Karen Keung, HR Chief of Staff for the International Committee of the Red Cross, discusses the challenges of decision-making in inequitable contexts.

As digitalisation becomes an increasing imperative for most organisations, it is important for any organisation to keep up with the rest of the world. We wanted to improve our onboarding and deployment experience: to make it easier for employees to access information, understand the organisation better; reduce physical paperwork because so many of our employees are located remotely. A mobile application would be useful and light—making it easier to keep in touch, improving that push and pull of knowledge and information management. But then we quickly realised, in most of the contexts we work, our people don’t even have internet access, let alone a device that is compatible.

I am the Chief of Staff to the HR Director of an international humanitarian organisation, and these considerations, what to invest in, when is the best time to do so, how does it improve our ability to manage human capital, and how to do more with less and do so equitably, when the environment around you changes on an almost daily basis; are some of the many concerns we face. What do you do when you genuinely want to improve the working life and experience of your employees, but there are some fundamental environmental factors you cannot change?

In the many scenarios, dilemmas and decision-making conundrums faced by those who work in the humanitarian sector, I reflect how contrariness (or ‘yes but’) appears. Sometimes as a point of frustration from the increasing complexity of our work environment, or a guiding factor that helps to refine our directions and actions. Contrariness reminds us that there is no one-size- fits-all; that a solution for one group of people will not suit another and that every decision must take into account multidimensional pros and cons. The trick then, is to find the combination that delivers the most balanced outcome.

‘Contrariness reminds us that there is no one-size-fits-all; that a solution for one group of people will not suit another.’

The goal of humanitarian work is to provide aid to those in need, and the right balance of contrariness is essential to decide whether the aid is appropriate, right or administered to the best value outcome? Who should receive this aid? These are some of the many factors (notwithstanding those relating to actual aid delivery) that form part of the responsibilities of those working in the humanitarian setting. Of course, there are multidimensional considerations that require careful deliberation. To add to the complexity, humanitarian work is typically reactive and time sensitive. We respond to urgencies and emergencies. Long decision-making processes or delays in response can cause greater or different sets of complications.

Working with both the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’

Humanitarian organisations don’t live in the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’— they literally exist on both sides at the same time and operate in an uncomfortable to-and-fro balancing act.

Humanitarian organisations, and many non-profit organisations, face contrariness on all fronts. To enable an organisation to deliver to its mandate, solid infrastructure is needed: employee support mechanisms; training and people development; technology, processes and reporting; clear and transparent documentation of our spend and activity; the ability to measure performance and demonstrate results and outcomes. We need capital investment and continuous improvement to simply exist as an entity. For humanitarian organisations, where every cent counts, and those in need could always do with more support, the additional consideration is: what is the right balance between investing into the future, ensuring efficiency and frugality by moral obligation?

The world is evolving and changing with a rapidity that is hard to follow but certainly exciting. Advancements in science and technology mean we can do so much more. We can be on the ground faster, respond and communicate with greater accuracy and speed. And yet, herein lies our dilemma – the world evolves, but not the whole world; change is happening all around, but it is definitely not equally distributed. Our economic and technological advancements increase our connectivity but in a direction that widens rather than reduces the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

‘Our economic and technological advancements increase our connectivity but in a direction that widens rather than reduces the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.’

Even more problematic, connectivity makes both sides aware of the gap, and does not necessarily provide the means to address it. The World Economic Forum’s recent reports indicate 59% of the world’s population is connected to the internet (‘87% in developed countries; 47% in developing countries; 19% in least developed countries’). Importantly, this is not a developed vs developing country or culture issue, but a wider one concerning the ‘haves and have-nots’ which is present everywhere. ‘Many rural and low-income communities around the world lack reliable, affordable [internet] access’… where 97% of Americans in metropolitan areas have access to a high-speed fixed service, this quickly drops to 65% in rural areas and 60% in tribal lands (Roese 2021). This scenario resonates with the daily working experience of those in the humanitarian sector in a number of different ways.

Many humanitarian agencies are conceived and headquartered in the ‘haves’ environment. They benefit from a certain level of socio-economic and political stability, infrastructure, and access to information, technology and scientific advancements. Operating in the ‘haves’ environments means keeping abreast of constant change and updates, from the latest messaging mediums to changes in data protection and data privacy regulations. This applies to both people and enterprises. Keeping up with technology is expensive but also necessary because the price of not following the crowd is to become increasingly out of touch with your society. On the other hand, we operate and deliver our work in ‘have-not’ contexts that can neither support the use nor maintenance of more advanced technology.

Uneven access

Say we want to create a more equitable tool in-house that would allow us to accommodate more of our employees given the various environmental factors blocking technology uptake – but in-house means we need the reciprocating internal resources to maintain and manage on premise, which comes at a cost. Our data privacy needs, the necessity to remain independent, neutral and impartial means we cannot work with just any external provider. Even if we do have the infrastructure, taking the time to create something that fits a wider audience, might mean we marginalize a different set of employees. Investing in progressing technology is necessary, and given the scale of our operations, a more comprehensive technology transformation focusing on single systems would be more economically viable, and investing in the latest tech offers future proofing and the opportunity to unify data and information, but the most advanced options are also not compatible with many of our operating contexts. Running dual or even multiple systems on the other hand, is extremely expensive and trying to cobble old and new systems together is not just inefficient, but perpetuates manual work and data errors: which negates why we embarked on a systems journey in the first place. As an institution that lives in both worlds, we can only continue this balancing act of the smallest number of multiple solutions with the largest needs coverage possible, acknowledging that even so, the solution is not going to work for everyone.

