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A review of language and induction training in UNHCR (Annex 1)


A review of language and induction training in UNHCR (Annex 1)

1 June 1999

Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit
June 1999


1. Language training is the oldest area of training in UNHCR. It is also one of the most costly of all training activities, and has been closely linked with human resources management policies. Likewise, induction briefing has been a constant element in UNHCR's staff development programme, familiarising newly recruited professional staff with the organisation, and with its most important principles, concepts and procedures. For these reasons, the evaluation reviewed these programmes in detail.


2. Over the past decade, UNHCR has endeavoured to develop a coherent language training policy. It was therefore considered important to examine the needs which the training programme addresses, or may be expected to address, with a focus on the key link between training and general human resources policies. It was also considered relevant to assess the extent to which the language training programme, and the various measures which have been taken to support it, merit the expectations placed upon them. Finally, recommendations are made to make language training more effective in dealing with identified needs and challenges.

3. The issue of language training must be seen in the light of the following general comments:

  • Over the past decade, more financial resources have been allocated to language training than to any other area of training in UNHCR;
  • Pending the full implementation of CMS, no other aspect of training has been so closely linked with human resources management policies (such as those regarding postings and promotions) as language training;
  • More staff members come in contact with language training than with any other area of training in the organisation, and during a considerably longer period of time;
  • The issue of language continues to generate a high level of interest among staff, and be a prime cause of emotion and frustration. Discussions tend to focus on access to and the quality of language courses;
  • Despite all the above, the usefulness and cost-effectiveness of language training has hardly ever been put in question.

4. Ever since the creation of UNHCR in 1951, Headquarters-based staff have enjoyed the opportunity of following language courses at the Palais des Nations. The classes are organised by the Training and Examinations Section of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) for the benefit of Geneva based United Nations staff, including UNHCR personnel, and members of diplomatic missions. The courses offer training at various levels in any of the six official UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) and are held at the villa "Le Bocage" on the premises of the Palais des Nations. UNHCR staff are given the opportunity to attend daily classes during working hours and UNHCR is invoiced by UNOG for each language student. This arrangement remains in effect.

5. In 1985, UNHCR introduced a system intended to enable staff members serving in field offices to benefit also from language training. Under this arrangement, field offices receive funding to organise group courses. A more common form of support is the provision of a financial allowance to individual staff members to enable them to attend commercial courses available at their location, or receive individual tuition. These arrangements are still in force.

6. During most of the 1980s, the volume of language training and the number of language students increased significantly as a result of the growth in UNHCR's staffing levels in the early 1980s, and the introduction of language training in the field in 1985. In response to these developments, the then Training Service developed a set of criteria and procedures for the management of language training. These criteria concern primarily the eligibility of specific categories of staff for language training, the decision as to which languages may be learned with support from the Office and the duration thereof, as well as arrangements for leave of absence and the evaluation of learning results. Details of some of these criteria, and their role in the management of language training, will be found below.

7. In 1988, the former Training Service conducted a language training needs assessment among staff, in response to which it took the initiative of organising in-house courses at the UNHCR premises for professional staff at headquarters, whose work did not allow them regular attendance at the Palais. After a short initial period during which Arabic, French and Spanish classes were offered, only French classes continued during subsequent years. The contents of these intensive courses were designed with a view to practical use in a UNHCR field work environment, focusing on the learning of a vocabulary specific to the refugee work situation. The courses initially attracted many staff, but were suspended in mid-1998 due to low attendance.

8. Finally, a special form of language training is the so-called total immersion training, from which staff may benefit under special conditions. In 1997, the then Staff Development Section (SDS) sponsored a Total Immersion Course in French, held in Annecy, France.

9. For many years, language training has had the largest number of beneficiaries in comparison with other fields of training. Average expenditures have represented some 10% of the overall UNHCR administrative training budget, and close to half of the portion of that budget administered by SDS.


