Recruitment: Local Knowledge

"If you're going to expect your field staff to represent the organisation to partner groups or international donors, they have to know exactly what the long-term aims of the charity are and what the organisation wants that team to really achieve."

McGlade says that the importance of the relationship between the country or project manager and the main point of contact back at headquarters, usually a desk officer, is sometimes dangerously underestimated by management.

"It's vital that the desk officer has first-hand knowledge and experience of the country they're working on," says McGlade. "But this often isn't the case, and it can be detrimental to that desk officer's ability to understand the pressures put on field staff and relay information accurately to senior management."

International aid agencies get up to 2,000 applications for an advertised post. But in spite of this, it is still hard to find people with the right skills, as Annie Kelly reports

In a world where global communities are expanding, the role and profile of international NGOs are growing with them. With the media spotlight trained firmly on their work, international agencies now run a diverse mix of programmes that need to be supported by teams of people with the necessary mix of skills and experience. Yet even though most well-known international aid agencies get anything up to 2,000 applications per advertised post, many still find it difficult to find and recruit the right staff.

Roger Yates, head of emergencies at Action Aid believes that this is down to the fact that the role of the traditional Western aid worker is fast becoming obsolete.

"The model of having a bunch of strangers who've never seen a cyclone parachuted into Bangladesh to run a cyclone emergency response programme is simply not valid anymore," he says. "We need people who understand that our international projects are there to support not dominate country environments, work closely with local NGOs and recognise that emergencies don't end after three or six months."

This approach obviously has an impact on recruitment for overseas posts.

Instead of being wholly operational agencies, NGOs are increasingly working as knowledge-based organisations, almost like management consultancies, whose impact depends on the quality of their relationship with local communities, knowledge of policy, and the capacity to train local partners to deliver long-term strategies.

"If you want more joined-up complex thinking you've got to inject new skill sets into the way you battle poverty," says Andrew Thompson, international human resources director at Oxfam. "You can't rely on someone just because they've got a development studies degree, because methods and ideas are changing so rapidly. What we need are people who will be able to bring professional, managerial and technical skills into this environment and be able to apply them in a practical way."

Mango, a firm that provides management accounting staff and services for NGOs and charities working overseas, placed 43 people with agencies last year. However, Lucy Markby, field placements director, often finds it difficult to bridge the gap between what the professionals can bring to a placement and what the NGOs want from their overseas staff.

Experience mismatch

"We often have a real problem recruiting finance people for NGOs," she says. "The demand from international agencies for people with management accounting skills is increasing all the time, but there is often a mismatch between the professionals looking for work, and what the charities are looking for in terms of experience and personal skills."

Often the financial professionals who come to Mango looking for an overseas placement have little comprehension of what the job will actually entail.

Some perceive an overseas placement as a 'career break' or 'life experience' and don't understand the level of professionalism and personal skills needed to take on such a placement.

Mango's solution is to equip accountants and finance professionals with the skills to help them bridge that gap and make their experience as relevant as possible. Training programmes include showing finance professionals how to apply their knowledge to different situations. This could include programmes about how to handle cash, how to work with multi-skilled and multi-language teams, and why cultural sensitivities are such an important part of the job.

The organisation also gives people with the right managerial skills - but without financial expertise - training in accounting. It has also just developed a programme that provides international agencies with a series of checks to assess how healthy their financial management is, thus ensuring that they hire the right kind of staff to get the job done.

"Training is absolutely essential if NGOs want to bridge that gap between applicants and efficient programme staff," says Markby. "One of the most basic requirements that NGOs have is that people work together and complement each other, and that's difficult for someone outside an organisation to assess.

"At the end of the day, technical skills can be learned - it's finding someone with the right attitude that's the biggest challenge."

Oxfam's difficulty in finding the right mix of skills and experience among applicants for overseas positions has led to a complete overhaul of its entire recruitment and retention strategy. It hopes to establish a way of recruiting, training and retaining high-quality general managers who can learn the necessary technical skills needed by individual country teams.

Thompson sees this as a challenge facing not only Oxfam, but the whole international aid sector. Years of under-investment in management development means that organisations simply aren't equipped to deal with the challenges of training up or finding staff with the right mix of professional experience, personal attributes and policy expertise to match the evolving role of NGOs in working in the developing world.

