Issue 22 - Article 10

Finding, developing and keeping programme managers: a sector-wide problem

May 29, 2003
Barney Mayhew

Field programme managers are the lynchpins of any emergency operation. Yet finding them is difficult, managing them is challenging, and they tend to leave their agency – and indeed the sector – at an alarming rate.

‘Which post do humanitarian agencies have most difficulty filling?’ If you were asked this question, what would your guess be? The answer, according to many human resources (HR) professionals, is field programme managers. In June, some 50 HR professionals and programme managers attended the fourth Emergency Personnel Network Seminar in the UK to debate why agencies have such difficulty finding, developing and retaining good staff in this crucial role.

A job for Superman or Wonderwoman?

The key message to emerge from the seminar was that the programme manager’s job is exceptionally tough. Any attempt to catalogue the tasks involved, or the skills and personal qualities required, leads to an almost comically long list, for which Wonderwoman or Superman would probably be under-qualified. In March 2002, for instance, the French training organisation Bioforce produced a generic job description that ran to 15 pages. Management responsibilities covered everything from people to finance, security, legal issues and negotiations, while 25 different personal attributes were listed, from patience and common sense to a belief in social justice, sensitivity and the ability to say no. It is not surprising that relatively few people offer themselves for the job, or that many burn out sooner than expected.

Even the most able candidates need training, plenty of support and good people-management skills if they are to succeed. Agencies try to meet these needs, but find it hard to meet them all. As part of the background material for the seminar, 14 current or former programme managers related their experience of being recruited, trained and retained (if they were) by their agency, whether NGO or UN. Their accounts make fascinating reading. None of the 14 felt that all three stages – their recruitment, training and retention – had been handled in a reasonably professional way. Only two received training before taking up their position. Four said that their agency had made a conscious effort to retain them once their initial contract came to an end, implying that ten had not, even though none indicated that the agency was unhappy with performance.

There is clearly plenty of room for improvement. Development and relief agencies in the UK alone receive thousands of enquiries every week about work opportunities, yet many programme-manager posts go unfilled for months. Short contracts are overused, leading to high staff turnover and loss of programme quality. There is no minimum standard of training for aid workers, nor for programme managers. Many arrive in the field with no specific training for their job, and some without sufficient experience to replace the need for training. Only a handful of agencies have a firm requirement that their staff receive security training before deploying to a war zone, a situation akin to sending a new driver onto the roads without first requiring that they take lessons. It is hard to see how this is justifiable, either in moral or in legal terms. No seminar participant could think of a reason why mandatory security training should not be standard for all new relief workers, before their first assignment to an insecure country. It is hard to see donors refusing to pay for it. Finally, very few agencies have a policy requiring full and detailed handovers between managers in the field; handovers are frequently missed, affecting programme quality, institutional learning and staff morale.

What can be done?

What can be done to find, develop and keep more programme managers? Many detailed points were raised at the seminar, of which the following give a flavour.

Finding staff

A greater emphasis is needed on ‘growing your own’ programme managers. Agencies need to take responsibility for producing future programme managers. Too many rely on recruitment from outside, in the hope that other agencies will have provided the necessary training and experience. Agencies should offer longer contracts, possibly for as many as five years, and which are flexible as to location of work. Clearer routes into the sector are also needed. Enthusiastic recent graduates find it hard to get their first job in humanitarian relief, despite the shortage of field staff in many emergency programmes. Individual agencies or inter-agency action could devise various ways to attract new blood. These could include management training schemes or internships, especially if funded by donors, or job-share posts to attract couples. There seems to be an increasing trend towards employing nationally-recruited staff on international contracts. This has several benefits, including the experience that such staff can bring, and the often greater loyalty that they display to their employing organisations. The issue of equitable pay remains difficult: should the cost of living in a staff member’s home country be a factor in determining levels of pay, or should there be equal pay for equal work, regardless of other factors? The general, though not unanimous, feeling at the seminar was that it is probably fair to take the cost of living into account.

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Developing staff

Appraisals of staff performance are essential to ensuring quality, and should assist managers in developing their staff. But because emergency contracts are often for less than one year, the normal system of annual staff appraisals can fall down. More frequent appraisal may be needed.

At the end of a contract, good HR practice is to debrief a departing member of staff. This enables any outstanding issues to be resolved, and produces valuable information and lessons for the agency. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many agencies do not have a system for collating the information and lessons from debriefs, for bringing important items to the attention of the agency’s governing board, or for ensuring that policies and procedures are modified accordingly.

