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What Makes a Good HR Strategy for International Organizations?

23 April 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Finger points to chart written on transparent whiteboard

This week, the Preparatory Group of UNESCO’s Executive Board will review the evaluation of it’s Human Resources Strategy for 2017-2022 in anticipation of the Board’s approval of the next HR Strategy for 2023-2027. Last week, the UN General Assembly also asked the Secretary-General to come up with a human resources strategy for the UN Secretariat, so this week’s spotlight asks the question: What makes a good human resources strategy for international


The evaluation of UNESCO’s Human Resources Strategy hits on three key points which help answer the question of what makes a good HR strategy:

  1. Having a comprehensive scope for the strategy;

  2. Ensuring coherence and strategic positioning of the HR Strategy and the HR function in the organization; and,

  3. Recognizing the importance of comprehensive ownership of the strategy across the organization.

A key weakness of UNESCO’s 2017-2022 HR Strategy highlighted in its evaluation was that it focused exclusively on UNESCO staff and excluded non-staff, i.e. temporary appointees or those on short-term contracts, as well as consultants and contractors. Yet, as of June 2022, non-staff personnel made up 58% of the UNESCO workforce. The Strategy therefore did not address the concerns of employees on non-staff contracts, which included “lack of motivation, job insecurity, the absence of a platform to raise their voices and a lack of a sense of belonging within UNESCO” (para. 87). The evaluation therefore recommended a more inclusive scope going forward, and also recommended greater involvement of the workforce in the development of the next Strategy..

WFP, which in 2020 undertook an evaluation of its People Strategy for 2014-2017, maps out a useful theory of change (Fig. 1, pg. ii), highlighting how the capacity and behavior changes targeted by the People Strategy should lead to improved organizational performance. This is a good visual demonstration of the point made by UNESCO’s evaluation, that organizational benefits of the Strategy cannot be achieved if 58% of the workforce is excluded from the Strategy.

Inclusion of the full workforce in the scope of the HR Strategy also helps with the coherence and strategic positioning of the HR Strategy. The fact that the UNESCO HR Strategy was aligned with UNESCO’s Medium Term Strategy for 2014-2021 objectives allowed for the identification and targeting of “critical positions and competencies needed to achieve these objectives and developing recruitment, training, and talent management programmes to support the Organization’s workforce” (para. 8). Alignment with UN norms and standards through the HR Network of the Chief Executives’ Board (CEB), also helped ensure coherence of the UNESCO strategy as well as peer learning in its development and execution.

A human resources strategy however covers a vast array of organizational issues both at the strategic and task levels. Despite the anchoring of the UNESCO HR Strategy at the strategic level, the evaluation found that at the activity level:

"the Bureau of HRM considered recommendations from biannual Executive Board meetings, staff surveys, peer reviews and IOS and JIU-led learning and accountability initiatives. It was not always clear to what extent the Bureau of HRM was able to prioritise and align these recommendations to optimise coherence." – Evaluation of UNESCO's Human Resources Strategy, para. 64

This led to a lack of coherence between the two core objectives of the Strategy, which needed to be strengthened going forward.

The HR function itself was also found to have a similar challenge in implementing a coherent ‘business partner’ role, as envisioned by the Strategy. Like most other international organizations, UNESCO’s HR Strategy recognized the need for HR to move from an administrative and compliance-based role to one focused on delivering business results. The evaluation reinforces that this shift helps achieve programmatic goals for the organization and personnel engagement. Yet, the evaluation also noted that the Bureau of HR continued to be pulled into traditional tasks at the expense of shifting to their new strategic role. For example:

"The frequency of detailed reporting to the Member States is not the best use of Bureau of HRM resources and incentivises reporting at an activity and output level, making it difficult to report on strategic outcomes. As noted in the workforce planning review, personnel at the Bureau of HRM expended a considerable amount of time fighting fires." – Evaluation of UNESCO's Human Resources Strategy, Conclusion #3

To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the HR function and institutionalize its role as a business partner, the evaluation recommends a more balanced tasking for HR between administrative and strategic deliverables. It also recommended that the Bureau of HR decentralize its structures and processes “to develop a good understanding of local contexts and streamline decision-making” and thereby improve its effectiveness and efficiency (Conclusion 3, pg. 38).

