NGO Hiring: Braindrain or Match-and-Wait?

I’m privileged to work at with some very talented colleagues at a project in Zambia.  We’re working to facilitate improved competitiveness in the agricultural sector, working with input firms and private vets to help them connect with rural farmers.  Some of firms (and vets) are resistant to start targeting smallholder farmers.  The firms are geared towards servicing larger commercial clients, and are reluctant to move from a low-volume/high-margin to a high-volume/low-margin business model, which would require investment in new systems and skills.

Once in a while, my colleagues voice their frustration: “I could run an agricultural input company focused on smallholder farmers and make it work.”  And I think they’re right—they probably could start such a company.  But they don’t, they work in the NGO sector, where the pay is good and the accountability for results is low.  The NGO sector drains the government and private sectors of some of best human resources.  Why would you go work in an underfunded government ministry for $500/month when you could go make $1,500/month at the Large International NGO?  Why bust your ass starting a company, taking on immense risks, when you can kick back in the morning with a newspaper and fill out some donor reports?  It could be argued that the NGO sector is hollowing out the government and private sectors.

But looking at it another way, it might just be that a company that focuses on selling ag inputs to smallholder farmers isn’t all that profitable, and my colleagues are just biding time until conditions change that make the venture profitable.  In the meantime, they prefer to match themselves with other high-quality people.  When asked why he works at this NGO, the first thing my colleague says is “because I get to work with good people.”  Good NGOs can serve as places where talented, socially-minded individuals can converge and build off each other.  All four of my close colleagues have started master’s degrees since they started at this project, and they talk to each other all the time about the coursework they’re doing.  Matching talented people together leads to virtuous circles.

The reality is that relatively high-paying NGOs aren’t going away any time soon, so what can the donor community do to support the virtuous circles?   Two things come to mind:

First, move away from punctuated projects that encourage the regular dispersal of teams and little staff capacity development in favour of funding approaches that cultivate strong teams on the ground.  Second, create funding streams for alumni of organizations who go off to become entrepreneurs and start a venture.

Maybe NGOs and projects won’t create that ever-elusive “transformational change”, but if they aren’t going away they could better serve as talent incubation tanks while developing countries find their own paths to prosperity.


3 Responses to “NGO Hiring: Braindrain or Match-and-Wait?”

  1. 1 Mark July 25, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Hans, great post.
    on the bigger picture stuff, ‘braindrain’ is definitely how its viewed at the moment – although Chris Nawej and others in the private sector here in Zambia will NEVER want to hire someone from the NGO or government sectors because they wont have the right attitudes (kick up your feet and read the paper). Its only braindrain straight out of college.

    Also on the bigger picture, I wrote this summary to Thulasy when explaining that increasing the talent pool in Zambia is the only sure way for development to happen.

    “First, make the rural enterprise part of the private sector more profitable and less risky. (not sure how this can be done – trade rules, taxes and better NGO support)
    Second, increase the size of the ‘talent pool’. (again not sure how to do this, except to improve the educational institutions – both primary and trades – and making it easier for ex-pats to start businesses in Zambia)”

    The first point reminds me of your comments about businesses becoming less risky so that the talent that is currently in the NGO sector will be drawn to the private sector.

    Good stuff. Love the blog.

  2. 2 mina July 26, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Hey Hans,

    Great post! I especially liked your two pieces of advice. And I actually think that point 2 (better education) is encompassed in point 1 (less risky business). If we look at countries in East Asia (Japan, Singapore etc.) post WWII, the way they were able to develop so quickly was by first improving education, and more so government education so that the brightest and most talented people were recruited to the public sector. Second they fostered economic development by protecting new industries, and organizations (Do Honda, and Toyota ring a bell?).

    And this is where I think aid can come in to play for a country like Zambia. Aid dollars if used effectively can help foster industrial development, in ADDITION to education. One of the things that always bothered me in Zambia, was that young people were expected to go to primary school, and high school, but after that the opportunities to really put their brains to use at a “country level,” for example at a University that would give them the skills to solve the country’s most complex problems were next to non-existent. So I think things start with education.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that before NGO’s can get out of Zambia, and move on, before the development industry can be abolished westerners (gov’ts, individuals, corporations) need to actually desire for this to happen. How many people are employed in the development industry? I think it’s a pretty big number. What developing country government can afford to pay technocrats the way NGO’s do? Not many. Maybe NGO’s can facilitate the merger of the public sector, and the NGO sector to improve government capacity. It’s hard to believe that development will occur in Zambia until the government has capacity to foster and maintain innovation – maybe this should be the new mandate of development NGO’s?

    I dunno just some random thoughts. I really like the idea behind this blog, i think it could be used as a great educational tool for chapters across Canada! Great innovation!

    Musalleh Bwino!


  3. 3 Hans Hesse July 29, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Good points, Mark. Making businesses more profitable and enlarging the pool of talent. The question is how? I can see how NGOs could be involved to absorb initial risk or supply services (e.g. farmer training) that are currently too costly to deliver on a strictly private basis. This is something along the lines of Base-of-the-Pyramid co-creation, but there needs to more thought put into how NGOs should equitably engage with various companies.

    Mina, thanks for the comment. I agree that there must be an incentive to drive more people into higher learning; however, I’m more on the fence with industrial policy (for the pro corner google: rodrik industrial policy). Recently Zambia got its own cell phone assembler, which on the face of it seems to make sense. Zambians buy lots of phones, and there is somewhat cheap labour. The mtech phones are assembled in Lusaka, and are billed as being affordable. However, they cost more than the cheapest Nokia handsets and are lower in quality. The government just raised tariffs on imported handsets to support the local player, which happens to be run by a good old friend of the president. This plant could spur on some learning externalities and act as a pull for the creation of other companies, but so far it’s just added a tax to most Zambian cellphone buyers.

    Some NGOs/donors seem focused on working to strengthen gov capacity, but many (especially in health, with the large global funds) are creating parallel systems. I wonder how much the push to get numbers to satisfy the MDGs is driving donors out of strengthening gov systems to striking out on their own.

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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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