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Staff training in UNHCR: an update on recent developments

Executive Committee Meetings

Staff training in UNHCR: an update on recent developments

2 April 1998



1. UNHCR's activities in the area of training are not limited to the training of its own staff, but extend to staff of non-governmental organizations (see document EC/47/SC/CRP.52), as well as to relevant governmental agencies, particularly as part of UNHCR's efforts to promulgate its protection mandate. Even within UNHCR, there is a broad spectrum of training, ranging from emergency management training to many other areas, such as children's issues and gender mainstreaming. The focus of this paper, however, will be on some significant recent developments related to staff training, which also need to be seen in the context of Project Delphi, and on identifying certain major trends for the future. These underline the importance of training as a support to ongoing change, assisting staff to adjust to new or modified operational objectives and challenges. Such features are also those of a learning organization, which UNHCR aspires to be.

2. It will be recalled that the ACABQ in its last report (A/AC.96/884/Add.3, paragraphs 53 and 54) raised a number of issues about UNHCR's training, including the need for an evaluation of its cost effectiveness and impact (see paragraphs 20 and 21 below). These issues, together with a comprehensive presentation of all types of UNHCR training, will be addressed in the next issue of the Overview of UNHCR Activities 1997- 1999, to be presented to the plenary session of the Executive Committee this year.

3. It will be recalled that in 1997, a training strategy was elaborated by UNHCR's Training Advisory Board (TAB). The objectives and key components of the Strategy are described in the attached report on activities of the Training Advisory Board.


4. As recorded in the TAB's report of activities in 1997 (paragraph 3), the Organization now dedicates two percent of staff costs under its administrative budget to staff training. In 1997, budgets for staff training totalled almost $ 5,450,000, of which over $ 5,180,000 were committed or disbursed, corresponding to over 95 per cent of planned activities. An estimated 3,300 staff took part in various training programmes, mostly organized in-house or within the United Nations system. This number does not include those who followed standard courses in computer or language skills.(It should be noted that the training budgets for implementing partners and other non-UNHCR staff are separate and are included under the operational budgets for particular countries/operations.)


5. The introduction of the Career Management System (CMS) has brought with it significant changes in the organization's approach to staff development. This approach now uses competencies as a basis for performance appraisal, career planning and training and development. This integrated approach, associated with a process of objective-setting, is designed to result in greater clarity of responsibilities and enhanced accountability at all levels. With moves towards greater delegation of authority, such changes are essential.

6. The main innovation in terms of staff development concerns the introduction of individual Competency Development Plans (CDPs), as part of the performance appraisal process. The completion of these Plans requires a dialogue between supervisors and their staff in order to identify the most appropriate option to improve performance in a given area. This introduces a direct link between training and performance. It also provides the organization, through consolidation of CDPs at the Branch Office and regional levels, with a more accurate assessment of needs than has been available so far.

7. Although still relatively early in the process, feedback on the use of CDPs (especially from Field Offices) would seem to indicate that applications of this new approach are encouraging. There is a welcome diversity in the development options that are being chosen. They include many examples of self-instruction, using a variety of media, as well as coaching sessions or other informal methods. This diversity helps decrease reliance on workshops, which remain nevertheless an important form of training, and one that allows colleagues to share experience in a given field of activity.

8. At Headquarters level, work is already underway to update and complete the Competency Development Catalogue, used by colleagues when completing their CDPs. This review will serve to identify gaps, as well as areas where a more streamlined approach could be achieved. This would also lead to ensuring maximum cost-effectiveness of the resources devoted to training throughout the organization.


9. As mentioned in paragraph 3 above, a record of activities of the TAB in 1997, as well as issues currently on its agenda, is to be found attached to this update. As this record indicates, the Board's work includes an on-going review of budget allocations, based on certain operational priorities. In addition, and as an important Delphi-related activity, the TAB last year elaborated a training strategy for the organization. This strategy serves to provide a broader framework for staff development, complementing the individual assessment of needs as identified through the new CMS processes. It identifies a number of key areas where efforts need to focus at the organizational level, notably management development and the use of new methods and technologies. These are described in more detail in the paragraphs that follow.


10. The need for such a programme has been identified over several years as a key element of staff development. With the change initiatives currently underway, this need is all the greater. Meeting new and future challenges, such as those related to delegation and situation management, will require the improvement or development of skills, notably relating to leadership, managing resources and managing performance.