Training is also much misunderstood, and apparently undervalued. Recently returned programme managers represent a huge pool of potential trainers, but few are used in this way, and many are lost to the sector altogether. Individual agencies could make more use of them. With the necessary funding and support, training organisations could build a strong team of full-time professional trainers. Most of the skills needed by programme managers are the same, whichever agency they work for. A common training package is an obvious solution. Training costs could be shared if agencies agreed such a package between them, and trained their programme managers (and other staff) in shared courses, run either in-house or by a training organisation.

Having reached the top of their profession as far as field work is concerned, some programme managers may want to stay there. But others may wish to develop their career through a spell at headquarters, time out for a Master’s degree, or a secondment elsewhere. Their distance from headquarters, and the high-pressure nature of their work, mean that career development for programme managers needs to be proactive, to ensure that their experience and knowledge is not lost to the agency through neglect. A ‘personal development plan’ for each staff member is one option, coupled with allocating time and funds for training and mentoring.

Retaining staff

Retaining programme managers requires deep care and attention to them while they are in post. Feeling – and being – valued is crucial. It would be easy to research the reasons why programme managers leave at such a high rate, with a simple questionnaire covering programme managers from a range of agencies. Once the reasons are known, they can be addressed. Likely reasons include:

  • a desire to work in different regions;
  • career aspirations;
  • being asked to do the wrong job or the job changes in unwelcome ways;
  • poor people-management from superiors;
  • a lack of recognition of successes;
  • isolation;
  • weak team structure, cohesion and dynamics;
  • the general environment, including risks and work–life balance;
  • a lack of accompanied posts;
  • stress and burnout;
  • issues of leave and rest and recreation;
  • dissatisfaction with pay levels;
  • a lack of commitment from the agency to the individual; and
  • a lack of involvement in senior decision-making.

Research more widely on careers within the sector would help to put the situation of programme managers into perspective. This could include benchmarking staff turnover or retention rates, so that individual agencies could measure their retention performance against the sector average.

The majority of programme managers stop in their thirties. Agencies need to encourage programme managers to stay with their agency once they move on from field work. Such ‘routes out’ might include:

  • subsidising Master’s studies in return for a commitment to further service;
  • providing funding for part-time study;
  • encouraging field staff who need a break to spend time at headquarters, to learn and gain or share experience;
  • secondments to headquarters for national staff, and vice-versa;
  • making internal vacancies known within the organisation; and
  • identifying posts within the organisation that programme managers can be encouraged to consider as possible next steps.

Towards an HR strategy

Ultimately, agencies need an explicit HR strategy. This should have board-level endorsement and support, should evolve over time and should be incorporated into the evaluation process: standard terms of reference for emergency evaluations should include an assessment of HR performance in the emergency in question.

Measuring the cost of poor HR would show the cost to programmes, in quality and in financial terms, resulting from HR problems. This may not be entirely straightforward to measure, but it should not be too difficult to make a start. It should be possible to measure, for example:

  • staff turnover rates;
  • the correlation between HR practices (such as average contract length) and staff turnover rates;
  • the average time taken to recruit and deploy a new programme manager;
  • the cost of recruitment and deployment, compared to the cost of retention measures for existing programme managers;
  • the proportion of new programme managers who receive a full handover in the field from their predecessor;
  • the number of programmes that didn’t happen, or ran into serious difficulty, as a result of HR problems; and
  • the costs and benefits of different training courses.

Care would be required in interpreting the results of such measurements. Agencies should avoid industry’s apparent addiction to ‘metrics’, yet some measurement is necessary if senior managers are to know what is really happening with their staff.

A personnel strategy is essential if agencies are to fill their programme-manager posts on time, with qualified people, and keep them. Agencies also need to invest in potential programme managers, to ensure a sufficient pool of suitable people for the future. The advantages of doing so are numerous and will have a swift effect on staff morale and the quality of programmes. An agency that sets the lead in this respect will have ex-programme managers banging on its doors, wanting to return to the field. This is a sector-wide problem that will not go away unless agencies address it. Will they take up the challenge?

Barney Mayhew is an independent consultant, focusing on ways of improving the effectiveness of international interventions during complex emergencies. He is also involved in training new aid workers, and military and police officers for peacekeeping assignments. He was the Convenor of the EPN Seminar, but writes here in a personal capacity. His email address is

References and further reading

For a full report of the Fourth Emergency Personnel Network Seminar, visit RedR’s website at

See also:

‘International Relief and Development Programme Manager – Generic Job Description’, Bioforce, March 2002,

‘Programme Managers Remember’,

I. McConnan and P. Brooke, The Human Face of Aid: A Study of Recruitment by International Relief and Development Organisations in the UK (London: International Health Exchange/People in Aid, 1997),


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