Aceh Diary: The staffing challenge

This page in:

Staffing is one of the most serious challenges facing donors and aid agencies ramping up in Aceh. There’s no shortage of overqualified foreigners running around Aceh or the rest of Indonesia with the requisite passion to slave away for this worthy cause. The problem is, however, now that the volunteer/recovery phase is largely over and longer-term commitment becomes necessary to engage in the reconstruction effort, their services and dedication come with a very high price-tag. And while I can’t comment with any authority on trends in other regions, in Southeast Asia the typical compensation package and lifestyle expats enjoy is a world apart from what the locals earn.

Given that most NGOs and agencies are looking to create jobs locally, and are also fiscally conscious in that they’re spending the money of taxpayers and generous individuals, they’re quite reluctant to hire too many foreigners, especially at junior levels (unless it’s in the short-term). Now, the qualified locals—and I don’t mean people from other parts of Sumatra, or the Javanese, or any of the other peoples across Indonesia—but rather the Acehnese possessing the education/technical and language skills/experience to take on the types of jobs the development community is begging to have filled, are harder to find on the ground than a three-eyed pig!

It’s not that there aren’t any talented Acehnese with the right backgrounds to fill some of these positions, but such paragons are few in number, and can have their pick of the hundreds of jobs available now that the reconstruction work is picking up pace. So the problem now for employers is not only finding qualified local staff, but holding on to them once they’re on board and have been trained.

Many Acehnese I’ve met have switched jobs more than 2-3 times in the last year, and even though they’ll testify to liking their current position, it’ll hardly deter their constant lookout for the next gig offering even the most marginal of improvements in any of the areas they deem important—which more often than not is a salary hike, rather than an increase in responsibility, opportunity for greater technical specialization, or any cache or security associated with agency reputation, etc. So the notion of job loyalty is all but non-existent. Not that the Acehnese can be blamed, given that the market is incredibly skewed toward the job-seeker and it’s only smart to make the most of an extraordinary situation that may not last for more than a few years.

Once you do hire an Acehnese, though, before you know it you could well find a half dozen of their closest friends, cousins, and extended family members working for you if you’re not stringent in your background checks. But this is true more with regards to the drivers, cleaners, security guards, cooks, etc., rather than program staff. By the same token, you could also find yourself with a slew of staff from other parts of Sumatra who’ll swear to being Acehnese between 9-5 on weekdays, and maybe even some weekends depending on the going rate for overtime.

You might ask why not just advertise nationally for positions based in Aceh or bring in national staff from other parts of Indonesia, as many of the larger organizations have a significant presence across the country? Well, yes, a lot of the job advertising is done nationally. But the attraction of working in Aceh is not very high for the skilled Indonesians who can make more money working in Jakarta, Surabaya, or other big cities; plus the quality of life in Aceh as opposed to those cities, and the fact that it isn’t a family duty station, make it a hard sell for them as well as for expats.

The other interesting discovery I made is that many Indonesians are a bit afraid of the idea of coming to Aceh, even for a brief trip. They have the same concerns and misconceptions that people sitting halfway across the world might, i.e. that aid workers live in deplorable conditions, and that housing, food, and even drinking water are hard to come by. (All of these concerns are far off the mark.) For the same reasons, bringing in staff from other offices an organization may have around the country is generally a short-term solution. Aside from that, when hiring staff ethnically from Java, it is to be kept in mind that there is some underlying tension arising from the deep distrust the Acehnese have for the Javanese, given the last 30+ years of separatist conflict and the unwillingness of the central government to bend on the autonomy agenda.

Then there are also serious issues like the ones faced by Oxfam recently. The NGO was forced to suspend operations in the district of Aceh Besar while it investigated and sorted out budget irregularities, namely the disappearance of $22,000. The investigation has led to 22 staff facing disciplinary action, including 10 charged with attempting to defraud the agency. Sadly, the Oxfam case is not an isolated one, with similar problems faced by others, including Save the Children and a German NGO. In some cases, the funds to be used for housing have been misappropriated, and as a result substandard houses have been built.

Some of the staffing-related problems highlighted here offer no quick and easy solutions. Yet as the reconstruction progresses, agency learning should improve and market demand and supply will shift over time, making the situation (one can only hope) more manageable.

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000