Communication for Sustainable Development

Aid policy: towards more diversity in aid agencies

When long-time humanitarian Margie Buchanan-Smith was interviewed for one of her first field posts – in Sudan in the 1980s – she was asked: “Will you burst out crying when you arrive?” “No,” she replied – and got the job. But when she arrived she was one of few women on the ground, and was always questioned if she was up to it.
Things have moved on since then: There are thousands of women working at all levels of the humanitarian sector, but when it comes to the top positions, at least in Western international NGOs and particularly in the field, staff are too often white and male,
said humanitarian leaders IRIN spoke to, and a 2011 ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) study on humanitarian leadership.
IRIN spoke to NGO staff whose headquarters were respectively in the UK, Johannesburg and Geneva, as well as to staff at headquarters in the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
Proactive schemes to diversify leadership help, say practitioners, but do not tackle the heart of the problem: a workaholic culture that is not conducive to families, and in some cases, latent discrimination against national staff and women.
Gender parity in leadership at the field and HQ levels is a long way off, but NGO headquarters tend to be better at it. When it comes to national staff leadership, UN agencies perform better than NGOs, according to individual agencies and ALNAP.
Among UN agencies and international NGOs, some do better on gender parity than others. Oxfam GB and Care International’s humanitarian management lines are all-female; 41 and 43 percent of UNICEF’s and ActionAid’s senior staff, respectively, are women; and four of ActionAid’s six directors are female. Statistics on national staff who have made it to top positions in the humanitarian sector are not available, but according to interviewees, are low outside the UN.
Benefits of diversity
Literature outside of the humanitarian sector shows diverse teams are more creative and better at problem-solving. “That would logically transfer to the humanitarian situation – the more diverse you are, the more likely you are to come up with a workable solution,” said Kim Scriven, co-author of the ALNAP report.
According to Margie Buchanan-Smith, the report’s principal author, diverse team members will bring different perspectives, approaches – even values – into the work, which is suitable in the humanitarian environment where agencies have to work together or alongside such diverse actors, from local communities to recipient governments to the military.
As CARE International’s senior gender in emergencies specialist Mireia Cano Vinas put it: “When we do emergency assessments we separate focus groups into men and women as they… bring different issues forward. The same applies to senior leadership.”
Susan Nicolai, who has worked in emergency response for 12 years and is deputy coordinator of the global education cluster, working for Save the Children, hypothesized whether historic male leadership may also have sidelined some response sectors – notably protection and education – which are female-dominated, and consistently severely under-funded in Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) appeals.
Unconscious discrimination
The reasons why women and national staff are under-represented in leadership roles remain hypothetical: As yet, no official studies have been undertaken. Given this, interviewees identified two major problems: latent discrimination and the humanitarian work culture.
Discrimination is not deliberate, stressed Buchanan-Smith. Rather, where it is present, it is “unconscious and implicit”. It may emerge in indirect ways, such as what qualities agencies prioritize when hiring staff. A national field staffer who is excellent at dealing with local communities, negotiating access, and setting up programmes, may not move up because he or she lacks strong written English, which may be prioritized by head office.
People can make discriminatory assumptions, and have prejudices, about the priorities, experience and abilities of national staff, notes ALNAP. Those national staff and women who do become leaders often have had to work harder than their internationally-recruited counterparts to establish credibility. A Senegalese humanitarian worker with 10 years of international experience in NGOs and UN agencies, told IRIN: “It is very difficult to move from a local to an international position because there is a lot of internal resistance to it… Agencies do not necessarily put in the time and effort to train them in international systems, and they are not open to it.”
Diversity in statistics:
OCHA: Some 31 percent of OCHA’s senior positions (P4 and P5 grades) are held by women; 34 percent of P5s are women. Three out of five of its most senior positions are held by women, including the head, Valerie Amos. “That is a good start in terms of setting the standard, there is of course much to do at all levels… we don’t need more gender policies, we need more commitment to implement them,” says John Ging, director of operations at OCHA.
UNICEF: About 30 percent of recruitment is for emergency positions. In the top 10 countries where fast-tracking staff and recruitment are a priority, 41 percent of international emergency roles are held by women; one third of these are at the highest leadership level. However, most of those applying for such roles are men. “For those [women] who have spent a long time in the field, you have options – whether it is your family situation that’s changed, or you’re just tired of hardship duty stations… We often see more women in leadership positions at headquarters, or in family duty stations,” says Bintou Keita, deputy director of customer relationships and human resource effectiveness at UNICEF.
WFP: As of August 2011, 37 percent of the 388 people at senior or mid-management levels were women, with an equal split between field and head office positions. The agency has a gender parity policy.