10. Language training represents one of the most costly areas of training in UNHCR, if not the most expensive, in terms of total annual expenditure. In terms of investment per staff member per year, language training arguably represents a more substantial amount than is usually assumed. As a first indication, the records of expenditure against UNHCR's administrative Training Budget were used. Unfortunately, records on expenditure which detail disbursements for language training separately from other areas of training are only available for the years since 1995. These show the following picture:

Expenditure on Language Training Compared to Overall Expenditure on Training

1995: US$217,000 out of US$2,381,000
1996: US$471,000 out of US$4,311,900
1997: US$519,200 out of US$5,191.700

In each individual year there may have been another area of training which surpassed language training in levels of expenditure, such as Programme Management training, which had an incidental peak in 1995 (10%), CMS in 1996 (12%), or Protection Training in 1997 (suddenly increasing to 19%). But, over the years until 1998, language training showed, more than any other area of training, the most continuous high level of expenditure.

11. While this information on the level of investment in language training demonstrates that language training is overall the most costly area of training in UNHCR, it still provides an incomplete and, therefore, somewhat distorted picture. Expenditure would even be higher if one were to give proper consideration to the fact that the average number of working hours invested in language training is considerably higher than that required by other training programmes. The average duration of a UNHCR training event over the past ten years (not counting language training) varied between 3 and 4 days. In comparison, according to UNOG records, the hours invested in language training in Geneva add up to 25 working days per person per year, or 12% of the total annual working time (198 course hours, not counting daily travel time between office and course venue). This is obviously not the complete picture, as comparable data on language training activities elsewhere are not available, but it nevertheless illustrates that language training constitutes a substantially greater time investment than other areas of training. At the same time, it supports the argument that language training consumes a relatively important, but usually under-estimated, proportion of UNHCR's training resources.


12. For the management of language training activities, UNHCR needs to weigh the interests of the organisation and individual staff members with considerations of cost-effectiveness and the responsible use of resources. For this purpose, over the years, the Office has developed a series of instruments for language training, in particular criteria for eligibility and procedures for implementation.


13. Initially, UNHCR's approach to language training took its cue from the way the UNOG courses in Geneva were managed, in particular from UNOG's existing criteria for eligibility, duration of training and evaluation of training results. UNOG's objective for language training appears to have been defined as widely as "to encourage staff to improve their language skills", with the implicit assumption that improvement in competence in any of the six official UN languages of any staff member at any moment would be in the interest of the organisation. Subsequently, when UNHCR started to organise its own language training programme, it adapted some of the existing criteria for its own use, and developed additional ones as needed. Thus was added the "strong recommendation that staff learn languages which will respond to the needs of the organisation". It was no longer only the individual interest of a staff member to which the programme responded as staff were now encouraged to learn languages with the interest of the organisation in mind. In particular, the learning of French and English, UNHCR's two official working languages, was strongly recommended.

14. Thus there developed dual objectives for language training: to respond to the interests of the individual staff member, as well as the operational need of the organisation, by having certain categories of staff acquiring specific linguistic skills. However, the objectives were not linked to one another in the sense that, e.g., individual interest would be supported provided that it served the operational needs of the office and only if the particular linguistic competence was required for the staff member's job. Yet other objectives were added such as "to allow staff to obtain language indemnity or to become eligible for promotion". All the while, in most cases, each objective per se functioned as sufficient ground to qualify for language training. A notable exception was the criterion for eligibility of local field staff, which stipulated that local staff might obtain support only for learning the official working language applicable to their location, although, in practice, this criterion was not systematically applied. In general, the problem was that, without internal linkages, the list of eligibility criteria suffered from a lack of cohesion and focus. In practice, a staff member requesting support for language training had a good chance of seeing his/her request accepted, irrespective of any impact that the training might have on the person's job performance.

15. Thus, by defining a loose set of objectives, there was little scope for consistency in the application of the eligibility criteria. In addition, other criteria such as those specifying a maximum duration of support (three years) were not always applied. Coupled with the fact that, to our knowledge, a clearly stated language training policy was never communicated to the staff prior to December 1998 (through FOM/87/98 of 17 December 1998), the haphazard application of the eligibility and other criteria has caused considerable confusion.