"There's still a feeling of discomfort among aid agencies about spending money on themselves," says Thompson. "Usually, people can justify technical training programmes but find it hard to invest in management development."

Learning resources

Oxfam is now pouring resources into investing in learning and development, promoting long-term career prospects and moving people up through the organisation. "There is an increasing number of professional, experienced managers working for NGOs all around the world and we have to make sure we're developing and drawing them towards Oxfam, as well as bringing new people into the sector," he said.

Geoffrey Dennis, chief executive of Care International UK, agrees. He says it's vital that NGOs recognise that it is now a global recruitment market, and there is a growing culture of experienced people who are committing to a career of global mobility.

"Our top management people aren't usually from the UK or the US because we want people who have accumulated expertise and experience from all around the world," he says. "Many of the staff heading up our country operations have experience of working in another country in the same region because they are able to share their learning and promote a cross-fertilisation of ideas. So we have a country director in Peru who comes from Costa Rica and a Tanzanian manager heading up our office in Mozambique."

In this environment, it's increasingly difficult for people in the UK to find jobs as an international aid worker. Action Aid's Yates says: "It's harder and harder for ex-pats to get these jobs. Now you've got locals with 10 years international experience, and it's often difficult to see what a western applicant can offer in comparison to them."

He advises hopeful applicants to acquire specialist skills, such as expertise in nutrition, languages or financial accounting, to provide projects with something that they don't have already.

"People looking to break into this area have to realise that goodwill is still essential, but not enough anymore," he says.

To have the chance of attracting the best global candidates, international NGOs must have the human resources and reward policies in place to attract the best applicants. They also have to throw the net wide and use a broad portfolio of application channels to ensure they're reaching the right people.

As well as using recruitment agencies, NGOs are now tapping into the power of the internet and advertising vacancies on their websites and recruitment portals. They are also placing ads in local and international newspapers , the trade press and targeting professional managers through business magazines, alongside the traditional method of word of mouth.

By broadening its recruitment channels, Oxfam now targets emigrant communities in London and Canada through the specialist South African press to fill its South African country programmes. It also increasingly recruits from the commercial sector. One of Oxfam's senior international managers came from Nike, and is able to bring expertise in marketing and overseas business development to country programmes in need of professional management skills.

Promoting international NGOs as long-term employers is also having an impact on the kind of contracts that are beginning to be offered. Short-term contracts have previously nurtured a culture of job-hopping between organisations that now doesn't fit with the need for strong and sustained teamwork. "Establishing a solid team and working on sustainable community projects requires our staff to commit to the job long term, instead of moving on after three months to work on another project," says Yates.

Care International is also attempting to move to a fixed-contract culture among its international staff, which it hopes will encourage staff to see the charity as a place where they can build a long-term career.

"Practices like open-ended contracts and leadership training schemes show that we're committed to these people staying with us, instead of moving off to another NGO after their programme has finished," says Dennis.

Transferable skills

"We've now got an exchange policy in place, which means that someone who joins us as an administrator in Bangladesh can grow their skills through working in their home country, and then hopefully end up working on a project at one of our other offices around the world."

In this changing environment, retaining good staff can be as important as making the right recruitment decisions. As demand for more qualified and professional skills increase, so will the need for charities to invest in developing the staff that they already have.

"Current events have shown that an overseas job for a charity is not humanitarian tourism," says Dennis. "To attract the right people, charities are going to have to be as good an employer as they expect their recruits to be good staff. And they must be clear about how to nurture and develop different skills to achieve the best long-term results."


Johnie McGlade has years of experience working as a field manager for War Child and Irish NGO Goal on projects in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iran. He now runs his own organisation, No Strings, which takes educational theatre programmes out to children in Afghanistan and South Africa.

McGlade says that often the main problem facing field staff is a breakdown in communications between international projects and UK-based headquarters.

"It's a difficult relationship to manage, because the experiences of a field team don't always match the expectations or perceptions of staff or line-managers back at headquarters," he says. "What you interpret in the field is not always matched by what headquarters want you to achieve, and misunderstandings have the potential to undermine an entire project." He says that head-office staff must have trust in the aptitude of a country manager and his team to be able to judge what is required, and have the flexibility to adapt strategies or approaches if necessary.

"When head office is recruiting staff to work in the field, they must ensure that they communicate exactly what their role will entail, and what the lines of communication between the field and head office will be," he says.

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