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By Ishbel McWha-Hermann
The United Nations (UN) recently unveiled its new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A replacement for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), these 17 new objectives outline important aspirations for the global community in addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges.
From ending poverty, promoting well-being and sustainable industrialisation, to ensuring equal access to justice – all by 2030 – the aims are as ambitious as they are admirable.
Challenging as they may be, the good news is – like the majority of the MDGs before them – they are achievable. But only if we support the humans behind the humanitarian effort and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) we rely upon to deliver them.
During the past few years, I’ve joined a growing movement of academics and leading practitioners to apply established work psychology theories and tools to areas of pressing humanitarian and international development need. As well as how to deliver the International Labour Organization’s vision of decent work, for all workers in all contexts.
As part of this ongoing research, I recently co-edited a new book which is the first of its kind to show this new field of humanitarian work psychology (HWP) in action implementing MDG projects.
Examining projects from Nigeria, India and Ghana, to Hong Kong and Sierra Leone, we found five key areas where work psychology can be applied to deliver humanitarian benefits.
1. Addressing workplace well-being
Like all organisations, people are core to the success of humanitarian agencies. Without committed, engaged employees and volunteers they simply cannot deliver positive development outcomes.
So it’s essential NGOs have effective governance and leadership to ensure their workforce is equitably treated and rewarded.
Applying work psychology to the humanitarian process can address a range of issues, from recruitment and selection, managing relationships between multi-cultural and diverse workforces, to pay and benefits. In such a charged environment, for example, work psychology can provide insights on how to mitigate the impact of emotional exhaustion on workers’ health and wellbeing.
2. Establishing partnerships to increase scale and impact
One way to improve workplace well-being and performance, in general, can come from forging multi-stakeholder partnerships to share knowledge, resources and best practices – particularly when these ties cross borders between developed and developing nations.
Collaborations between Higher Education institutions in Europe and North America with those in Africa have expanded skills in student recruitment and supervision to help improve post-graduate opportunities in global health across the continent.
3. Improving inclusiveness and extending participation in training
Expanding the reach of skills training to the lowest realistic levels can deliver vast improvements, not only in workplace participation but also in service delivery.
By identifying suitable candidates and tailoring training to local cultural and situational factors, NGOs in Sierra Leone have successfully managed to address significant shortages of healthcare professionals by training and retaining a vast team of Community Health Workers.
4. Embedding the value of communications and messaging
Applying work psychology’s focus on the value of communication to compel people to action has marked effects on the outcomes of projects. But it can also deliver real benefits to development processes – enabling them to be replicated in other settings or at different scales.
One notable project took this approach to improving goal-setting for frontline healthcare workers in Bihar, India. Using a team-based goals and incentives programme the motivation and performance of frontline workers was significantly improved, resulting in reduced child mortality rates and improved maternal health.
5. Encouraging local participation with projects
Change can be threatening for any community. But enacting it with local conditions and cultures in mind will improve the chance of a project’s success by ensuring it is rolled-out with a community, rather than to it.
In Uttar Pradesh, India, researchers were able to identify how to reduce the spread of communicable diseases by gaining an understanding of how daily behaviours – influenced by poverty and poor work environments – play a role in how they’re spread.
The new Sustainable Development Goals have challenged the international community to do more. Achieving these goals will not be easy, but I believe humanitarian work psychology will play a key role in turning the mission into reality.