Issue 25 - Article 9

People In Aid: championing effective people management

December 15, 2003
Jonathan Potter and Ben Emmens, People In Aid

As the last issue of Humanitarian Exchange showed, there is widespread support for the principle of being held to account for one’s actions towards others. Ultimately, this accountability improves the quality of humanitarian action. Yet with attention focusing on accountability to beneficiaries, partners and donors, there is sometimes a tendency for accountability to staff and volunteers – a key stakeholder group – to be overlooked.

The humanitarian sector relies on the expertise and experience of staff and volunteers in its endeavours to alleviate poverty and suffering. Evaluations consistently emphasise that it is staff and volunteers that make the difference. ALNAP’s Annual Review of 2003 states explicitly: ‘Last year the Annual Review concluded that humanitarian staff compensated for inefficiencies and failings in the sector. The same is true this year.’

People In Aid

People In Aid began in 1993, as part of an effort to address the issue of accountability to staff and volunteers. Spurred on by the findings of Rebecca Macnair’s paper Room for Improvement, published as Network Paper 10 by the HPN’s previous incarnation, the Relief and Rehabilitation Network (RRN), a code of practice for managing staff was developed as an inter-agency project, drawing on input from British and Irish agencies, the UN family, continental European and US networks and many other organisations and individuals. The Code was launched in 1997, again as an RRN Network Paper. The Code of Best Practice in the Management and Support of Aid Personnel became a key tool for agencies concerned with improving their human resource management.

After the Code’s publication, there was an ongoing need to disseminate it and support agencies working with it. As a result, in 1999 People In Aid became a fully-fledged NGO, its aim to promote good practice in the management and support of aid personnel.. In September 2003, People In Aid replaced the original Code with a revised and updated version, the Code of Good Practice.

Today, People In Aid is a global network with around 40% of its members based outside the UK in, for example, the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Nepal and India. The original Code, specifically, was piloted by agencies based in the UK and Ireland, and implementation of the revised Code is being discussed with agencies based in Switzerland, Denmark, the UK, Australia, Honduras, the US and Nepal.

A people focus

The People In Aid Code was established because staff needs were recognised and considered important. Of course, it seems morally right to focus on ‘staff’, and this is consistent with the sector’s people-focused, consultative and participative values. But it is equally important to remember that staff are a major contributor to programme effectiveness and operational ‘success’.

This link between people and performance is increasingly coming under scrutiny, by donors as much as agencies. While many factors affect an organisation’s performance, People In Aid seeks to contribute by helping employers become more effective in the way they respond to and manage their staff, thus benefiting the individuals concerned and, ultimately, the organisation itself. The recognition that people are central to the achievement of an organisation’s mission is essential, and provides both the starting point and the driving force for the revised Code of Good Practice.

The key underlying messages which have informed the revision, and People In Aid’s recent activity, include:

  • A people focus. It is important to ensure that, while individual and organisational (and indeed team) needs are met, staff are not seen as impersonal human capital.
  • The status of human resources management inside the agency. There are internal and external pressures to ensure that the consideration of human resources issues percolates throughout the organisation, starting with the people formulating the long-term corporate strategy.
  • Quality. The quality of human resources management inside the agency contributes to the quality of service delivery. This requires a look at the whole spectrum including policy, practice, communication, training and monitoring.
  • Host-country staff. Raising the overall quality of human resource management throughout an organisation, without deliberate or inadvertent discrimination, is increasingly important.
  • Collaboration. If agencies can cooperate in areas such as security, then why not on human resources-related matters or policies?

The revised code

In revising the Code, People In Aid was concerned with a number of factors. First, it had to be recognisable as the successor to the Code of Best Practice, so there are still seven fundamental principles covering all aspects of people management, each enlarged by a series of indicators. Second, it had to reflect current good practice, which meant ensuring that the revision working group had the requisite range of experience and views, and garnering good practice case studies from as wide a range of sources as possible. Third, it had to remain accessible and easy to use, which meant incorporating comments from the agencies which had used the original Code.

Two particular areas where greater clarification was necessary were the way in which categories of staff were referred to in the Code, and the matter of standards.

The Code’s audience is now explicitly broader, and unhelpful categorisations of staff have been removed wherever possible. Any perception that the Code was only for emergency relief agencies employing Northerners as expatriates was always incorrect. But to reinforce the inclusive nature of the Code, the emphasis is now on staff as a single entity, irrespective of where they have been recruited, where they are based, and under what terms and conditions they may be working. The wide range of perspectives brought together to revise the Code also ensures that it is relevant and of potential benefit to every agency involved in humanitarian relief, development assistance or advocacy. The scope for local application taking into account cultural or legal norms remains, but the intention is clear – the Code applies to any and every size, origin and type of agency, irrespective of the staff they employ.

