MINUSMA Peacekeepers

“Downsizing Survivor Syndrome” in UN Peace Operations

Peacekeepers from the Togolese battalion of the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). (MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko)

The 2020 report on the Composition of the Secretariat, released last Thursday, confirms the continued sharp contraction of United Nations peacekeeping. According to the report, 11,010 civilian staff worked in UN peacekeeping operations in December 2019. This represents a 14 percent decline since December 2018, a 36 percent decline over five years, and a 45 percent contraction since 2010, when UN peacekeeping operations employed 19,955 civilian staff.

This prolonged decline reflects the gradual closing of missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Haiti, successive personnel reductions in ongoing operations, and the fact that the UN Security Council has not created a major new mission since 2014. Not yet reflected in the above figures are a further 1,440 civilian posts being eliminated as the UN-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) completes its withdrawal. Additional job losses also appear imminent in the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUSCO.

The contraction has impacted not only those who lost their positions, but also the UN’s remaining civilian peacekeepers and the missions where they work. Decades of business scholarship highlights the potential adverse effects of downsizing. Unless the process is carefully managed, “survivors”—those who remain employed—risk debilitating stress, physical and mental health problems, low morale, increased workplace conflict, and heightened distrust of management. “Downsizing survivor syndrome” can profoundly undermine an organization’s productivity.

UN peacekeeping is suffering from downsizing survivor syndrome. Operations rely on civilian staff—alongside uniformed peacekeepers—for management, substantive, and logistic support functions. Civilian peacekeepers are directly employed by the UN. Despite the prevalence of fixed-term contracts, civilian staff have long been able to expect extended careers thanks to the longevity of many operations, the expanding personnel needs of UN missions between 2000 and 2010 (and relatively stable demand until 2015), and the difficult bureaucratic process for firing UN staff. The current contraction of UN peacekeeping has undermined this job security. In a March 2020 UN Field Staff Union survey, 59 percent of respondents expected their position to be affected by mission downsizing or draw-down within five years.

Three factors exacerbate the risk of downsizing survivor syndrome in UN peace operations. First, the downsizing process is too often perceived as opaque, top-down, and open to bias. Job cuts are determined—sometimes despite ongoing crises in the host state—at distant UN headquarters through General Assembly budget negotiations and, ultimately, Security Council decisions on mission drawdown.

A downsizing management policy, promised for 2018, has yet to be finalized. There is, however, a standard process: unless all posts of a particular type are being eliminated, an arm’s length Comparative Review Process (CRP) panel should identify staff members for retrenchment based on criteria including contract type, performance evaluations, seniority, and gender. UN Headquarters—initially the Department of Operational Support, now the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance—reviews the criteria and subsequently the CRP results before separations are implemented. The criteria are controversial, however, including among staff unions. Some managers feel highly constrained, notably by seniority protections that, especially in the absence of robust performance assessments, risk eliminating younger, more dynamic staff and undermining gender parity efforts. Yet concerns also persist that supervisors exercise excessive and sometimes biased influence in downsizing decisions, both through direct input to CRP panels and by strategically manipulating team tasks.

Second, employees with high commitment are especially vulnerable to downsizing survivor syndrome in general, and civilian UN peacekeepers tend to exhibit high job commitment. “Affective” commitment—in this case, dedication to UN peacekeeping—motivates many national and international staff. International staff often experience a sense of belonging to a world apart, despite frustration at its dysfunctions. Some national staff, however, report disillusionment with the UN because of their lower status in missions (see below). “Continuance” commitment, arising from a dearth of alternative employment opportunities, is very high among national staff, given high unemployment and low salaries in most host states. For international staff, it can arise from specialized UN peacekeeping skills that are not easily transferable into other employment settings. In downsizing missions, therefore, individual morale and productivity often plummet as civilian staff face potential identity and livelihood loss and prioritize their job search. Team cohesion declines as they compete for scarce positions.

Third, workforce stratification tends to aggravate downsizing survivor syndrome, and civilian UN peacekeepers are highly stratified. International staff have the highest status but can feel vulnerable vis-à-vis more locally-knowledgeable national staff. National staff tend to feel undervalued and patronized by internationals. Yet they enjoy more status than local contractors, whose work is more precarious and less lucrative. Downsizing inflames these divisions. Outsourcing—hiring contractors to perform tasks previously assigned to national staff—threatens national staff livelihoods and status, causing enduring resentment and suspicion of international managers who approve it. Rehiring downsized staff as contractors does not ease the sense of grievance. The prospect of nationalization—redesignating international positions as national staff posts—prompts some international supervisors to see national team members as career threats, while national staff suspect managers of deliberately undermining nationalization.

Downsizing impacts within missions are compounded by the contraction of UN peacekeeping overall, which means that downsized personnel cannot easily move to other missions. Downsized staff, particularly those with permanent or continuing contracts, receive priority consideration for vacant UN posts in the host state (national staff) and elsewhere (international staff), but their number far exceeds available positions. Meanwhile, their prioritization limits mobility opportunities for other civilian staff, obstructing a key relief valve for human resource tensions in UN missions. With less mobility, UN rosters swell, leaving rostered individuals resenting the competition and unrostered staff frustrated by their exclusion. Personal connections, long seen as crucial in UN hiring, take on an additional urgency, fueling suspicions of bias and favoritism.

To preserve mission productivity, the UN must do more to avoid downsizing survivor syndrome in its peace operations. It should finalize its downsizing policy and link it to robust staff transition tools that reduce stress and convey organizational support to UN personnel. More effective mobility planning would enable staff in downsizing operations to focus on their current jobs and prevent missions prematurely losing required personnel. Material support for employment transitions (e.g., small business start-up grants, partial funding for transitional positions) could supplement current job fairs and ad hoc efforts to lobby others to hire downsized personnel. More effective performance assessment is required both for transparent, competency-based downsizing and to enable career planning, which the UN should more fully support. Finally, the UN should address personnel stratification tensions in its missions before they are inflamed by downsizing processes.

Dr. Katharina Coleman is an associate professor of international relations at the University of British Columbia. A fuller exploration of this subject can be found here.