The lack of broad ownership and awareness of the Strategy is an issue that arises not only with respect to UNESCO’s HR Strategy, but is also evident in WFP and UNDP’s people strategies. The UNESCO evaluation notes that the HR Strategy was perceived as being owned and led by the HR function, and many staff and managers had not even heard about the HR Strategy. This resulted in a lack of commitment to implementation by staff and managers across the organization, who all have a role to play in implementing any HR Strategy (para. 104). UNDP’s human resources strategy, entitled ‘People for 2030’, recognizes the importance of this shared responsibility, stating:

"All personnel in UNDP will continue to share accountability for implementing People for 2030. It is an organisation-wide, not an HR, strategy that will be led by an invigorated leadership team at the Executive Group and Country Office levels, underpinned by a holistic and robust talent management system and a highly professional and global HR function." – UNDP, People for 2030, pg. 18

This reflects the reality that managers and staff, as well as HR, all have tasks to fulfill in implementing human resources. As the WFP evaluation of its 2014-2017 People Strategy noted:

"Despite the commitment by some senior leaders to strengthening WFP’s people management practices, and the resources allocated to doing so, the lack of clearly defined roles, responsibilities and work plans for WFP units other than HR, and the lack of a detailed implementation plan and results framework for the strategy and an accountability framework for supervisors, impeded its full operationalization." – Evaluation of WFP's 2014-2017 People Strategy, para. 41

Highlighting the importance of engagement by all staff in the HR strategy also implicitly recognizes that public service motivation, employee commitment and job satisfaction are key drivers of employee performance in all international and national public sector organizations, and that these are impacted significantly by employees’ day-to-day interactions with, and perceptions of, their managers and peers as well as human resources personnel. Accordingly, a useful resource for building Key Performance Indicators for any HR strategy is the staff engagement survey, which UNESCO, WFP and UNDP have also used in their strategies.

The importance of employees' trust in the organization and perceptions of fairness, merit-based recruitment and advancement, and belonging are highlighted repeatedly throughout the UNESCO evaluation, and and implicitly recognized as enablers in achieving the objectives of the Strategy across multiple areas. The UNESCO evaluators recognize that employee’s trust in HR, in the management, and in organizational processes are important for their motivation, commitment and therefore their performance, a theme which also arises in WFP’s evaluation of its HR strategy. Just as an example (which also reinforces the importance of a comprehensive scope of the strategy), the WFP evaluation received significant feedback that staff felt the WFP HR Strategy was not as good as it should be “in relation to the transparency of recruitment and promotion processes and to actual and perceived inequities on the part of WFP employees doing similar jobs but on different contract types with different terms and benefits.” (Para. 45)

The UNESCO evaluation, as well as the WFP evaluation, demonstrate that a successful HR or people strategy will need to change perceptions and behaviors of their most important organizational asset: their people. This is no easy feat and won’t happen overnight. But for a Strategy to have any hope in addressing these complex challenges it needs to:

  1. Include the whole workforce and engage them in the development and implementation of the Strategy;

  2. Be coherent and aligned with overarching strategies for the organization; and,

  3. Ensure that the HR function has the right capacities to take on a strategic business partner role, while still delivering core administrative tasks.

For those involved in the Preparatory Group meeting next week, as well as others involved in designing or updating HR strategies, we suggest the following questions to consider during the process:

  1. Who is included in or excluded from the HR Strategy, and why?

  2. How is the HR Strategy aligned with overarching organizational strategies?

  3. What is the theory of change that underpins the Human Resources Strategy?

  4. Who was involved in the development of the HR strategy?

  5. How are managers and staff involved in the implementation of the Strategy?

  6. Are there KPIs or workplans to monitor how managers and staff are implementing their elements of the Strategy?

  7. What is the role of HR? Are they resourced, structured and empowered to deliver on that role?

  • The Preparatory Group of the UNESCO Executive Board meets on 25 & 26 April 2023. The Preparatory Group will review the next programme and budget, the 2022 annual reports from the Ethics Office and Division of Internal Oversight Services as well as the evaluation of UNESCO's HR Strategy for 2017-2022 (see spotlight below).

  • The UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board receives an update on 27 April 2023 on implementation efforts by UNDP, UNFPA and UNOPS on the repositioning of the United Nations development system.


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