AU is ambitious but it must plug its human resource gap first

The African Union has been hobbled by the paucity of human capital and an inadequate recruitment process since its inception in 2002

We know that efficient and effective institutional management is dependent on the quality and resourcefulness of its human resources. This is true for not-for-profit organisations as well as profit-oriented ones. Sadly, the African Union (AU) has been hobbled by the paucity of human capital and an inadequate recruitment process since its inception in 2002 – a challenge it inherited from its legacy body, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Whereas the desire to wean the body of the shortcomings of inadequate human resources and recruitment is a noble task, the ambitious Agenda 2063 thrusts upon African leaders a greater urgency.

AU human ressource challenges

Irregular and insufficient human capital is one obstacle that must be overcome to build an efficient AU. This is according to research which estimates the appointed staff of the organisation as at 1,720 (as at May 2020). The research also shows that a total of 61 per cent of the personnel of the African Union Commission (AUC), the secretariat of the AU, were on short-term contracts as at 2020. As recent as May 20023, only 40 per cent of the workforce were regular employees while the rest were short-term contract staff. A year earlier, the ratio was almost the same at 685:441 in favour of short-term contract employees. This situation has raised concerns about the commitment to the sustainability of the continental body. Unsurprisingly, like every other organisation that leans heavily on irregular employees, AUC has had to endure its perils.

For one thing, the high and frequent turnover of staffers led to a loss of continuity and institutional memory, which breeds operational inefficiencies and poor mentorship. For another, contract employees generally lack high morale, a fallout of the feeling of job insecurity that results in irregular engagement. According to the AUC Reforms Transition Plan Progress Report released last week, AUC, with about 60 per cent of employees working on irregular terms, has buckled under the weight of these challenges over the years. As a consequence, AUC relied on external support for critical projects that should be driven by employees with a better sense of ownership and solidarity.

A largely short-term workforce, the assessment also insists, has posed significant limitations to the AUC’s ability to execute long-term strategic goals such as Agenda 2063. Oftentimes, the chances of success of long-term goals depend largely on the ability of their promoters to leverage institutional knowledge.

The report puts the staff strength of the Commission as at May 2023 at 1,029 – nine per cent short of what the figure was last year even as the creation of new structures needs additional resources. The employees oversee the entire Commission and its different organs that supervise critical regional programmes and agenda across its spheres. The fact that Africa ranks least on global development indices – human development index, economic development, stock of infrastructure investments and many more – also underpins the exceptional expectations from AUC.

A comparison with its peers also highlights the apparent challenges it faces in terms of the human capacity index. Three years ago, the size of employees of AUC was a meagre 5.4 per cent of the  32,000 permanent and contract staff of the European Commission’s (EU), for a mission that caters to the interests of 535 million people or a little above one-third of the population of Africa.

Informality, the assessment report recalls, rather than formal recruitment routines, was the cornerstone of recruitment of staff at the Commission until a few years ago. The informal practices that shaped the Commission’s recruitment consisted of unwritten actions, activities, rules, norms and decision-making structures that had emerged in the system.

One example of unwritten practices in recruitment was the decision by the AUC Chairpersons to turn into actual appointing powers and usurp the usual authority given to heads of administrative bodies to rubber-stamp recommendations of recruitment committees/bodies. As a result, it had become common practice for Chairpersons to flip on the head recommendations of the AUC’s recruitment committee called the Appointment, Promotion and Recruitment Board (APROB) chaired by the Deputy Chairperson of the AUC. In such a context, “it [was] not uncommon for a Chairperson to disregard the ranking of the APROB and instead appoint a candidate who [was] ranked last by APROB in a four-persons ranking system,” the report highlighted.

Towards a fair, efficient and inclusive recruitment

Leading to 2020, the unsustainable hiring and staffing procedures birthed a comprehensive review of the Commission’s hiring template and philosophy under the Skills Audit and Competencies Assessment (SACA).

Fairness, in the context of SACA, seeks to leverage the diversity and strength of Africans to sharpen the socio-political aspirations of the people. Youth and gender equity are also among the Holy Grail of the new era.

“A total of 241 staff placements are women, representing 36 per cent of the overall placements. This indicates a proactive effort toward the goal of gender equity, demonstrating that the AUC is making progress toward creating a more balanced representation of genders within its ranks,” the assessment report states.

However, if there are “potential bottlenecks” in promoting women in AUC placement, there are perhaps roadblocks in engaging young people. The average age of the employee gives a clue of the relegation of the youths on a continent where they are the majority.

“To address this, the AUC will initiate strategies such as youth-focused recruitment drives, internships or graduate schemes, mentorship initiatives, and training to build the capacity of young professionals. Furthermore, the Commission will need to assess its recruitment and promotion criteria to ensure they do not unintentionally disadvantage younger, less experienced but highly potential staff,” the report recommends.

The costs of SACA implementation  

The new AUC structure was approved with 1,380 employees but reviewed upward to 1,395, with additional departments and units. To reach the milestone, originally scheduled for this year, the current payroll would need to be raised by 35 per cent.

To achieve the targets set by SACA, the Commission has been implementing simultaneously two major projects. “In line with phase-1 of the Transition Plan these projects are as follows:

  1. Filling 114 critical positions (directors, heads of divisions and other identified positions) through an external recruitment process.
  2. Assessing and placing more than 800 existing staff whose profiles match with the new organizational needs, through the Skills Audit and Competency Assessment process, with the support of an independent HR firm Ernst & Young,” says the report.

On the implantation roadmap, some critical timelines have been missed, perhaps as expected. But the Commission has not buried its head in navel-gazing. It has a clearly-articulated plan, albeit with huge cost implications. For instance, its ambitious SACA implementation will cost the Commission $1.63 million this year. Next year will be more burdensome with regular staff promotions, integrating short-term staff as regular employees and the absorption of project staff and sundry expenditure lines expected to cost $9.6 million.

But the preoccupation goes beyond cost considerations. The anxiety in AU quarters is triggering discussions on whether international partners should continue to finance the staff costs until the end of next year – a debate that raises a question, for the umpteenth time, about the AU vulnerability to external influences.

The high cost of SACA implementation coupled with the AU’s troubled path to self-sustaining-funding also means that the AUC could defer the integration of these costs into the operational budget until 2025. Last December, it was agreed at an executive meeting that the reserve fund could be drawn down to meet the $13.4 million separation cost, arising from the inability to place staff appropriately as highlighted in the SACA roadmap. If the AUC were to separate the staff who have not been placed, the cost of the separation, the report stresses, would amount to $14.36. This, again, underscores the financial consequence of historical deficiencies, poor decisions and AU’s unprofessional meandering as well as lack of commitment to best HR practices. It also indicates the potential cost savings that better practices can yield.

Flickers of hope

The challenges, notwithstanding, AU self-assessment has yielded some benefits. The conceptualisation itself marked a reflection point in the aspiration to build a more prosperous Africa while the implementation of SACA recommendations ushered in a new human resources management culture. It is projected that more than 60 per cent of AUC’s structure will be successfully implemented if SACA is adopted. On the other, only 13 per cent of the new organisational structure will be achieved without SACA, suggesting that SACA equates higher morale, more inclusive representation and higher productivity. Already, 834 staff have been successfully assessed under the scheme, resulting in 29 placements (under directors and heads of divisions). Also, 671 staff in diverse roles across the Commission have been recommended for placement.

The modest achievements suggest the journey has, indeed, started. But more aggressive implementation strategies are required to plug the age-long human resources gap blocking the road to Agenda 2063.



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