Lots of talk in different places lately about a range of interrelated issues around “local.” How to bring local voices more to the center of the dialogue in the international humanitarian system; how to get more “local” individuals into roles of power and influence within our sector; how to inject local priorities into decision-making at higher levels.
This is one of those suites of issues for which it can feel difficult to establish a concrete link between the big pronouncements and what one actually does, day-to-day, somewhere in the aid industry as the manager of a diverse team. “I really want to empower my local staff, but I’m slammed with this stupid ECHO reporting cycle and hardly have time to think.” Or perhaps more difficult, “I gave 2/3 of my local staff raises or promotions last fiscal year. What more do you want from me?!”
For posterity, here is my approach:
Caveat 1: For this discussion, I assume that local voices becoming more prominent, local people becoming more influential within the global humanitarian system is the point. I’m not talking here about “localization” which I see, basically, as changing the ways local organizations are included (or not) in the system.
Caveat 2: Nothing here supersedes basic good management.
Treat national and international staff the same. Super basic. Start with this.
When you walk into a room with nationals and internationals, speak to them all, acknowledge them all. Have all-staff gatherings or open invitation gatherings; make the expats-only happy hours the extreme exception. If you’re going to hang out socially with your team (and it’s not a bad idea to do that up to a point), make it crystal clear via your words and your actions that you are hanging out equally with everyone. In the workplace, everyone on your team gets performance managed the same. Everyone is given access to the same opportunities for those coveted trainings in Dubai or workshops in Bali. When there is an opportunity for promotion, make sure that it is open to all (obviously based on qualification). Look at the composition of working groups and teams within your team and make sure that they are appropriately diverse.
You have to assiduously tabulate opportunities and perks provided—I literally keep a spreadsheet. Your staff do notice; they do keep track. Just because you don’t have a mutiny on your hand right now doesn’t mean the international relations dynamic of your office or team are healthy.
Getting this right is the basis for everything else that comes after. Yet I am continually surprised at how many experienced, senior people I meet across the industry who get this wrong; who don’t give this the attention it deserves.
With this as the basis, it is important to recognize the biggest obstacle faced by national staff within the humanitarian sector is mobility: Access to opportunity for lateral and vertical within humanitarian ecosystem. By contrast most “traditional” internationals come to the sector with a range of built-in mobility advantages. So, as expat managers it is our job to level that playing field a bit. In particular, there are three areas where you should focus with your national staff:
Understanding of the global humanitarian system and how it works: If the goal is to have local voices more front and center, more influential in that global system, then part of our role as internationals is to make sure that those national staff who work with and for us understand how to work and move within that system. I frequently (which is to say, every mission, ever) meet Western-educated interns who know more about the global humanitarian system than many national staff in the same office who have been churning along at the project level for years. And I have seen it happen more than once that the intern rose quickly through the ranks and perhaps some years later came back to supervise those same national staff who may or may not have moved on.
Some managers just sort of blindly promote national staff. Okay, promote national staff. But without those national staff understanding where that promotion puts them in the wider context and, importantly, along a (hopefully) known career path promotion is a nice gesture, but not necessarily more.
Every humanitarian should understand the global humanitarian system. It is something we all have to learn (PHAP now has a course on this). This is an area where I consistently see national staff arriving to the discussion below the level of many internationals, and as a result those national staff have to struggle that much harder to get the same kind of forward/upward momentum in the sector that comes to the international staff with comparative ease. As managers, it is our job to equalize that imbalance.
Equal treatment in the workplace and making sure national staff understand the global humanitarian system are foundational. Once that foundation is set, there are two specific targets to aim for.
The management/leadership threshold: This is a crucial barrier inside the humanitarian system that many national staff struggle to breach. There is a dimension of this that relates to level in the organization and to title, but it is also more than that. I think we’ve all seen situations where someone kept getting promoted into incrementally higher positions with ever more specialized titles, even though their actual level of influence did not change (or maybe even became less). By “management” in this case I mean that by title and position, and in actual practice they supervise people, they have financial authority, they can commit to a course of action on behalf of the organization.
To be clear: Supporting national staff to cross the management threshold is a lot of work. We have to actively look for talent, which means time spent with people, knowing their capability and performance, and genuinely helping them develop in areas where they’re weak. Which, in turn, requires planning and methodology. “Local staff capacity building” cannot be just a random sequence of one-off training workshops and promotions. It is not creating unique positions in a structure just for them. Rather, it means looking carefully at resources available and making tough choices about how to deploy those, and then being able to explain rationally why you chose what you chose (because in my experience, investment in local staff mobility is almost always questioned by someone, at some point).
Enabling national staff to cross the management threshold also involves risk to you, and maybe your willingness to stand up to your organization. There may come a time when you are pressured to fill a particular position with an international, and you have to burn some political capital or lay your own reputation on the line over a national colleague whose capacity to step-up and perform in that role/at that level is still unproven.
The international threshold. Once national staff get their first international assignment, the world fundamentally changes for them. There is professional growth that happens almost organically as the nature of their engagement with the global humanitarian system changes. They have access exponentially more opportunity for mobility within the sector. Their career universe expands. It confers a set of huge advantages that even the intern from D.C. on a 6-month rotation in Amman already enjoys, but that many national staff must wait years into their careers to realize.
Achieving this does not mean that challenges are over, that the opportunities are completely equal, that they are now on track to be CEO of the organization or global cluster lead or head of WFP. It won’t mean that the world is suddenly a fair place. But crossing the international threshold is the thing that actually puts national staff into the game for real. When we talk about centering voices from the “global south” or bringing local perspectives more meaningfully into the global dialogue, this is the point at which those become actual possibilities.
This requires a particular mindset for international leaders and managers. Specifically, it means that we try to intentionally lose our very best national staff. It means that we have to get out of our concentric bubbles of country programme, team, organization, or whatever and—not to be cliché—look at this as one of those areas where we can contribute to a greater good. I take personal and professional pride in recounting those people I have managed who performed well, left my team, and went on to important positions in other organizations, elsewhere in the humanitarian system.
Yes, this means national staff become international staff; locals themselves become expats. Some people brow-furrow when I say this. “Won’t they just recreate the same problems in other places that traditional expats created in their home countries?” Honestly, I doubt it. My experience with national staff who became international is that there’s no kind of system failure or meltdown that occurs. Some locals become expats and struggle with homesickness and culture shock, just as many of us did and do. Some of them seem to transition effortlessly.
In any case, on this point and speaking as an international to other internationals, our role here is to give them the space to learn the things that we also learned; to not judge them for making some of the same mistakes that we ourselves once made; and to change the nature of our relationship from supervisor or boss to mentor or coach (if they’ll have us).