Human Resource Management

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Abstract Humanitarian organizations are pressured to professionalize and streamline their Human Resource Management (HRM) governance structure as a means to improve humanitarian aid provision. In the HRM literature, two perspectives advocate different ways to achieve this: the universalist (best practices) and the contingency (best fit) approach. Since the humanitarian sector is historically known for its suspicion of such “business-like” approaches a third perspective, the “idealist” approach, is introduced. These three templates provide contrasting clues regarding how to design humanitarian governance structures and HRM practices. This paper investigates how humanitarian organizations navigate between these contradicting templates. The three approaches provide the basis for a descriptive and theoretical framework to analyze HRM governance systems. This framework is used to systematically reconstruct the development and contents of the HRM governance of one large humanitarian organization – the Dutch section of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – by means of a detailed analysis of organizational documents and expert interviews. The analysis provides unique insights into the HRM philosophy, policies and practices of MSF Holland and shows how the organization combines the best practices with the best fit approach and at the same time adheres to the fundamental principles of the idealist approach.


This chapter is co-authored with Rafael Wittek, Liesbet Heyse and Melinda Mills and is currently being prepared for journal submission. Data was collected in collaboration with Liesbet Heyse and Susanne Emde at MSF Holland. Sincere thanks to the organization and particularly, to those members who kindly agreed to be interviewed, for enabling and supporting the research.

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2. 1

Introduction: Governance in Humanitarian Organizations

Humanitarianism is a fundamentally normative concept centered on the moral principle to relieve human suffering in the context of war and natural disaster. However, since the 1990s, a decade that saw devastating crises and failures to implement this basic cause of humanitarianism, it has increasingly been noted that compassion and good will alone do not suffice (Rieff, 2002). Instead, humanitarian organizations and particularly international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are called upon to take measures to ensure that they are “being good at doing good” (Hilhorst, 2002). In this context, humanitarian personnel increasingly came into focus. On the one hand, organizations realized that their staff’s quality and commitment were central factors for the success of humanitarian action (ALNAP, 2002). On the other hand, it became clear that in terms of the management of humanitarian staff, substantial shortcomings prevailed (Macnair, 1995). These realizations created pressures for humanitarian INGOs to “professionalize” their human resource management (HRM) practices and to streamline their organizational routines and processes (Fowler, 2002; Henry, 2004; Rogar, Nigten, & Lammer, 2005). During the past two decades, organization scholars and human resource management practitioners have made much progress in analyzing the merits and limitations of different HRM systems in private and public organizations. Two overarching perspectives guide these efforts. Advocates of a universalist approach believe that there is a set of best practices in the HRM field that will improve the functioning of organizations and their members, regardless of the context or type of job. Proponents of a contingency approach in contrast suggest that the functionality of specific HRM practices depends on their fit with contextual conditions, like the cultural, economic or legal environment of the organization or the demographic composition of its workforce. Though differing with regard to the specific...
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