Another perception was that the Code offers standards. It certainly is a quality standard, but there are no standards to be found in the Code. Because this was a Code created for the sector by the sector, it sets out the areas of human resources deemed important for the effective fulfilment of the mission. People In Aid can supply benchmarks (for example, the percentage of staff costs allocated to training or time permitted for rest and relaxation periods), but the Code itself stands as a tool which encourages an agency to set, and work towards, its own targets. The value of the tool is reinforced through the social audit process, which remains the mechanism by which the Code’s implementation is verified.

In addition to these two key areas, three other changes merit brief mention.

First, the Code has changed its title from ‘best practice’ to ‘good practice’. This is in response to feedback from users, and reflects the fact that best practice, although desirable, is not always considered attainable. Good practice responds to realities in the sector; it is more pragmatic and more measurable.

Second, a guiding principle has been written which makes explicit what is generally accepted: that people are central to the achievement of our mission. What agency could not include this principle (or at least the spirit of it) in their core values or corporate strategy?

Third, improvements in good practice are primarily reflected in the wide variety of case studies. These emphasise the accessibility of the revised Code, and demonstrate that improvements to the way people are managed and supported are happening. They also remind us that good practice already takes place in agencies of all types and sizes. While the Code, in 1997, was a major contributor to raising the sector’s awareness of key areas such as health and safety and security, the revised version places greater emphasis on learning and training, recruitment and selection, the need for consideration of people to permeate all organisational plans and budgets, employee responsibility to the organisation and the monitoring of diversity and equal opportunities.

The Seven Principles

The Seven Principles are set out in logical order. For the organisationally-minded, the list goes from Principle 1 to 7. For the people-focused, it goes in reverse. The health, safety and security (Principle 7) of staff is ensured by the training (Principle 6) which follows effective recruitment (Principle 5). None of these processes will be effective without mechanisms to communicate with staff (Principle 4) about their role in the organisation (Principle 3) and without the policies to support them (Principle 2). All of this requires a budget and a plan, which derive from a central strategy (Principle 1).

One of the Code’s strengths is that it is an integrated approach to increasing the overall effectiveness of human resources management. The Code links activities back to organisational planning, and deals with them holistically. For example, a breakdown due to work-related stress is not just an issue for the individual, but should prompt a look at organisational culture or policies such as health and safety to prevent further incidents.

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Implementing the Code

One of the unique features of the Code is the implementation process. This is part of a ‘reality check’ for an agency, to ensure that policies and procedures are rooted in experience, and allows stakeholders, particularly staff, to gauge the organisational capacity of an agency.

In a sector where monitoring is a mantra, it may seem excessive to insist on a robust accountability mechanism for the Code, yet agencies called for this at the outset. Social audit, a process which is simple and relevant, was chosen as it reinforces the principles of communication and transparency which are key values of our sector and which are themselves part of the objectives of the Code’s implementation.

In the experience of People In Aid and those agencies which have implemented the Code, there are benefits to being verified as compliant. These extend beyond staff, volunteers and beneficiaries. Donors, partners, peers and even potential staff or volunteers recognise the steps an agency is taking to improve its human resource management. For those agencies that have worked through the implementation process the benefits have been tangible, and lasting improvements have been made, both for people and performance.

People In Aid’s ongoing contribution

As a network, People In Aid continues to facilitate inter-agency dialogue on human resource issues and support improvements in human resource management. The immediate priorities are:

  • to ensure that materials are prepared which will help implementing agencies as they find an area where they need to improve;
  • to use the revised Code and enhanced support capacity to increase the number of agencies around the world which are implementing the Code. At the time of writing, People In Aid is collaborating on this aspect of its work with agencies headquartered in six countries;
  • to spread the Code more widely. Translations into French and Spanish have been done, and People In Aid is looking into the linguistic and cultural translations likely to be required by, for example, Southern NGOs. The role of partnerships between Northern and Southern NGOs in human resources management is also being examined; and
  • to continue to raise awareness of human resources issues, and to facilitate the exchange of good practice in the sector.

If the original Code is anything to go by, the revised version will be shared with agencies around the world, and will be used for a wide variety of purposes. Future revisions will again respond to trends and comments, and it is interesting to speculate as to the changes in the sector which will need to be addressed. Who will NGOs be sharing humanitarian space with? What will litigation from employees have forced agencies to do? How much more of a role will Southern NGOs play? Will more Northern NGOs be heading South? These and other questions will undoubtedly transform the way agencies themselves function, and the way in which human resources management is delivered.


Jonathan Potter is Executive Director of People In Aid, and Ben Emmens is Human Resources Services Manager. Copies of the People In Aid Code of Good Practice can be obtained by e-mailing, or can be downloaded from

References and further reading

Humanitarian Action: Improving Monitoring To Enhance Accountability and Learning, ALNAP Annual Review, June 2003.
Rebecca Macnair, Room for Improvement: The Management and Support of Relief Workers, Network Paper 10, 1995, available from the HPN website at
Sara Davidson and Peter Raynard, Ahead of the Field, 2001, available from the People In Aid website at


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