As an employer and for employees, the challenges are equally intricate. The workplace is where people demonstrate their competencies and practice what they have learnt. If the current working context cannot provide the opportunity to demonstrate skills in line with the external market, then a strong independent learning agenda is important to ensure employees are not limited in their career prospects. Now, this is an important development.

Human Capital, that intangible asset we know as people and all the qualities that make up a person, skills, knowledge, capability, and experience (and personality), is a critical aspect of an organisation, it represents the individual and the collective. Human capital management trends in ‘haves-environments’ are spearheading conversations about re-architecting work and worker/employer relationships, testing the social enterprise (we are a team, not a family), and unleashing purpose. They talk of transformation and shifting from lifelong employment to lifelong employability. A portion of our workforce will come from environments where they are confronted with continuous automation and robotization in their daily lives, and are aware that to remain relevant, they need to become more and more specialized and ‘specialist’. To keep remain competitive and aware in an ever increasingly ‘connected’ world, they need to be connected, follow the latest developments and advancements in their professional streams.

Our work, however, takes place in the world’s most difficult contexts. Our employees are stationed around the globe in politically tense and high-risk environments, potentially where international sanctions have been imposed, where there is disrupted power supply and a lack of clean water. For them, arguably, connectivity is a secondary consideration. The local context may also mean working with minimum, old and/or outdated infrastructure. For some of these tools, external training is no longer available, meaning we may have to invest in maintaining training and a skill set that is declining or has no value in the open commercial market. This can be a point of frustration for employees as well, if we imagine that the workplace is where they want to demonstrate their application of learning in context (skills versus experience).

Within our own working context, we have a further issue of haves and have-nots. A portion of our workforce are focused on maintaining basic livelihood as a direct consequence of the context in which they live. For them, the approach to fairness, equal access to learning opportunities, assessment of performance, reward and recognition and promoting employee engagement is different. Initiatives for unleashing purpose is probably not a primary concern, and may in fact be incredibly disconnected from their realities. The fact that this gap, this ‘have and have-not’ situation, exists internally is a basic trait of the sector itself, and is a hurdle for all humanitarian organisations.

Social expectations

Society has a notion of what it means to be a humanitarian. Society expects public duty, voluntary acts of kindness and compassion, absolute transparency, the appropriate use and distribution of funding, the moral obligation that reflects always doing the right thing. Often, we are seen iconically as the gap-closers because of the work we do with the communities we serve. Employees also have expectations of humanitarian organisations that are quite similar— luckily for that element of coherence. They expect care, support and investment into them as valuable and critical participants and partners. They expect fair and right compensation for their work and support and infrastructure to enable them to perform. However, if we bear in mind the extreme deviations between employees’ local and working environments, as well as the variety of sovereign contexts, then what is right or needed for one group of employees is likely to be vastly different to another. We add to this situation, the fact that in and of itself, the work we do and the contexts in which we work means that our human capital is unique to the experience and skills developed in situ. These competencies can be hard to come by elsewhere, and may not necessarily be well understood in the open market. This makes our knowledge management, retention of high performers and critical competencies important, but also means we have to take some different approaches to career development meaning we may not be able to leverage more commercial and standard market offerings.

This is not an uncommon situation for any organisation with a global reach, just that humanitarian work has its particularities, unique stressors and complexities that render certain leading practice approaches to wellbeing and engagement less compatible. For-Profit organisations can leverage external motivators like shareholders and balance sheets and a variety of financial mechanisms for reward and recognition in ways that humanitarians cannot. Of course, humanitarian organisations have their own unique advantages. They can leverage that sense of civic duty, intrinsic values and principles like social duty, contribution and humanity through its corporate culture in a way most commercial enterprises cannot, but it is unwise to count solely on intrinsic motivators. What this means is that humanitarian organisations cannot benefit from scale, nor leverage leading practice and trends to the extent that other organisations can. The caveat here is not to completely reject leading practice. Leading practice exists and represents a portion of the internal population, as well as a significant portion of the public world—and we rely on this public world, which has many faces: the people we serve, the partners we work with, the donors that support us.

The world does continue to evolve, just not all at the same pace. So, as an institution, our growth and advancement needs good strong reflection and consideration to our environment, what is current, the trends upcoming and our employees and their particular environmental contexts and obstacles. We need to maintain ambitions in improving operations but with some humility. There is a sense of necessary frugality when you are in a humanitarian organisation and especially for those areas of an organisation that are not considered front-line. Non- frontline functions exist to support those on the front-lines who ensure aid goes to where it is needed most and makes the best impact, they also exist to ensure the enterprise operates in accordance with the sovereign legislations to which it is bound , for example, every country has its own set of local laws pertaining to employment benefits, which on a global level, then brings another aspect of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. We can only continue the balancing act of having one foot on each side, and choose solutions that allow us to reduce the gap as much as possible, acknowledging once more that no single solution gets us to 100%.

