I am David McCann and I’d like to tell you that UNICEF Uganda is hiring. If this job description seems dauntingly ambitious, that’s because it is. The Uganda office must quickly replace the software lead for their three RapidSMS deployments, which have in the past years achieved unprecedented scale and complexity within the RapidSMS community.
With little time to ensure a seamless replacement, UNICEF Uganda are attempting against all odds to find someone who can hit the ground running to manage a small software team with large goals. The current senior software engineer, unfortunately, is being poached by the prospects of competitive compensation. Poached, ironically by another UNICEF country office.
The cause of this quandary is directly linked to the difficulties of navigating the bureaucratic processes surrounding fair pay and promotion, a problem that isn’t unique to UNICEF but rather common to many large donor organizations. The U.N.’s system is quite complicated, including pay levels, pay “steps”, and different scales for consultants and general staff. While it does make most pay scales for staff positions publicly available, the specific formulae for arriving at a final, often non-negotiable figure of compensation for a particular position remain opaque.
At the heart of the matter in Uganda is a rule governing the distinction between “national” and “international” hires. But this is merely an illustrative example of the many symptoms and associated problems throughout the rules governing hiring and compensation.
The Problems Start with Country-Based Cost-of-Living
Calculating the cost of living within each country is the first obfuscated step in the process. In this case, it is at least feasible to collate and compare the U.N.’s figures (albeit with a large amount of free time or automated web scraping tools). Comparative data for cost-of-living between different countries is difficult to accurately quantify, so the reader can draw their own conclusions about the 3130% discrepancy between the hourly pay of New York and Malagasy staff at the lowest pay levels.
Another wrinkle to the proprietary compensation calculation occurs during the assessment of an applicant’s specialized skills in order to assign pay level. Giving preference to advanced degrees or professional experience is an acceptable first cut, but is typically accompanied by two flawed practices: the preferential weighting of specific skills (typically 10 years too old to be “cutting-edge”), and an interview process that is all-too-often conducted by non-technical staff with no experience of the field within which they are hiring. This leads to “a very warped marketplace” as one technology specialist termed it.
The complementary elements of this marketplace are a few consultants and companies within a very small pool of potential candidates who rely solely on their ability to reverse-engineer the pricing and bidding process, using donor funding to keep their sub-par work afloat. Other paperwork down the chain also contributes to the continuation of the status-quo: it often seems easier just to pay out a delinquent contract and vow never to hire the company again rather than prove they were delinquent (by a bureaucrat’s definition of delinquent, not an expert’s). The problem with this rationale is that the next project will be pulling from the same pool of resources and using the same selection process.
The Joys of Being “International”
The final straw, in the case of Uganda, occurred due to a refusal to budge on the distinction between “national” versus “international” consultancies. Data for this disparity are more difficult to find (see notes). In theory, this calculation is preceded by a “justification” step, in which it is first proven that a position cannot feasibly be filled by a national. One simple example of where this process fails and did fail would be a position that must initially be filled by an international hire, who then successfully transfers skills to a national hire.
In theory, the skills transferred have an implicit value, as is the case in most large tech shops. In practice, the skills at this point cease to matter as much as the rules governing “national” vs. “international” hires. This seems completely at odds with notions such as “capacity building,” and indicates extremely presumptive attitudes regarding foreign versus local labor.
Open Source as a Core Principle
These rules surely were put in place to promote fairness and deter favoritism, but a side-effect is that one UNICEF country office will poach the contractor of another because they can offer “international” rates where the other can only offer “national,” as happened in Uganda. Nothing could be more indicative of the current impossibility of building a software (or any other technologically innovative) shop within a large donor-funded organization.
While recent attempts are commendable, it’s clear that these organizations have faulty selection criteria and a lack of in-house technical skill for finding talent, and a completely broken model for retaining it if they succeed. Software projects especially hinge almost solely on their ability to locate and retain talent. If large donor-funded organizations truly want to innovate, this is a problem that must be solved.
In software development, if a particular software feature were to fail so thoroughly at its intent, or present a flaw so fundamentally absurd, it would typically involve intense debugging (with many eyes helping to find the problem) or a complete re-write of the logic to blame. In the administrative space, there are analogous solutions, the most incendiary of which would involve a complete overhaul of the process and the replacement of any administrative and HR staffers who have completely failed to grasp their organization’s overall vision of innovation.
As a software engineer, I admittedly don’t fully understand what true policy reform looks like, but I know this option would require a level of sweeping change and managerial buy-in that most large organizations can’t accommodate. I can, however, offer a software engineer’s solution to the problem, one where a top-down acceptance of the facts presented here isn’t required: “open-source” the processes used to hire specialized staff, and allow them to be scrutinized, streamlined and “debugged” by donors and those with pertinent expertise.
Publicize the rules by which technical staffers are allocated to pay levels. Document the particular companies that are surveyed to determine so-called competitive rates for specialists. Document experiences working with “Big Aid dependents,” the over-priced companies who exist solely to game the system, so that everyone can learn from past mistakes.
This is a strategy that can be implemented by anyone willing to publicize their experience with administrative processes while working at any donor-funded organization who claims to support innovation in development and to practice open-source policies with their software, while refusing to provide the same transparency to their bureaucracy.
In the long run, this will at best result in a better strategy for hiring and retaining specialist talent, and at worst demand the attention of those who are subverting progress in these organizations. After all, one must scrutinize the motives of any staffer (or consultant) within these organizations who would deliberately choose to maintain the status quo at best, or at worst actively sabotage projects like the one in Uganda.
- http://icsc.un.org/resources/webapp/jde/login.asp?req=251364695 : Job evaluation system fails on modern browsers (chrome and firefox), requires “internet explorer 5.5 or later.
- http://www.unops.org/english/whoweneed/contract-types/Pages/Individual-Contractor-Agreements-ICAs.aspx : Vague Language
- http://www.un.org/Depts/OHRM/salaries_allowances/salary.htm#pr : Methodologies are over 80 pages, no clear descriptions
- http://www.sas.undp.org/portal/alias__SAS/lang__en-GB/tabID__3592/DesktopDefault.aspx : No explanation of p levels and steps, no explanation of “hardship/mobility” calculation, or “post adjustment.” The shortest navigation path to this document is from a Google search is via another open-sourcer’s article: http://www.rottmair.de/2011/01/04/contract-types-and-job-grades-in-the-un-system/