16. The result of this confusion can be seen today: in early 1998, some 41% of General Service and 28% of professional staff in the field have taken the trouble of submitting a request for language training, often with no obvious reference to any job-related criteria. In some cases, the entire General Service and professional staff of large offices in the field have submitted requests, many of which might not be accepted if job-related criteria were applied.

17. The conclusion must be that there is a need for criteria which derive logically from a set of mutually linked objectives. Considering the important financial and other resources which UNHCR invests in language training, the evaluation team recommends that objective-setting should be guided primarily by operational needs. In addition, it recommends that entitlements such as the "language allowance", should be considered as incentives and instruments in the promotion of a particular language training policy, rather than as operational objectives by themselves. In any case, all language training should be conditional on the usefulness of certain linguistic competencies for a person's current assignment, or in the case of staff subject to rotation, a prospective future assignment.


18. Procedures apply mainly to the management of language training in the field: individual staff members who are considered eligible are entitled to an reimbursement of up to US$500 per year, against certificates of attendance at a recognised language training institute, during a period not exceeding three years. From year to year, progress is supposed to be monitored. In practice, these procedures have not always been strictly followed, nor has an effective monitoring system been developed.

19. One can easily sympathise with the challenge SDS faced as it had to manage and administer these procedures: verifying correct implementation presents a formidable workload. Moreover, the volume of work steadily grew with the increase in the number of students during the past decade (from 140 staff following language training in 1985 to 1,300 in 1996), without any corresponding substantial reinforcement of the responsible staff complement. SDS responded by decentralising the larger part of the administrative workload to field training coordinators. This solution, however, had its limitations as the training coordinators are essentially part-time volunteers, so that a large part of the burden for monitoring and control was left in the hands of SDS, which was not equipped to bear it.

Preliminary Conclusion

20. The recently issued "Language Training Policy and Guidelines for Field Offices" (FOM/87/98 of 17 December 1998) certainly constitutes an improvement over the previous situation, as it clarifies many criteria and procedures. The fact that it highlights, more clearly than before, the logic and rationale behind criteria and procedures, linking these with operational needs, should provide guarantees for a more coherently implemented policy. That it was timely for this FOM to be issued is illustrated by the apparent results, during 1998, of a stricter application of the earlier criteria and a procedural requirement, which seems to have preceded the formulation of the FOM. In that year, expenditure on language training suddenly decreased to approximately half of its previous volume, i.e. to barely 5% of the overall Training Budget (US$171,230 of US$3,730,430 in projected expenditure). Such a considerable drop can be explained by a more rigorous implementation of the existing criteria during this year. If this is true, it would suggest that a considerable part of the training budget in previous years was spent on activities which would not have passed the test of eligibility if a comprehensive language training policy had been in place.

The link with human resources policies

21. If we assume that the main reason why UNHCR supports language training is to serve the interests of its operations, i.e. in particular by having staff who can be more flexibly deployed, then we need to enquire into the extent to which language training has actually made staff more capable of deployment to new linguistic situations than before. Unfortunately, there are no data which would allow any such analysis. However, available anecdotal evidence suggests that the impact of language training has been modest.

22. In order to get a better and more precise idea of the organisation's needs, it is necessary to compare which linguistic competencies are actually required by UNHCR's operations, and how these have evolved over the past decade.

Table 1

Number of field staff speaking principal languages as of:

Jan-87 Jan-93 Jan-96 Oct-98
English 277 74% 453 76% 622 73% 659 75%
French 48 13% 77 13% 180 21% 180 20%
Spanish 51 14% 66 11% 51 6% 41 5%
Total 376 100% 596 100% 853 100% 880 100%

23. The above table illustrates where and why the issue of language competencies has become such a topical one in UNHCR during the past few years. While, over the past decade, the importance of English for field operations has remained constant, the volume of Spanish speaking operations has decreased and the need for French speakers has shown a significant growth.

24. As can be seen from the table, the percentage of staff assigned to francophone operations increased from 13% to 21%, between 1993 and 1996. This significant increase in relative terms can be ascribed primarily to the Great Lakes operation, which had its peak during the years 1994 to 1996, as well as smaller francophone programmes which were started during these years, such as the Mali repatriation and reintegration operation. But it was the Great Lakes situation in particular, which suddenly caused an increased demand for French speakers at a time when there appeared to be a lack of staff with at least a working knowledge of French.

