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Staffing in Countries with Limited Human Resources

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Many countries face difficulties in attracting, motivating, and retaining high quality employees. These problems are more pronounced when there is an absolute shortage of qualified labor in a country. Civil administrations that face this constraint must pay particular attention to the limits and challenges this poses, and design recruitment and training programs accordingly.

Human resource quality                                                       

The graph below provides some international comparisons on educational achievement. However, when looking at the human resources pool in a given country, one must also complement such indicators with an assessment of other factors such as: (i) how appropriate is the skill level and skill mix of graduates; and (ii) to what extent are factors such as brain drain depleting the resource pool.

Click HERE to see chart on Education Indicators.

Note: Low income countries defined as those with 1996 GNP per capita of $785 or less; lower-middle income countries with per capita income from $786 to $3,115; upper middle income countries from $3,116 to $9,635; and high income countries $9,636 or more. Gross enrollment rates (secondary and tertiary) from 1994 (except low income tertiary which is from 1995). Literacy rates for 1995 (rate for high income countries NA). Source: 1998 WDI CD-ROM.   Additional education indicators can be found in the UNESCO Database.

To assess human resource quality within the civil service, the qualifications of civil servants should be assessed by job category for the extent to which they are adequate for the responsibilities of those positions. For example, a large number of illiterate school teachers – which is the case in some countries – indicates a serious under-qualification of staff. A more complete assessment would also look at the qualifications of the applicant pool and new recruits for a dynamic, rather than static sense of the existing labor market conditions and ability of the civil service to attract qualified personnel.

Symptoms of a limited human resource pool             

Symptoms of a civil service that draws on a limited human resource pool include:

  • low educational qualifications within the civil service
  • a high number of expatriate advisors or consultants in senior positions
  • significant vacancies or vacancies filled with unqualified personnel

Exacerbating factors                                                        

These symptoms, however, are not unique to countries with a limited human resource pool. They may also reflect problems in the policies or management of human resources within the civil administration. In countries already constrained by a limited human resource pool, factors that impede the ability to attract and retain skilled personnel become particularly problematic. Some of these factors include:

Possible solutions and approaches                             

Reforms designed to enhance the level and quality of education are fundamental to alleviating the constraint over the medium to long term. However, in the interim, a variety of other approaches can be incorporated into an overall strategy for alleviating the human resources constraint. Some of the elements are briefly outlined below.

Training within the civil service. A variety of pre-service and in-service training programs can augment the human resources base. Some possibilities include bonded scholarships, targeted to specific skill gaps, that could be offered as a recruitment incentive or to staff within the civil service that show great potential. Such sweeteners may also help overcome the difficulties faced by countries that can not significantly raise civil service remuneration levels. An important caveat, however, is that enforcement difficulties may be great, and conditions of service upon return may largely determine the success of this type of instrument. Pre-service education programs can also provide a highly efficient means to target civil servants with customized training. Pre-service internships may serve the same purpose. Training programs, targeted to mid-level managers that have shown committed performance, and designed to qualify them for senior posts, is another mechanism for developing a qualified human resources pool from within the civil service itself. All of these approaches, however, require scrupulous attention to the transparency of selection of beneficiaries.

Recruitment. In countries with critical shortages of well-qualified human resources, selective rather than comprehensive recruitment efforts may be warranted. Mandarin systems – where recruitment is centralized and highly selective, and successful candidates are fast-tracked for the best jobs – offer certain advantages. Staffing constraints may affect all levels of the bureaucracy, but there is often greater urgency in selecting and grooming an elite-trained cadre for high positions. Conversely, open recruitment provides greater flexibility in finding a candidate with needed skills, including hard to find specialist expertise, and ensures more equitable access into the elite cadre from all parts of society. The best approach may be an eclectic strategy that uses the positive features of the two different models.

As a cautionary note, the emphasis on elite recruitment should not lead to the neglect of higher recruitment standards for middle and lower level civil servants. While improving the quality of lower level staff is in many ways dependent on enhanced education standards (usually a long term proposition), it may still be possible to tighten admission criteria for all civil servants (i.e., through appropriate entrance exams), and ensure that selection is based on merit rather political or personnel connections.

Defining an appropriate role for government. When capacity is seriously constrained, it is even more important to focus these limited resources on essential activities. Many states try to do too much with few resources, while a sharper focus on fundamentals would improve effectiveness. Still, it is not just a matter of choosing what to do, but also how to do it. Efforts to take the burden off the state by crafting alternative delivery mechanisms that include citizens, communities, civic organizations and the private sector, can help ease the human resources capacity constraint in the civil service.

Using external assistance. As an interim measure, it may be necessary to rely on external assistance, either by hiring internationally for certain positions or using technical assistance to assist civil servants in carrying out their responsibilities. However, in either approach, an exit strategy should be developed, and specific measures should be taken to ensure knowledge transfer between the international staff/advisor and national civil servants. Donors, meanwhile, should avoid bidding away skilled labor from the civil service and thereby depleting installed institutional capacity.

Relaxation and diversification of remuneration norms on a limited and carefully monitored basis may be necessary and desirable when technical skills are in short supply.

Recommended readings                                                 

  • Fallon, Peter R., and Luiz A. Pereira da Silva. 1994. "Recognizing Labor Market Constraints: Government-Donor Competition for Manpower in Mozambique." In David L. Lindauer and Barbara Nunberg, eds., Rehabilitating Government: Pay and Employment Reform in Africa. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
  • Nunberg, Barbara. 1995. "Managing the Civil Service: Reform Lessons from Advanced Industrialized Countries." World Bank Discussion Papers 204. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
  • World Development Report: 1997. The State in a Changing World. Washington, D.C: World Bank.


This page was authored by Linda Van Gelder of the World Bank. It was submitted on 7/14/99.


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