11. The programme, recently endorsed at senior management level, is intended, in due course, to reach all levels of staff with management responsibilities. Its first phase is focusing on Representatives and is being delivered region by region. It includes modules on People Management, managing relations with the media, security training, and gender mainstreaming. It is being accompanied by a similar programme for senior staff at Headquarters.

12. In parallel with this programme, UNHCR is in close and regular contact with the United Nations Staff College Project (UNSCP) at the ILO International Training Centre in Turin. Not only does it participate regularly in workshops designed to strengthen the management of field coordination, it seeks to benefit from other initiatives being undertaken under UNSCP designed to share best management practice, including that of the private sector.


13. The delegation to the field of a number of administrative and management functions represents one of the organization's major change objectives. Extensive training is already underway in support of these changes. These programmes cover not only procedural aspects, but also training to assume the newly delegated responsibilities. A financial management training module, targeting three groups of staff (senior, middle and support staff) is currently being delivered on a regional basis. A similar training programme in support of delegated human resource functions will be implemented as of May 1998.


14. The use of new methods and technologies is another key area of which the impact is already perceptible, and which will certainly grow in the short and medium term. For an organization such as UNHCR with staff in remote locations and for whom mobility is a requisite, flexibility in training approaches is essential.

15. In this context, computer-based support tools have an important contribution to make. Of these REFWORLD provides an invaluable source of reference texts and operational guidance materials. It is now available in almost all Branch Offices throughout the world. The Competency Development Catalogue mentioned earlier will also soon be available electronically with links that will complement the search facilities already to be found in REFWORLD.

16. One other encouraging development concerns the creation of independent learning facilities being proposed at the initiative of a number of Field Offices. They will provide colleagues working in field locations with much easier access to self-learning materials of various kinds, including videos and CD-ROMS, in addition to more traditional guidelines and manuals. Such initiatives are receiving support from Headquarters, and will serve as models for similar facilities elsewhere.

17. Another medium currently being actively explored is that of distance learning, again using electronic support. Examples to date include a programme of emergency management at the initiative of Emergency Preparedness and Response Section, using the expertise of the University of Wisconsin in the United States. A pilot project is also underway in management skills under the auspices of UNSCP and using the Open University Business School in the United Kingdom. The interest of this last initiative lies not only in the use of this innovative methodology, but also in its inter-agency dimension.


18. UNHCR's active and diverse training activities owe much to the involvement and support of a network of training coordinators at Headquarters, and above all in the field. These colleagues, who undertake this function in addition to their regular duties, play a vital role in sharing information, giving advice to colleagues, providing support to training activities and sometimes even sharing in the delivery of certain programmes.

19. A parallel network, consisting of training providers, exists at Headquarters level. Their number has increased in recent years with the introduction of a training function in various substantive units. At the initiative of the Staff Development Section, efforts are currently underway to coordinate these activities more closely, in order to avoid fragmentation or duplication of efforts, and to ensure an effective flow of information.


20. Assessing the impact and cost-effectiveness of training is a complex but essential exercise. With the link now forged between training and performance under CMS, this assessment will facilitated at the level of the individual staff member. There remains, however, the question of the contribution of training to organizational effectiveness, particularly through its investment in the training of our partners.

21. An evaluation of these various issues is scheduled to be undertaken in the course of the coming months by the Inspection and Evaluation Unit. This initiative also responds to the recent recommendation by the ACABQ (A/AC.96/884/Add.3, paragraph 54).


22. As outlined above, training is a dynamic process. Beyond the commitment of the organization in terms of resources, it also requires an involvement of staff at all levels. The on-going challenge is one of ensuring that programmes available are both well designed and easily accessible and that they are based on a clear and accurate assessment of needs. Under these conditions, training remains a powerful catalyst for change, supporting and assisting the organization as it confronts new challenges.

TRAINING ADVISORY BOARD Report on activities in 1997

1. The purpose of this brief report is to record the TAB's main activities in 1997, linking them with major issues on its agenda for the coming year. Members of the Board are listed in Annex 1. Detailed records of its meetings are available from SDS, which co-ordinates its work.

Review of budget allocations for training (admin)

2. This represented a major activity of the Board in the first quarter of the year, resulting in a consolidated submission to the Headquarters Operations Review of budgets administered by the various sections at Headquarters that provide training. This submission was based on a review that sought to reflect a number of the organisation's operational priorities, using as background the Global Strategy paper issued in the autumn of 1996. Another important factor of a more practical nature was the rate of implementation achieved by the requesting Sections in their activities of the previous year.