25. In response to the sudden dramatic increase in the need for French speakers, between 1994 and 1996, UNHCR recruited a considerable number of new francophone staff, because its internal linguistic resources were constrained. At the same time, UNHCR increased its efforts to encourage existing staff to learn French. The implementation of promotions or the granting of indefinite appointments was made subject, on several occasions, to the acquisition of proficiency in French or another official UN language.

26. Language proficiency is one of the criteria for the granting of indefinite appointments and promotion identified by the APPB regulations. The criteria for indefinite appointments had always been strict, and one of these, i.e. having "a second UN language", has always been considered a "sine qua non" condition. In the case of promotions, proficiency in a second UN language has been one of the criteria influencing a decision, but was not considered a "sine qua non" condition. In both cases, difficulties with the application of the criteria arose when it came to determine, within the context of an annual review session, whether a staff member had indeed obtained the level of proficiency claimed by him/her or his/her supervisor. Consequently, rather than relying on ex-ante claims or attempts to rate all staff, the APPB decided to adopt the criteria of language proficiency as a condition for the implementation of indefinite appointments in 1995, and for promotions from 1996 onwards. This has allowed more transparent procedures for decisions on promotions and indefinite appointments to be put in place. Proficiency in a second UN language could now effectively be made a sine qua non condition for promotions as well as for indefinite appointments.

27. It is too early to tell what the outcome will be of this new approach by the APPB. In retrospect, the incentives associated with the granting of indefinite appointments or promotions may have contributed to a number of staff members acquiring a working knowledge of French, more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. However, the impact of the increased emphasis on language skills on the staffing of francophone operations, such as the Great Lakes operation, is more difficult to assess. By the time it might have been felt, it is likely that the operations were already winding down, and the relative scarcity of French language skills amongst staff no longer constituted the most important reason for posts remaining vacant.

28. Measures to address an identified need for certain skills must necessarily respond to a situation which is in continuous change: in the 1990s operations need French speakers, in the 1980s there was a need for Spanish or Portuguese speakers. Tomorrow, UNHCR may be confronted with a sudden need for staff with a working knowledge of Russian or Arabic. One may ask if the current response to the need for language skills is not creating staff with the right profile for yesterday's operations and hence questions the expectations placed on language training to "re-develop" staff in response to evolving operational needs. Is this worth all the investment in language training and the commotion associated with it?


29. The impact of language training on the organisation's operational capacity has been very modest, at best. For years, UNHCR has followed the example of UNOG and the UN Secretariat, which implement language training against a background of primarily "promoting a multi-linguistic and multi-cultural work environment". This has led to a UN training programme, which supports each staff member, irrespective of job category and career prospects, to learn any of the official UN languages. Basically, everybody can learn whichever official language they choose in working time, paid for by the UN. This has essentially been the state of affairs at UNHCR as well. The fact that UNHCR has continued, for many years, to apply the widely formulated objectives employed by UNOG and the Secretariat for the management of its own language training programme has precluded it from developing its own language training policy in accordance with its own reality and in response to its own needs. UNHCR is a very different organisation from UNOG or the Secretariat, which are not operational, and do not have a rotation policy, to name just two of the more obvious key differences. Consequently, UNHCR developed a set of criteria and procedures which facilitated the management of language training, but which insufficiently addressed the overall objective of supporting operational needs.

30. A second issue relates to the expectations associated with language training, which have been generally unfulfilled. Language training was used in an attempt to address and rectify a situation on which it could only have a limited impact. As the expectations of the organisation became focused on language training to deal with the lack of adequate linguistic skills among the staff, attention was drawn from other, possibly more effective, solutions and approaches.

31. The conclusion is that an effective language training policy is not possible without a strong linkage with a coherent human resources management policy. The lack of linguistic skills should not and cannot be adequately addressed by training, but through the right recruitment policies, and a career development approach which targets language training in a more realistic way.

