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What do UN member states want out of an HR strategy?

5 November 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Chalkboard with the words People, Leadership, Reward, Motivate written on it and a glass globe sitting on top.

This week, the UNESCO General Conference, comprising all its member states, begins. The Conference is expected to approve the new Human Resources Strategy for UNESCO for the period 2023-2027. An earlier draft along with the independent evaluation of the previous HR strategy was presented to the Preparatory Group of UNESCO’s Executive Board in April this year, and subsequently the full Executive Board. These reviews by member state bodies have led to some changes in the final version of the Strategy that the General Conference will endorse.

Our spotlight this week examines how UNESCO's HR Strategy has changed since April, thereby highlighting what HR issues are the most important to UN member states. We then use new research to assess the likelihood of member states getting what they want out of this updated HR Strategy.

While the vast majority of what was originally proposed in April has remained in the final Strategy, the member state review has led to a variety of changes related to diversity. Of the four inter-related strategic aims of the HR Strategy, the second one is focused on promoting inclusion and diversity across the UNESCO workforce. While the description of this aim highlights inclusion in terms of race, disability, language, age, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, the deliverables and KPIs are focused first on attaining an equitable geographic distribution and second on fostering an organizational culture that enables inclusion, equity and diversity, starting with a gender action plan. The April version of the Strategy had the reverse order, which highlights the importance that member states place on geographic distribution. Last March, the decisions of the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee similarly reinforced the ultimate importance of geographic distribution over gender parity.

This emphasis on bureaucratic representation of the member states amongst UNESCO staff is similarly reflected in the other changes made in the Strategy during the recent reviews. Activities which increase the career opportunities for international staff counted towards UNESCO’s geographic distribution now make up the bulk of the KPIs. Establishment of a dedicated coaching and mentoring programme for the Young Professionals Programme, a programme to facilitate entry level recruitment for people from under and unrepresented member states is a new KPI in the final version of the Strategy. Another new KPI is the development of Career Development Plans for Junior Professional Officers (JPOs), Young Professionals (YPs), and National Professional Officers (NPOs). A relatively new programme, the Mid-level Professionals Programme (MLPP), which is also targeted at under and unrepresented member states is going to be assessed. The April version of the Strategy indicated that the assessment would inform how the MLPP would be taken forward. The final version of the Strategy now has “continued successful implementation of the MLPP" as a new KPI.

What is also interesting is what these new activities have replaced or ignored. The new Career Development Support for JPOs, YPs and NPOs replaces April’s proposal to create new career opportunities for national and general service staff, which is no longer listed as a KPI. National and general service staff are generally not counted when determining geographic balance of a UN organization. Virtually all of the changes made by member states explicitly or implicitly reinforce the importance of measuring UNESCO's diversity primarily by counting the nationality of staff appointed to international 'geographic' positions. This emphasis of member states ignores the evaluation’s finding that UNESCO staff perceive that the

“focus on diversity in terms of nationalities at times conflicted with merit-based recruitment and promotion.” - Evaluation of UNESCO's HR Strategy for 2017-2022

All of this highlights that equitable geographic representation appears to be more important to member states than a more holistically diverse workforce, or the UN Secretary-General's aim of gender parity, or even perceptions that geography can trump merit-based recruitment. Or, geographic balance is one of the few points that they can all agree on in a human resources strategy - perhaps because it is also spelled out in constitutional documents, unlike other aspects of diversity. But does member state agreement that this is their priority make it more likely to be achieved?

The political compromises arising from the member state review have created a level of incoherence within UNESCO's HR Strategy. It is supposed to be fully inclusive and recognize the value of all parts of the workforce, yet there is no longer any reference to career support for general service staff. Junior Professional Officers who tend to be from wealthier, over-represented countries do however get additional career support. Diversity measures are primarily focused on counting geographic diversity of international posts and there are no indicators to measure other forms of diversity beyond gender parity.

A recent study by Dr. Ben Christian of the Goethe University in Frankfurt highlights the impact of such incoherence on change and reform efforts. Because political compromises are inherent to international organizations, they are more prone to ‘organized hypocrisy’ than private companies, for instance. Organized hypocrisy allows the management to reconcile the different and sometimes competing political demands of member states and within their own leadership, especially during times of change when finding genuine consensus becomes even more difficult. However, as Dr. Christian found:

employees who observe a discrepancy between 'talk' and 'action' will thus neither believe that their organization is honest nor that it has strong moral principles. Instead, it can be expected that they will become cynical in the face of perceived hypocrisy.” - B. Christian, Working for World Peace: Between Idealism and Cynicism in International Organizations, 2023

This cynicism amongst staff is a kind of natural coping mechanisms to deal with the contradictions, which is understandable. But it also contributes to the lack of trust between staff and management that is often apparent across the UN. Trust in leadership is an important success factor in facilitating public sector reform, as research has shown. The UNESCO HR Strategy itself recognizes the importance of trust for its own success when it commits the Director of Human Resources Management to "foster a culture of mutual trust and respect across the Organization". However, trust will be difficult for staff who raised concerns during the evaluation about how diversity is measured when the Strategy ignores the recommendation to “consider different concepts of defining diversity beyond statistics and away from a unique focus on nationalities” (pg. 37). It will not be surprising that General Service staff become cynical when they hear and read about the importance of inclusion at UNESCO, but their career development needs were removed from the Strategy's KPIs.

As Dr. Christian highlights, cynicism makes employees less willing to engage with change efforts or believe they will really lead to different outcomes.

On the one hand, cynicism can be a coping strategy for IO [international organization] employees when constantly dealing with failure and conflicting goals. On the other hand, cynicism can also become a threat to IOs as it stands in the way of organizational reforms succeeding and deficiencies being remedied, thus reinforcing its own origins like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” - B. Christian, Working for World Peace: Between Idealism and Cynicism in International Organizations, 2023

Ironically, it means that the political compromises to finalize and adopt UNESCO’s HR Strategy may also make the change that the Strategy is trying to achieve less likely. The HR Strategy wisely recognizes that its implementation is a shared responsibility between managers, staff and the Human Resources division. But the member state compromises will make it difficult for staff and managers to avoid developing a certain level of cynicism about the Strategy and fulfill their responsibilities. Member state frustration at the inability to achieve geographic balance - which has plagued the organization since its establishment - will only grow and lead them to impose more compromises when this Strategy does not yield sufficient results. All of this leads to a vicious cycle in which actual improvements become harder and harder to achieve, and member states are less likely to get what they want.


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The UNGA's Fifth Committee continues its consideration of the proposed programme and budget for 2024, including the Capital Master Plan and construction at UNON, and administrative expenses of the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund.

  • UNESCO's General Conference runs from 7-22 November 2023. In addition to substantive policy issues, it is expected to approve the 2024-2025 budget and the new Human Resources Strategy for UNESCO.


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