CARE International: In Europe and the US there are more humanitarian female staff than male; but women rarely dominate senior management teams or at board level, with the exceptions of Austria and Denmark. Peru, Canada and Thailand have a 50:50 gender split in senior management teams. Everywhere else, women are in the minority.
ActionAid: The NGO has a “federation” model: Each office is set up as a national entity, run by a national and with a board with 50 percent gender targets, and a diversity target that should reflect the population make-up in each country. Diversity is reviewed and reported on annually. “Our approach means we’ve got a head-start on some other organizations,” says Judith Davey, director of performance and accountability at ActionAid.
As a result, national staff become frustrated and lack motivation, creating a vicious circle. “Those who do succeed only do so through endless persevering and by encountering an individual who gives them a chance,” she said.
Family (un)friendly
When it comes to gender parity at the top, ALNAP notes it is not clear whether barriers are to do with discrimination, or with “the time demands and the personal cost of operational humanitarian leadership, which may be a challenge for women who universally bear the main burden of family and caring responsibilities.”
While not discounting the former, Oxfam’s deputy humanitarian director, Graham Mackay, says he believes rearing children while leading in humanitarian organizations poses problems for both men and women. The only one of three people in the Oxfam humanitarian directorate with children, he told IRIN: “I have a real problem with the travel – making the arrangements is always painful… but perhaps the equation is slightly easier for me as a man than if I was a woman.”
Though no studies have been conducted, many interviewees said they knew of very few women with families who had successfully made it to the top. Several years ago, the entire humanitarian management team at Oxfam GB was entirely made up of single people or divorcees, none of whom had children. Rather than work on their marriages, many successful humanitarian leaders spoke of being “married to their work” or making a “personal sacrifice”; and many humanitarians conceptualize leadership as involving unhealthily long working hours as evidence of commitment, said Buchanan-Smith.
Many agencies have moved on at headquarters. Most have gender policies and give gender and diversity training; some run leadership courses, such as ActionAid’s Women’s Leadership Programme, in which men are also encouraged to participate. But some large international NGOs are still said to espouse the macho, testosterone-led image that emergency teams used to be known for, said interviewees, including Vinas, Mackay, and Amelia Bookstein (now with the British Red Cross and formerly having worked for CAFOD, Save the Children and Oxfam).
“I don’t think diversity is improving and I do think it’s a problem… I am always pleasantly surprised when I find a woman in a leadership position, because it’s really against the odds,” Bookstein told IRIN.
The workaholic humanitarian culture is unlikely to change any time soon, noted several managers. Both individuals and agencies should make more effort to recognize that while 16-hour days are often required in a sudden-onset disaster, they need not be the norm on a continuous basis, said Buchanan-Smith.
All the diversity schemes in the world cannot change the fact that in some duty stations, it is hard to get anyone – male or female – to do the job over the long-term, stressed Shannon Maguire Mulholland, team leader for humanitarian surge capacity at UNICEF. “In countries like Afghanistan it’s hard for us to get anyone to do this job, let alone to ensure leadership has gender diversity,” she told IRIN, having noted that UNICEF has many opportunities for female humanitarian staff in development rather than humanitarian contexts who wish to settle down and have families.
And some expectation of last-minute travel to at-times insecure situations is simply part of the job, said Save the Children’s Nicolai. “Some women may choose not to go. Women make that decision.” But agencies can at least make working and living conditions as good as they can be, given such tough circumstances, said CARE’s Vinas, by for instance, providing good security, decent accommodation and food.
Agencies have at least recognized that national staff need more support to develop their careers, said interviewees. A few large international NGOs have, for instance, set up the Emergency Capacity Building scheme, which runs a humanitarian leadership development programme. Through this, national staff are trained in leadership skills for one year and then join a roster for leadership positions. The scheme has a 95 percent placement rate thus far, according to Leonie Lonton, head of human resources for Save the Children, which hosts the programme.
While not limited to national country programme staff, a central aim of the scheme is to build up their capacity. “These are the leaders of tomorrow, with the potential to take up leadership positions in mid-to-senior management,” said Lonton.
However, while international NGOs have made strides in career development over recent years, it remains a weak spot for many humanitarian agencies, said Oxfam’s Mackay, who suggests there may be a policy clash with career development and equal opportunity employment, which requires an open, competitive recruitment process for every post.
Nonetheless, some agencies have significantly moved on and they must lead the way for the laggards, said Buchanan-Smith, while noting that diversity will look different for each NGO and UN agency across the world, depending on its mandate, history, and organizational structure – be it an alliance, a federation or another entity. The humanitarian sector is one that is “willing to examine itself”, summed up Nicolai, “and to be critical in ways that can change the landscape and the way we do our work, so the change will come eventually.”

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