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Inklings | The UN’s short-term workforce problem  

‘The misuse of non-staff personnel is rampant within the United Nations system.’


Welcome to another edition of Inklings, where we explore all things aid and aid-adjacent unfolding in the wilds of Geneva, on the front lines of emergency response, or in the dark corners of UN employment spreadsheets.

It’s also available as an email newsletter. Subscribe here.

Today: Precarious UN work, a key loss and damage board member bows out, and UNRWA’s funding thaw.

On the radar|

The UN’s temporary workforce: The UN’s dependence on insecure, short-term contracts to power its workforce is “tantamount to unfair labour practices”, warns a report by the UN’s management and administrative watchdog. At least 43% of UN workers are so-called “non-staff personnel”, many of whom are doing the core work of staff but with little of the job security and benefits, according to the recently published report from the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit. “The misuse of non-staff personnel is rampant within the United Nations system,” the inspectors warn. This won’t come as a surprise to UN workers who have been filling long-term roles on a series of short-term contracts and consultancies: Renewals are a constant worry, and mandatory “contract breaks” are part of worklife vocabulary. In a survey that accompanied the JIU review, some staff reported working for the same organisation for more than 15 years on a string of temporary contracts (some had signed more than 20 contracts with their agency). Half said they have no paid leave; a fifth said they had no sick leave; the vast majority said they had no pension.

  • Decent work: The UN’s International Labour Organization considers instability from short-term contracts to be one factor in determining “precarious” employment. “Many officials interviewed acknowledged that the prevailing labour practices went against the spirit of the principle of decent work for all, as promoted by ILO,” the JIU inspectors wrote. A quarter of ILO workers are “non-staff”.
  • Emergency aid: Unpredictable donor funding, costs, and flexibility are often given as reasons for using short-term contracts. But this “should not be used as justification for unfair labour practices and misuse of non-staff personnel”, the inspectors wrote. Humanitarian work is also time-limited and mostly funded by voluntary emergency appeals. But who has the lowest share of “non-staff personnel” at 1.24%? It’s UNRWA, the beleaguered agency for Palestinian refugees that faces constant funding troubles.
  • Who: FAO, UNIDO, UN Women, UNDP, WHO, and UNFPA are among the agencies where more than half the workforce is “non-staff”. More than 90% of UNOPS workers are “non-staff”, though this is part of a controversial business model that includes managing other agencies’ projects and human resources (for a cut). Who has improved? The share of non-staff personnel at the World Food Programme has dropped, after WFP reviewed its policies in 2021. It’s still a hefty 48% – see the chart below for details.
  • What to do: The JIU inspectors are calling on UN agency heads to better define and identify “non-staff personnel”, to flip critical non-staff positions into permanent roles, to develop a benefits scheme for remaining non-staff roles, and to set minimum standards for non-staff contracts. They’re also pushing for a gentler-sounding term: “affiliate personnel”.

Loss and damage: The board of the loss and damage fund lost its most high-profile member before it began its long-awaited first meeting this week. Economist and climate advisor Avinash Persaud was nominated to the board, but had to say no at the last minute: “I regret to say that the independent ethics office of the Inter-American Development Bank, where I work, has concluded at this late hour that serving on the fund’s board is incompatible with my employment,” Persaud wrote to my colleague, Will Worley, on the eve of this week’s meetings. “Therefore, I shall have to decline my nomination.” Persaud is one of the architects behind the Bridgetown Agenda – the climate-flavoured push to reform the global financial system spearheaded by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. Read Worley’s Q&A with Persaud, and stay tuned for his reporting on the fund’s first meeting.

Gaza aid pier: The Israeli military appears to have demolished homes to make way for the US-proposed floating pier off Gaza. Where does this leave the aid groups poised to participate?


HNPW: The misnamed Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week is back (duration: two weeks). A week of in-person panels and hobnobs begins 6 May in Geneva.

Part-trade show, part-science fair – the networking festival’s 300+ panels and events are, if nothing else, a safari for aid abbreviations, jargon, and made-up words. Here are a few that caught my eye:

  • Participationwashing: Will Ground Truth Solutions try to make this term stick? GTS “and friends” hosts a 6 May session underscoring the importance of making tough decisions on financial prioritisation with affected communities. 
  • GANNET: There’s no shortage of AI solutions being touted for humanitarian needs. They might as well have handy acronyms, such as the Guided Assistance and Navigation for Needs and Emergency Tasks web app, which will be taken for a spin on 7 May.
  • Elrha: It sounds like an acronym, but it’s not. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund from Cardiff-based Elrha is co-hosting a 9 May session on the “pitfalls and potential” for artificial intelligence in humanitarian action. 
  • Nexuses: What’s one more link on the nexus? A 7 May session contemplates the “environment-humanitarian nexus” in Gaza.
  • IASC MHPSS: The Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support reference group hosts a 7 May info session on surge deployment for mental health in emergencies.
  • DEMAC: Diaspora remittances dwarf official humanitarian aid flows. The network Diaspora Emergency Action & Coordination is running a 8 May panel on diaspora responses to climate-linked threats.
  • GSC ECoP: The Global Shelter Cluster’s Environment Community oPractice (”a venue to support the exchange of information related to the greening of shelter responses in disaster”) has a 9 May session on the rapidly accelerating problem of heat in humanitarian response.

Data points|

Which UN agencies rely most heavily on short-term contracts? Here’s the data.

End note|

$267 million

That’s the amount of funding promised to UNRWA that remains frozen following Israel’s claims that some of the agency’s 13,000 Gaza staff took part in the 7 October Hamas attacks.

One by one, governments who suspended funding in January are reversing course, following a review that found, among other things, that UNRWA already has “a more developed approach to neutrality than other similar UN or NGO entities”.

Three countries (out of at least 16 that suspended funding) remain: the US, the UK, and Austria. Most of this ($180 million) is from the US, which has indicated its funding will be in a congressionally mandated deep freeze until at least March 2025, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini told reporters in Geneva this week. 

Other government donors have stepped in, including some that haven’t contributed large amounts to UNRWA before: Lazzarini cited IraqAlgeria, and Kuwait.

Read more: What the numbers say about ‘non-traditional’ aid donors

The agency has also raised $115 million in private funding – an indication, Lazzarini said, “of the extraordinary grassroots solidarity expressed towards Palestinians”.

Lazzarini said UNRWA’s funding is confirmed through the end of June. “If you ask, ‘Are you confident or not,' I would say, during the last four years, I have rarely had more [financial] visibility than two or three months,” he said. “I'm used, now, to [having] to deal with the extraordinarily unsettling financial environment and situation.”

The Inklings newsletter: Have any tips, recommendations, or indecipherable acronyms to share? Get in touch: [email protected]

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