HR Without Borders

Human Resources

Diane S. Bégin, CMC CHRP, is an Ottawa-based consultant and associate of Flaman Management Partners Limited who thrives on projects in the developing world. When we met at the HRPAO conference in February, she spun a mesmerizing tale about practicing her skills in rather difficult circumstances. In the first of a series of articles, she shares some of her experiences facilitating change in Botswana, Africa. In future, she will be sending dispatches from Kabul, Afghanistan, where she headed in early April.

I first set out on my journey as an international HR consultant in nations in special circumstances with a knapsack full of knowledge, gained over 25 years of working in the Canadian public sector. I have always felt infinitely grateful for the knowledge and experiences imparted by my employers, whose leaders inspired me and provided me with invaluable reference points. So far, the fascinating world of building and renovating bureaucracies has taken me to Africa, and soon I’ll be embarking on a new adventure: Kabul, Afghanistan.

Public sector reforms and initiatives in countries in special development circumstances have gained momentum in recent years, resulting in an emerging practice of specialized work for many consultants. According to the UN Development Programme, “special circumstances” refers to countries “faced by chronic natural disasters and environmental crises, as well as those that are either faced with incipient internal armed conflicts or wars.” The development of human resources is particularly critical in such countries, and can become a definite calling for any consultant who plans to practice abroad.

In future articles, I’ll be sharing accounts of my consulting experiences in countries with special development circumstances; particularly as they relate to the formidable challenges encountered in designing and implementing government-wide reforms. These experiences are significant in a Canadian context: relating, for example, to the creation of the new nation-state, Nunavut ; the devolution of services and privatization endeavours at all levels of government; and nascent civil service reforms. Clearly, there is a convergence on the priorities given to establish a high performing public service as a tool for good governance. The focus on challenges in reform design and implementation will be relevant to everyone involved in public service reform.

Botswana Bound: Supporting Civil Service Change

My first experience abroad was in Botswana in the fall of 2002. This small, landlocked country is slightly smaller than Saskatchewan, with a population of 1.5 million.

Although Botswana is one of the more developed countries in Africa, approximately 36 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. To put that into context, the UN estimates that by 2015, the population of Botswana will be 31 percent smaller than it would have been in the absence of AIDS. Life expectancy at birth in 2003 was 32.2 years for men and 32 years for women. This is indeed a crisis of pandemic proportion when you consider that in Ontario, the life expectancy in 1999 was 79.4.

Upon my arrival in Gabarone, the capital city, at 7 a.m. I met with donor agency representatives, who briefed me on the project. As part of the United Nations Development Programme’s decentralization initiative sin Botswana, an urgent need was expressed to explore options associated with the development and implementation of a Performance Based Reward System (PBRS) for all employees across the Botswana Civil Service. The objective of the PBRS was to link the government’s Performance Management System implementation strategy with the performance of individual Public Officers while strengthening the government’s accountability framework.

That same day I acted as a full-time member of the Government of Botswana’s reform team. From my readings of the country’s challenges against AIDS, I knew this disease could pose significant workplace concerns affecting turnover rate, incidences of absenteeism, discrimination, and bereavements. For the government, AIDS certainly could seriously accelerate the loss of human capacity and corporate knowledge.

Undeniably, my first task was to fully understand what drove the reform I was asked to facilitate. A great deal of interaction occurs at this preliminary stage: stories are told, concepts are shared, terminology is clarified, risks are evaluated, resources are discussed, stakeholders are identified, and SMART goals are set – for both the project plan and the government reform. During these conversations, it is critical that efforts be made to distinguish between what the organization needs, what it can afford, and what it wants. Are conciliation of those three elements needed to occur in order to scope the project appropriately and bring about an enduring change across the civil service. For me, that was the most critical and difficult part of the project plan – and it all had to happen within one week.

It is no surprise that this reconciliation between what is needed, what is doable, and what is wanted is a process that continues throughout the life of the project. An increasing knowledge and understanding of the culture, values, and vision imbedded in the fabric of their organizations proved to be the key to sustaining momentum. I marched with my clients and thousands of AIDS activists on December 1, 2002 to commemorate World AIDS Day, and I helped the local human resources professionals elect a new council for their Human Resources Association – all to better understand the people.

In the end, the project design and deliverables reflected a balance of quality and quantity, and carried with them a healthy dose of realism. Exercising sensitivity and mindfulness as a preliminary step to introducing key reforms to governments both provides definition to the scope, and increases its probability for success.

Rolling stones gather no moss. Soon, my work will be taking me to Kabul, Afghanistan, to facilitate another change there. As part of the security, stabilization and reconstruction Program, I will be asked to facilitate the leadership development program and the government-wide training strategy. Stay tuned for my field notes and further adventures in HR.

To read Diane’s second dispatch on working in Botswana, Africa, click here

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