacerbated."

He added: "This is no time to lose talent. Managers should use this [period] as an opportunity to better use and nurture the talent they already have. "

International humanitarian NGOs have not always been good at this. Turnover rates at aid agencies are higher than the average in other sectors; though there have been no standardised studies and estimates of rates vary figures vary from 20 to 46 percent, depending on how turnover is defined.

With turnover defined as "a premature cessation of a contract", average turnover across all sectors in the UK was 17.5 percent in 2008, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development annual report.

In some cases keeping staff in place short-term is healthy - managers do not want staff to stay long-term in a conflict-affected fragile state for instance.

But "a striking majority" of aid agencies consider staff turnover to be a problem, draining agency finances and eroding programme quality, according to 2006 research Understanding and addressing staff turnover in humanitarian agencies' by People in Aid.

Turnover can lead to a loss of institutional memory; a waste of money spent re-recruiting, re-training re-inducting and re-deploying; low staff morale and increased stress levels for staff who remain, according to People in Aid.

The recruitment process costs on average US$8,500 for the post of international emergency programme manager, says Save the Children, while the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC), puts the cost of its hiring process at $21,400.

Understanding why people leave - and stay - is the first step to lowering these figures, says Emmens.

A common perception is that aid workers quit because of environmental reasons - the high stress of the job, huge workloads, potential insecure environments, and difficult living conditions.

"Emergency response is exhausting. It takes a lot out of you. [In an emergency] you can work 18 hours, seven days a week - it's not sustainable," said Jessica Taublib-Kiriat, a 29-year old emergency programme coordinator with the International Rescue Committee.

But NGO World Vision says inter and intra-agency politics, inconsistent management, a lack of team work and unclear organisational objectives are more likely to lead to chronic stress and burnout.

"Aid workers have a pretty shrewd idea of what they are getting into when they enter this career, and dirty clothes, gun shots at night and lack of electricity do not surprise them," World Vision's stress and trauma handbook reads.


With acknowledgements to: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) -

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