32. Remedial measures could include:

  • Recruitment of staff proficient in, at least, two UN languages. The table on page 6 unambiguously supports the argument that these should be the two formal working languages of the organisation: English and French. This should not constitute a major problem, as existing recruitment criteria already stipulate this. This approach should replace efforts to rectify the lack of linguistic skills through training at times of sudden need, which does not effectively address the problem, and places a heavy burden on operations as well as on the staff themselves.
  • UNHCR may also wish to apply these recruitment criteria to GS staff at Headquarters. There is no reason why UNHCR cannot expect GS staff at a French-speaking duty station, in an office which is mainly English speaking, and in an organisation with English and French as its official working languages, to be bi-lingual upon recruitment.
  • If justified exceptions to these criteria are allowed, efforts should be made to ensure that staff achieve proficiency in the second working language within the shortest time possible. Staff should be encouraged to pursue intensive language training actively during the first years of employment. Post-recruitment career progress should be made subject to the achievement of an adequate level of proficiency in the second language.
  • Support to the learning of other languages should be restricted to staff who are subject to rotation, when being assigned to duty stations where another language is required (Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, etc). UNHCR should invest in intensive submersion courses, prior to staff taking up their assignments.
  • In the case of urgent linguistic needs for new operations, alternatives to normal recruitment, such as secondments from other UN agencies, governments, NGOs, short-term staff, should be considered. As a measure of preparedness, the necessary stand-by arrangements to facilitate these solutions, should be developed.
  • For the rest, UNHCR should implement the criteria and procedures contained in FOM/87/98.


33. An in-depth evaluation of induction training is difficult since participation was never systematically recorded in the Training Recording System (TRS), introduced in 1987. As this system was perceived primarily as a means of recording attendance at workshops on a staff member's Fact Sheet, rather than as a tool for the monitoring and management of training activities as such, participation in induction briefing was never systematically entered into the TRS. As all newly recruited staff, without exception, were supposed to undergo induction training at the start of their career with UNHCR, participation does not confer a distinguishing value, as a result of which the dominant opinion seems to have been not to record attendance at all. The resulting lack of reliable records makes a systematic assessment of the management and impact of induction briefing virtually impossible.

34. One of the main assumptions underlying the organisation of induction training is that, by definition, one hundred per cent of all newly recruited professional staff go through an induction programme. As we have seen, this was the main reason why participation was not systematically recorded. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that full participation has never occurred. This is partly the result of another assumption, i.e. that all newly recruited staff pass through Geneva for at least a week, en-route to their duty station. In fact, many do not pass through Geneva, and of those who do, many do not stop over long enough to attend a full week's briefing programme.

35. Since the introduction of the recruitment freeze, induction briefing for professional staff has been undertaken exclusively for Junior Professional Officers (JPOs), which is, with rare exceptions, the only category in which new professional staff members still arrive. This has led to a situation in which induction training is now sometimes referred to as "JPO training".

36. Induction training is essentially a schedule of briefing sessions, with the objective of welcoming new staff to UNHCR and the UN, and of facilitating their rapid assimilation into the organisation. The briefings are held at regular intervals throughout the year, with the exception of July and August. Each programme takes one full working week. The frequency with which these programmes are organised obviously depends on the number of newly recruited staff. In order to ensure effective coverage of content and participation, the number of participants in each programme is limited to ten.

37. The programme covers an introduction to UNHCR and the UN, and to the organisation's mandate as well as key aspects of refugee protection, programme management, and financial and administrative issues. The contents of the training, and the relative weight assigned to each functional work area, has largely remained unchanged over the years. As new recruits are grouped together for the duration of the training, irrespective of their future functions, it is usually not possible to design the training content with a specific trainee profile in mind. Briefings on each topic are given by staff working with the relevant departments in Headquarters. An important place in the programme is reserved for more detailed operational briefings by the Desk responsible for the area where new staff is being assigned. These briefings are also an important opportunity for newly assigned field-based staff and Headquarters staff to establish personal contacts.