Humanitarian organisations don’t live in the gap between the ‘haves’ and they ‘have-nots’— they literally exist on both sides at the same time and operate in an uncomfortable to-and-fro balancing act. For those whose role is to enable the organisation, the aim is then to reduce the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ with the smallest amount of investment to cover the largest amount of need. It may also seem counterintuitive, but to a degree, this does not mean identifying the biggest area of gap and trying to resolve it, but rather identifying the largest collection of similarities. So, in trying to reduce the gap, we may not try to target the largest pain point, but the most frequent, even if they appear of less importance. For example, we work in countries that are sanctioned by the international community, which places an embargo on certain goods and services. Limits to access, software, or commercial training courses for skills development impact the employees in those countries. This might be a small item compared to creating a new onboarding application on a new digital platform, but may resolve a more frequent concern and cost less to do so.

Even simple choices require the time and investment of change management, and the more complex the decision, the more knowledge, information and open dialogue is needed to maintain motivation and engagement. Nowadays, organisations need incredible amounts of transparency and openness to its investors (donors), its governance, and to its employees. Choosing one project, however, means not choosing another. Where information is free flowing, more communication is needed in order to reduce disinformation. This adds its own set of costs. So, whilst we focus on continuously doing more with less, and improving the work environment to enable employees to do more, faster, we also have the dilemma of needing simply to do less because to do things well, simply costs more.

Communicating clearly

Communicating, or clarifying the whys of decision-making is increasingly important as an objective for any organisation, but for humanitarians, this represents closing the gap between those who can and those who cannot access information. Again, we go back to the world evolving but not at the same pace, and information is widely accessible and free flowing but not in all contexts and not for everyone. Employees are not oblivious to organisational dynamics, and it is easy for all to see the push and pull of being and working in have and have- not environments. The precision of communication and provision of information is also an important concern. Within the dichotomy of the have and have-nots, there are all the variations in between. Perhaps access to information is generally no longer a problem so much as reliability (of access), consistency (of access), and quality, accuracy or diversity of information. We cannot stop information, but what we can do is provide clarity, direction and guidance.

Schwartz’ book The Paradox of Choice tells us that the very nature of having too much choice causes less happiness and satisfaction. Choice or the perception of choice comes when you have access to information. When you have access, you are more aware of the complexities and the nuances (the ‘haves’). When you have information, you may also be aware of your lack of choice within certain situations (the ‘have-nots’ realising they have-not). It is for this reason that I challenge solutions with a reductionist view that focus on making things simple as a change strategy. Not everyone will agree with this, but I don’t think people want simplicity as much as they want clarity. Taking a reductionist approach and simplifying things does not help us to appropriately identify the diverse perspectives and risks marginalising subsets of stakeholders in the change journey. Giving clarity to complexity is an opportunity to take a balanced approach, but is also a mechanism where we guide employees through complex situations.

Providing information and access to information with the aim of increasing clarity is different to providing excuses or justifications. Theories of motivation tells us that autonomy, freedom of opinions, relatedness and the access to information is important for motivation, and therefore engagement, and engagement is important to employers and employees alike. Embarking on an open process to bring complex issues to light means also opening the door for dialogue and in term, providing clarity rather than simplifying gives the dialogue authenticity (trust and motivations) and reduces the perception risk of being concealing or withholding. Clarifying information can help empower individuals to build their own story and their own rationales to connect with change, but also potentially reduces the sentiments of ‘irreconcilable differences’ between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

‘Existing simultaneously in ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ contexts where ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ populations work side by side, united by a common purpose, but equally aware of the gap between the having and not-having, is certainly an interesting challenge.

The needs of our employees will range from state-of-the-art equipment and latest software, to basic sustenance needs like access to clean drinking water. Existing simultaneously in ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ contexts where ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ populations work side by side, united by a common purpose, but equally aware of the gap between the having and not-having, is certainly an interesting challenge.


To a degree, all organisations face challenges in the fast-changing world of today. The challenges of a large humanitarian organisation needing to continually adapt, and morph is no different. What is unique for the humanitarian sector is the setting in which they work. The reason for their existence is to reduce the gap between those that have and those that have- not. To be effective in doing that and, to better address the extremely diverse needs of the communities they serve, we need to be reflective of the diverse societies we work with, and so we ironically perpetuate a certain amount of have and have-not within our own structure, by necessity. Resolving this in the immediate future is a hard call, but by raising the awareness and improving our understanding of this and all various dynamics it brings, will help us to continue to make that gap smaller.

Karen Keung is HR Chief of Staff, International Committee of the Red Cross. Originating from Hong Kong, Karen somehow found herself, of all the unlikely outcomes in Geneva Switzerland. She is an organisational psychologist and staunch supporter of health and wellbeing in the workplace.


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