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Humanitarian Recruitment: Shifting the dial towards respectful practices

Ethical recruitment in the humanitarian sector has gained momentum in recent years, thanks in large part to the Charter4Change, which has championed the cause since 2015. The Charter maintains a commitment for all signatories to “address and prevent the negative impact of recruiting national NGO staff during emergencies.” Additionally, the Start Network’s Transforming Surge Capacity Project (TSCP) proposed high-level ethical recruitment guidelines for the sector, affirming the importance of fair, open, and transparent processes and limiting intentional headhunting and ‘poaching’ of local staff. But does this go far enough to address the recruitment challenges in the sector?

International NGOs are recruiting more and more local staff into their teams. This demonstrates important gains for representation and bringing local perspectives into international field offices, but it can also bring unintended consequences for the local organisations they leave behind. When critical local staff are recruited into larger international organisations this drains existing local capacity and can create detrimental impacts on operations and sustainability for smaller organisations.

Our new report, Respectful Recruitment in Humanitarian Response: Why we need it and how to do it, delves into these impacts and presents a way for the sector to come together to more holistically manage these challenges.

You can learn more about this research in our latest podcast episode.

What is respectful recruitment?

Respectful recruitment considers the consequences of all recruitment decisions and takes action to mitigate their negative impacts. It seeks to support and maintain a healthy local and national humanitarian system that will continue to be effective in the absence of international actors. It builds on existing efforts towards ethical recruitment to better understand how the sector can support local organisations that are dealing with the impacts associated with the loss of critical staff.

So what, who cares?

The Charter4Change 2022 progress report claims that 76% of signatories have implemented ethical recruitment guidelines in their organisation and have taken steps to reduce the recruitment of local staff in the immediate aftermath of an emergency and/or to reduce recruitment from local partners. However, national staff interviewed for this research maintained that HQ-level policy rarely translates to the local level and they have yet to see the benefits of these policies.

“The discussion is good but there is a complete disconnect between HQ and country offices […] They sign on to all the changes but can’t enforce commitments.”

Problems associated with recruitment practice are widely acknowledged in the sector, but there is limited documented evidence of the scale of the problem or how this impacts local organisations. A global survey launched for this research, gathering 136 responses across 26 countries, indicated that 86% of respondents had experienced staff leaving to join larger organisations, with 30% claiming that this happens often (several times per year).

Even when organisations employ fair and ethical recruitment practices, negative impacts remain. This research identified four core areas of impact, including disruption and delays in program implementation due to loss of key programming staff, and consequent reputational damage in the community and/or with donors; financial strain; and diminished strength of civil society due to loss of leadership and weakened institutional capacity.

“We lose people to high-paying country offices and UN. Since we don’t have enough money, we get people from universities whose salary expectations are not that high. We invest a lot of time and energy, and when they are trained, they leave. It causes serious institutional weakening.”

So, what can we do?

There is opportunity for the sector to better support respectful recruitment by building and embedding practices that enable staff movement, while also addressing potentially negative impacts on local leadership more broadly.

This research included case studies in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Ukraine, exploring immensely different contexts to better understand how these issues play out within a number of different contextual factors. It shows that an adaptable approach is needed, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to guide the sector towards respectful recruitment. It argues that a new approach is needed to allow actors operating in a country to come together to undertake a collaborative assessment of the contextual factors that are influencing recruitment practice and identify the realistic opportunities to meet these challenges.

This process will look different in different contexts. In efforts to offer guidance on navigating the intricacies of these issues, our report includes three research-based but hypothetical scenarios, exploring a diverse range of contextual factors, this includes stage and type of response, amount of funding available, level of education and labour market in context, strength of civil society, and existing relationships and trust between international and national actors. Each scenario is presented from diverse views of both international and local actors and analysed to provide the most feasible and impactful solutions to drive change. For example, by embedding respectful recruitment practice in organisational policy and culture, designating a dedicated senior staff member to monitor these practices, and prioritising long-term institutional partnerships with local actors to be able to recognise and prioritise appropriate levels of support when necessary. When asked how larger organisations could better support them through staff transitions, local actors consistently advocated for meaningful two-way capacity exchange that was co-designed and implemented to meet agreed needs.

“They can work with us, if their experts can work with us then we can develop ourselves; it’s not training, it’s a joint working approach.”

While the scenarios cannot capture every context, the report also includes an adaptable activity guide to guide organisations in engaging with the scenarios and developing their own strategies to address these issues in context.

Tackling these issues will require significant buy-in from donors and international organisations to think beyond the short-term needs of their individual organisations to see the bigger picture beyond their exit strategy. For more detailed information and specific recommendations for international agencies and donors, and also for local organisations in positioning themselves and advocating for change, please see our recent report: Respectful Recruitment: Why we need it and how to do it.

For more information about this research or support in implementing changes in your own organisation, please contact the research team:

Eranda Wijewickrama at

Jesse McCommon at

Our latest podcast episode explores how the humanitarian sector can deliver differently through respectful recruitment practices – listen here: I Think You’re On Mute.