38. Although a systematic evaluation of the induction training programme could not be undertaken, the programme was nonetheless discussed with a large number of staff who have been involved, either as organisers, as training providers or as trainees. The main finding from these discussions is a widely shared perception that induction training needs to become much more effective and that its organisation needs to be revised.

39. Almost unanimously, trainees cast doubt on the usefulness of the current induction training programme. Most importantly, the timing of the programme is seen as problematic, for two reasons. First, receiving a comprehensive one-week briefing on UNHCR's mandate, systems and procedures, at a time when none of the trainees has yet had any practical exposure to its work, is considered too early. Second, during the induction week, there is a host of other, practical concerns competing for the trainee's attention. The result is that, however relevant the content of the briefings might be, the rate of absorption is generally considered low.

40. The problem of offering the relevant information at the appropriate moment, was recognised at an early stage. In the late 1980s, a new two-phased approach to induction was designed, comprising an initial short briefing programme upon recruitment, followed by a more extensive orientation workshop approximately one year later. Unfortunately, presumably for reasons of logistics and expense, this experiment was abandoned after only a few trials.

41. Another problem frequently mentioned by trainees is the perceived lack of commitment to their role as trainers on the part of many of the briefing providers. The Desks are the most frequent target of this criticism, with the trainee having higher expectations of a relevant and purposeful briefing on his or her future role than the desk officer is able or willing to fulfil. Whatever the expectations, they appear to be frequently disappointed because many training providers or briefers see their participation either as voluntary work or as, rather more negatively, a burden, requiring a disproportionate investment of time, without much, if any, return for their effort. For organisers of induction training, these perceptions indicate a lack of commitment to the fundamental training obligations in which all staff should share.

42. There is an urgent need to review the issue of induction training in detail, to draw lessons from the past and to design a more effective mode of introducing staff to the organisation and prepare them for their jobs. The current relatively quiet situation, characterised by a recruitment freeze apart from the mere trickle of new JPOs, should be seized upon as an opportunity to overhaul induction training and to introduce new approaches, drawing on the lessons learned. Since all concerned would appear to share, to a large extent, dissatisfaction with the way induction training is organised, the detailed review which we propose should be carried out in the form of a design workshop, linked to a lessons learned exercise, with participation by the main stakeholders. Obviously, such an exercise must look beyond the current situation of exclusive recruitment of JPOs, and should prepare UNHCR for a future lifting of the recruitment ban.

43. The following issues would require consideration in the overhaul of the induction training programme.

  • Induction training should modify the central concept of a one week event, with little reference either to the processes preceding it (such as recruitment), or to following events such as induction at the duty station, which from the initial training perspective is still virtually ignored. Rather, induction training should incorporate and support the entire process of learning from recruitment and selection for a post, to the moment at which a new staff member has achieved a degree of integration in the organisation, the working unit, and his/her post and function. The ICRC has developed a concept of induction as part of the recruitment process, to be extended over a period including the first field assignment. This experience could prove a valuable example.
  • The supervisor must play a key role in the induction of a new staff member. Guidelines should be formulated to list supervisory responsibilities and duties, provide practical support, and make clear that failure to perform the supervisory training role will reflect adversely on the career performance assessment of those concerned.
  • Consideration should be given to the development of standard induction packages, linked to certain specific career paths: for protection officers, field officers, programme, administrative officers, and others. Similar packages could be developed for GS staff, both at Headquarters and in the Field, which would address a great outstanding need. In particular, if more emphasis is placed on self-study rather than on classroom-based training, which is the traditional method used in induction briefing, the contents might be made more relevant, and the desired impact better secured.
  • Thought should be given to the feasibility of regular intakes of professional level recruits in particular occupational groups, such as protection, programme and administration, with a view to systematic joint induction training taking place. The experience of ICRC contradicts the conventional wisdom that the personnel needs of humanitarian organisations are too unpredictable to allow forward recruitment planning of this kind.
  • In line with these proposals, responsibility for the design and delivery of induction training should be exercised in the closest possible cooperation between the Staff Development Service, the Recruitment, Vacancy Management and Postings Unit and the future supervisors of the individual trainees whether at Headquarters or in the Field.