The value of transparency

When you lead a team of local people on an international development project, and your agency advertises a job locally, you get a lot of emails. Especially when there are very few jobs available generally in a small community.

Many of them are clearly being sent by people who are shooting out a general response to a wide variety of ads.

But not all. Some of them come from people who are seriously applying. Our ad offers hope, in an otherwise bleak economy. And people will reach out for hope whenever they can, even if they don’t have the qualifications spelled out in the ad.

When I worked on a project in Serbia more than a decade ago, the agency’s policy was that while their human resources officer placed the ads, the responses came to the team leader. That was me.

They told me I should review the responses, short list them, and only respond to those who were short-listed. So that was what I did….

Until one day, I got a polite email from a local person who had submitted an application but hadn’t received an acknowledgement. Politely, they said that they had thought our procedures were different than those they had been used to. Their sense of disappointment – of hurt, even – came through the message.

From then on, I sent a reply to every applicant, whether I thought they were serious or not. I explained the process we were following, and that we would be short listing candidates and only inviting those people to an interview. And I thanked them for their application. Often I got messages back thanking me for those replies.

Sometimes it was challenging. Once, I got an application from someone working in our agency’s Belgrade office who wanted to join our team. I thanked him, and explained that he didn’t have the necessary qualifications. While he didn’t reply, I came to realize that fairness mattered to him. When the agency head pushed me out of my job, it was this man who took me aside to say that what had happened to me was not fair. (He subsequently went to work for the agency in Afghanistan.)

Sometimes, having short listed candidates, the interviews could be challenging, too. If we wanted to support community capacity, we had to acknowledge it, even when people didn’t have the particular skills we needed.

I remember one, in particular. An older gentleman who had qualifications, but not the ones we needed for our team. I suppose I could have just said that, very early on, but it did not seem respectful. And so I asked him to talk about his background and what he had done in his life, and expressed appreciation for his service to his community over the years.

Some years later, when I was doing research in northern Bosnia, I got to know a young woman who was one of the first local people hired for an important international office there.

The war in Bosnia had been going on when she went to high school. She didn’t have a lot of qualifications to offer, but she was spunky. She asked how she was expected to be able to put forward a traditional resume when her country was coming out of a devastating war.

Long story short – she ended up being hired for the team, and eventually managed a very large portfolio of economic development projects. Ironically, as things settled down in Bosnia, other international agencies in the country found it hard to believe her impressive post-war resume.

From these experiences, I learned that if we want to create change, we need to model good ways of working. If we are not going to be transparent about our own procedures, it is hard to demand that others (including governments) be transparent about theirs – and that matters in countries where procedures have not been fair and transparent.

Sometimes, people think they are short-circuiting procedures for a good purpose – to promote local young people who you have treated as proteges, for example. But the answer is not to promote them by manipulating the hiring process. I heard from some local people, looking at the two jobs advertised in one organization, who wanted to know if the outcome was fixed. It was normal for them that while a competition was being held, someone had already been chosen – and why should they waste their time applying? It was hard to know what to tell them, because the honest answer was yes, the ‘competition’ was effectively fixed.

It is not just ‘what’ we do in terms of international development that matters – it is ‘how’ we do it as well. And that applies to everything we do, including the hiring processes. There, if we don’t demonstrate our values, we support the status quo – and that may not be the intended result of the project itself.