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Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) personnel policy: professional as well as idealistic

01 February 2012

Although Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is faced with a number of challenges,  its personnel policy is both professional and idealistic, according to research by University of Groningen sociologist Valeska Korff. Like many other humanitarian organizations, MSF has great difficulties retaining its staff in the long term. Sixty percent of its staff only go on a single mission abroad. The numbers could perhaps drop if more staff from developing countries are recruited and if couples are given the opportunity to go on missions together, Korff concludes. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 February.

Humanitarian aid focuses on providing food, shelter, medical care and other emergency care to the victims of armed conflicts and disasters. However, since the 1990s it has become increasingly clear that idealism and good intentions alone do not suffice. Humanitarian organizations have started working more and more professionally in order to be able to provide effective aid and to remain politically independent. University of Groningen PhD student Valeska Korff has analysed MSF’s personnel policy and concludes that although the organization works very professionally, it is still faced with a number of challenges too.

Professional personnel policy

One important challenge for MSF is how to retain personnel for longer periods of time so that fewer investments have to be made in training new staff. MSF is very much aware of this, as Valeska Korff discovered when studying its policy documents. Over the past fifteen years, the organization’s personnel policy has become increasingly professional, similar to that in the business world. At the same time, however, attention is also paid to the employees’ idealism and motivation.

Effective introductory programme

The introductory programme for new staff has turned out to be a very effective instrument for MSF. Staff members who participate in the intensive eight-day programme, which includes a lot of group activities and lectures, are significantly happier with their work, find it more relevant and stay with the organization longer. Korff: ‘The introductory programme appears to be particularly effective in increasing the employees’ motivation – more so than in allaying insecurities about the tasks to be performed.’ Korff assumes that people working in the humanitarian and non-profit sectors are especially intrinsically motivated and that introductory programmes in these sectors are therefore particularly useful tools in fostering and stimulating this motivation.

Danger hardly plays a role

The risks of the work and the work location hardly play a role in staff deciding to leave the organization, an analysis of personnel administration data shows. Staff members who are in a relationship do, however, more often decline new missions. Staff in medical positions take the fact into account that they may lose their medical qualification when they work abroad for a long time. In addition, attractive jobs are often available in their home countries. Korff: MSF may be able to retain medical staff from Western countries for longer by offering partners the opportunity to go on missions together. Apart from this, there is not a lot MSF can do. It cannot afford to pay market-level salaries – idealism should be the reason to choose this line of work.’

Personnel from developing countries

MSF could retain staff longer by recruiting more in developing countries. This study shows that staff from these countries tend to stay with their employers significantly longer. Korff: ‘Humanitarian organizations traditionally tended to mainly hire staff from developed, Western countries. This, however, has changed over the past few years, at MSF too – not only for ethical reasons, to promote developing countries’ autonomy, but also because it is cheaper and more efficient than having to train new staff from Western countries time and again. My research shows that workforce diversification may help decrease staff turnover rates.’

Curriculum Vitae

Valeska Korff (Thailand, 1981) studied cultural anthropology and development sociology in Leiden. She conducted her PhD research at the department of Sociology of the University of Groningen, within the ICS research school. Her supervisors were prof. Rafael Wittek and prof. Melinda Mills, and the joint supervisor was Dr Liesbet Heyse. Korff currently works as a researcher at Stanford University in the USA. The title of her thesis is ‘Between Cause and Control. Management in a Humanitarian Organization’.

Note for the press

For more information: Valeska Korff, e-mail vpkorff, or Korff’s supervisor, Liesbet Heyse, e-mail: l.heyse


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.51 a.m.
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