top of page

Do national staff make an international organization field-focused?

19 June 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

UNWomen's pivot to the field and workforce planning.

women hidden by leaves so you can only see her eye

This week, the UNWomen Executive Board holds its annual session in New York. The Board will consider the Executive Director’s annual report on implementation of its Strategic Plan for 2022-2025, which includes several elements intended to support UNWomen’s ‘pivot’ to the field. Both during the Board’s formal session and in an informal briefing on 22 June after the session, member states will receive reports on UNWomen’s operational impact in the field.

Our spotlight this week uses the latest research to explore whether national staff are an underutilized resource for operational impact in the field. Are national staff able to make an international organization more field-focused?

Policy & programme implementation is more effective if global standards and norms can be translated and tailored to the local context. This has been demonstrated in academic studies for decades and is a point raised in many evaluations by international organizations themselves, including, for instance, UNWomen’s evaluation of its work in Women’s Economic Empowerment, that the Board is considering this week (see, for example, Conclusion #8). Recent research on innovation in the UN similarly demonstrates that success and positive impact for beneficiaries is dependent on a high degree of contextualization to the local environment. Consequently, staff and processes that allow international organizations to accumulate and apply local knowledge are likely to lead to greater operational impact and better performance.

What national staff bring to international organizations

Not only do local staff generally possess more knowledge of the local context, but their language skills and social networks means they are better placed to quickly amass and adapt that contextual knowledge as operations evolve. National staff are also uniquely placed to build trust and credibility with local stakeholders and national authorities, which is so important for effective programming. As researchers at Stanford University and University College London pointed out, decisions about the balance of national versus international staff in an office “can greatly influence the extent to which information flows into country offices, as well as the nature of that information, with substantial implications for organizational learning and performance.”

("Managing Aid Personnel' (2022) in preparation for the Elgar Handbook on Aid & Development, , pg. 4)

While local ties can be beneficial, they also mean that national staff are potentially at risk of “capture” by local interests, with implications for their own impartiality and by extension their organization’s. Given that impartiality is a key source of international organizations’ legitimacy this is a serious concern. Workforce planning therefore needs to find the right balance of enhancing a field office’s local knowledge, credibility and impartiality. Two interesting new empirical studies provide some concrete insights on finding that balance.

The first, by Dr. Mirko Heinzel of the University of Potsdam, takes a look at the impartiality of national staff involved in more than 50,000 procurement decisions taken in 1729 World Bank projects. He finds that when national staff are involved in those procurement decisions, the probability of national suppliers' winning procurement contracts increases. But this is not due to any restrictions of competition in the process, such as single source waivers, which would be a red flag for potential corruption. In fact, the study finds that such competitive restrictions are less likely when national staff are involved in the procurement process as compared to international staff. The study therefore challenges some of the inherent assumptions about the likelihood of national staff being ‘captured’ by local interests, concluding that:

"the evidence suggests that national IO staff seem to use their country-specific knowledge to increase the development effectiveness of procurement, rather than engaging in favoritism due to divided loyalties." – 'Divided loyalties? The role of national IO staff in aid-funded procurement', Governance (Oct. 2022), pg. 1185

The second study uses survey data of 306 international and national staff from 22 UN system organizations working in 100 countries to identify perceived strengths of each category of staff. In the case of international staff, a critical mass of both international and national staff respondents in the survey, could only agree on one strength: their ability to maintain impartiality towards various local groups. There was no agreement between both categories about the impartiality of national staff, but as the previous study indicates, those opinions may not be based on evidence.

Furthermore, there was agreement across both categories of staff regarding three strengths of national staff:

  • Contextualizing activities to the specific local environment,

  • Interacting seamlessly with the local population and elites, and,

  • Gaining trust of local partners and enhancing credibility that the international organization was acting primarily in the interest of the host country.

While this study analyzed opinions, the evidence in the previous study also reinforces these findings regarding the strengths of national staff.

Considerations for Workforce Planning

In finding the right balance of national and international staff, consideration should be on where their respective strengths can have the greatest operational impact - rather than budgetary pressures, which is often the reality. Gus Greenstein (Stanford) and Dan Honig (University College London) highlight the following contexts in which national staff strengths can be brought to bear for greater performance:

  1. Institution-building, which requires greater knowledge of local norms and power structures; and,

  2. Highly uncertain environments, because “equipped with the contextual fluency needed to quickly assess changing conditions and recalibrate agreements with local stakeholders, local staff are more likely to be essential where environments are constantly shifting.” (Managing Aid Personnel, pg. 5)

In this regard, it is interesting to consider the proportion of national officers within the professional workforce outside of the headquarters of different UN organizations. At the end of 2021, UNDP, which operates in many highly uncertain environments and also undertakes institution-building had an even balance of 50% national officers and 50% international professional staff working outside of their headquarters. WFP, which is generally considered to be a high performing international organization (see our 27 Feb. newsletter) comes in at 57% of national officers in their workforce outside HQ, and UNICEF tops the list at 64%. Interestingly, at UNHCR, national officers only comprise 27% of their professional workforce outside of headquarters (Data source: UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) personnel statistics as of 31 December 2021, CEB/2022/HLCM/HR/5). In that same CEB report, UNWomen indicated a 50:50 balance, which is why it is interesting that in the budget for 2024-2025, the staffing table indicates that national officers are expected to make up 39% of their professional workforce outside headquarters (our calculation excludes locally-recruited General Service staff).

Staffing statistics alone are not sufficient to assess whether an organization is field-focused, nor does it necessarily mean that national staff capacities are being fully utilized for performance. National staff need to be included and have a voice in analytical and programme discussions for them to contribute to organizational performance. As the WFP evaluation of its peacebuilding policy highlighted:

"the limited role of national employees limits progress in many settings…. National employees are key to conflict awareness but are often not involved in strategic discussions." – para. 52 of Evaluation of the Policy on WFP’s Role in Peacebuilding in Transition Settings

Thus, the final workforce planning consideration is ensuring that the appropriate management is put in place to allow the organization to fully reap the benefits of national staff. The right balance of national and international staff with inclusive management approaches can allow international organizations to strengthen their position and operational impact in the field.

So for those reviewing budgets and staffing composition, or involved in workforce planning, we suggest the following points to consider:

  1. In which programmes or locations can the organization benefit most from national staff?

  2. Does the management in those programmes or locations have the right skills and competencies to manage diverse teams of international and national staff?

  3. What systems are in place to monitor and address potential impartiality concerns quickly to avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest (including misperceptions among international and national staff)?


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • UNWomen's Executive Board holds its annual session from 19-21 June 2023. It will consider the Executive Director's annual report, integrated budget estimates for 2024-2025, audit and evaluation reports, UNWomen's operational response in Europe and Central Asia, efforts to combat sexual exploitation and abuse and UNWomen's contribution to the repositioning of the UN Development System. On 22 June, there is also an informal briefing of member states on impact of UNWomen's triple mandate in Afghanistan, the Caribbean and Kenya.


bottom of page