If high staff turnover is unavoidable, how should we redesign aid work to cope?

September 10, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

One of the implicit assumptions that often underlies programme design is that the people who initially come up with an idea and turn it into a project or programme then stick around and implement it.

The reality is often very different – high levels of staff turnover are almost universal in both NGOs and aid agencies, with serious consequences.groundhog day On the way over to Australia, I bumped into an Oxfam gender adviser in Afghanistan, who told me that typically expats work a couple of years, then leave, either through burn out or because they are on short term contracts. Then new arrivals start the learning process all over again (often including repeating the same approaches and discussions of the previous years – at worst, producing a Groundhog Day of ‘steep learning curves’, followed by loss of the accumulated knowledge. Then repeat.)

This problem doesn’t just apply to expats – a lot of local staff get a couple of years’ INGO experience under their belts, only to be lured away by better salaries working for the UN or government aid agencies, or the need to progress their careers elsewhere. Acting as a training institution for other, larger organizations may strengthen the system as a whole, but it doesn’t make it easy to run an effective programme.

So today’s essay question is, would our programmes look different if we assumed average staff turnover of, say, 2 years? Some thoughts:

Knowledge Management: nothing worse than coming into a project to find anything useful buried in a chaotic filing system, and much of the implicit knowledge (eg on how things actually work) not written down at all. How can we get better at capturing useful knowledge, and make it readily accessible? Should people’s departure include a week in a padded room without internet, to write up their experience? Make back to office reports after field trips more systematic and retrievable?

knowledgeOutsourcing the wisdom: an alternative is to find more stable sources of knowledge and insight – local academics, ex-aid workers who still live in the area, or (even better), make sure that ‘partnership’ includes a full briefing of incoming staff by communities or partner civil society organizations. In some cases it might even be worth setting up a network or organization to provide this kind of institutional/issue memory – imagine every incoming gender worker arriving in Kabul spent a week with half a dozen Afghans/expats with decades of combined experience in gender work. Even better if this was backed up with a serious bit of mentoring, with each new gender worker in Afghanistan able to pick the brains of someone who’d been through it before, or (as mentors may not be permanently on tap), set up a group of sages, who can receive and feed back on regular email updates from current staff. Think how much collective time that could save, allowing people to build on past knowledge, go further, stand on the shoulders of giants etc etc – wouldn’t that be worth funding?

Turnover makes it even more necessary to adopt working practices based on iteration and review, rather than designing the Big Plan and then implementing it – iteration (as in the power and change cycle) means each succeeding wave of workers helps design and improve the programme, and in the process understands it.

Any other suggestions?

September 10, 2013
Duncan Green