The 1990s have brought new challenges to the international aid community. The end of the Cold War did not signal the beginnings of a more peaceful global environment, but it did open a Pandora’s box of options for intervention in unstable situations. The amount of money allocated to relief budgets has risen steadily in the past five years; the military has become an important new actor on the humanitarian stage; the number and size of NGOs engaged in relief and development activities continues to grow rapidly. At least for those involved in relief, the aid business is booming.

The rapid expansion of the “relief industry” has brought with it new pressures – political and financial, to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of aid. It has also brought demands for improved accountability to beneficiaries and to donors. People want to be sure that aid is doing more good than harm in the Rwandas and Yugoslavias of this world.

Responding to the challenge of regulation, in 1994 the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief was launched. Those involved in drafting the Code were aware that a key to improving standards and maintaining humanitarian principles was to promote a new culture of professionalism within the relief community. While the origins of the Code lie in relief, many of the questions and issues it defines are generic to development interventions as well.

The Code of Conduct lays out grand concepts and principles, but what about the people on the frontline, who are actually doing the work? It is self-evident that to do a good job you need good people. But just who are we talking about? What skills, abilities and training are needed? Where do these ‘good’ people come from, and how are they to be managed, supported and sustained?

It is clear, but not often stated, that the demands of the job require an unusual combination of human abilities. Yet the issue of human resources somehow never quite makes it on to the policy agenda: staffing is left to personnel officers who are under ever greater pressure to find the perfect development/relief/aid worker for a person specification which no normal person could hope to match.

The findings and recommendations of the study reported in this paper place human resource management centre-stage in the debate about the quality and effectiveness of aid programmes. Commissioned by four agencies centrally involved in expatriate recruitment and the Overseas Development Administration, it shows that weaknesses remain endemic in the recruitment and management of expatriate staff.

A professional approach, drawing on the best current practice is critical. The report’s two key recommendations are for a code of good practice in the recruitment and management of staff and the creation of a professional body for relief and development. This would complement and strengthen the Code of Conduct referred to above. Further work on the implementation of the recommendations is expected to be carried out by an Inter-Agency Coordinator, who will be managed by an expanded steering group of agencies. Importantly, these proposals were supported in principle by representatives of 28 agencies who attended a workshop early in August 1995 to debate the then draft recommendations.

This report may well raise more questions than answers. Why expatriates? is the obvious first question. It was felt by the steering group that the study represents a first step towards creating a professional approach to recruitment and management, and that we need to get our own house in order. There is a need to challenge the assumptions which have informed recruitment and management of aid projects in previous decades. Promoting debate internationally to inform future strategies of staff selection and training, and to define mechanisms for regulating professional standards of personnel and employers is essential. Feedback on this paper and the issues it raises is therefore particularly welcome.


Comments are available for logged in members only.