3. For the first time in its work of reviewing budget proposals, the TAB succeeded in obtaining a percentage rating as basis for global submissions. The level proposed, based on a comparative review of practice in other UN agencies, was 2% of estimated total staff costs. This was approved by the HOR, and amounted to $5.2 million for 1997, representing an increase of 17% over the previous year. On the other hand, no additional funds were made available to meet requests for Delphi-related training activities, as it was considered that these should be absorbed by means of reallocating funds as the year progressed.

Monitoring of implementation and budgetary reallocations

4. The mid-year budget monitoring exercise focused on rates of implementation achieved by training providers, identifying areas where delays or changes had occurred. As a result of this assessment, it was agreed that funds could be released from three budget allocations, for deployment to training activities considered important by the TAB and which were short of funds.

5. By the end of the year, the implementation rate was approaching 90%. Although this result was globally satisfactory, a number of Delphi-related activities had to be delayed for lack of funding. This was the case in particular for certain training linked to the decentralisation of procedures relating to human resource management.

Elaboration of training strategy

6. This work was undertaken following a request made by the DHC. The context was not an easy one with many areas of uncertainty arising from Project Delphi, and with CMS not yet implemented. However, a strategy was formulated which focused on the following objectives:

  • ensuring support for the organisation's strategic objectives;
  • reinforcing competency development, as an essential element of CMS;
  • ensuring managerial development as a priority for the organisation;
  • allowing flexibility in the choice of training options, and enhancing access to them;
  • introducing more systematic monitoring and evaluation of the organisation's investment in training.

7. The proposed strategy was articulated around current responsibilities for the formulation of policy and management of training at various levels within the organisation, with proposals for a more decentralised approach, notably to the administration of funds. Another important chapter concerned the transition to a competency-based approach to training.

8. Key components in support of this transition included the introduction of a comprehensive management development programme, the requirement for all staff to acquire basic competencies in selected areas by means of mandatory training, as well as a broader range of training options available to staff. Also included were priorities in terms of design and development, training for operation partners, access to information as an essential complement to training, and issues relating to the monitoring, evaluation and validation of training. For each of these components, basic guidelines and action were proposed.

9. The research and preparation of the strategy was a major task which benefited from the active participation of members of the TAB, and owed much to CDR. The strategy was endorsed by SMC in July 1997, and distributed to all staff under cover of IOM/68/FOM/75/97. Its implementation now provides the framework for much of the current work of the TAB (see paras. 13-15 below), and will involve a large number of sections and units across the house.

Review of policy proposals

10. A number of policy proposals presented by SDS were reviewed in the course of the year. They mainly concerned the following areas:

  • external studies, for which updated procedures are required, affording greater clarity on eligibility, the extent of the organisation's support, as well as which kind of studies should be encouraged;
  • induction briefings, following an assessment of the current structure and content of those given at HQ to new recruits before proceeding to their duty station.

Efforts towards partial decentralisation of budgets

11. In line with recommendations under project Delphi, renewed efforts were deployed at the request of the Board towards providing Field Offices with some budgetary means to cover training activities for staff using local facilities. The focus of these efforts concerned certain options available in the field of language training. They met yet again, however, with a series of technical and managerial problems.

12. In an attempt to overcome these problems, the TAB decided to approach the Director for Change, in order that a solution might be found within the context of work underway in designing OMS. Meanwhile, it proposed that interim arrangements should be made to facilitate the deployment to the field of funds required by Branch Offices for language training.

Current issues under consideration by TAB

13. In addition to its ongoing responsibilities with regard to budget allocations, the TAB's main focus now concerns follow-up work on the training strategy.

14. As a first step, it has constituted a working group to review arrangements on the list of training qualified in the training strategy as mandatory. They are as follows:

  • induction briefing/reassignment training
  • basic computer literacy
  • security awareness training and stress management
  • management skills
  • protection
  • programme management (including POP)
  • communications training
  • training in new processes or systems
  • instruction in electronic learning support systems.

15. In addition to issues arising from the training strategy, the TAB will also seek to follow-up on recommendations made by colleagues in the field, notably those formulated through the network of training co-ordinators. In an effort to initiate this dialogue, a meeting took place on 16-18 December 1997, with the participation of selected field training co-ordinators from various geographical regions. In conclusion of this meeting, recommendations were adopted designed to achieve:

  • improved effectiveness of the training co-ordinators network through measures at various levels;
  • decentralised budget authority, with proposed options for the intermediary and longer term;
  • measures to support the management of Competency Development Plans as an essential feature of staff training and development under CMS.

Staff Development Section 16 January 1998