Meredith Turner
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Spotlight on Humanitarian Work Psychology: Project FAIR: Fairness in Aid Remuneration

Ishbel McWha-Hermann, University of Edinburgh; and Morrie Mullins, Xavier University

I’m pleased this issue to welcome a guest coauthor, one of the founding members of the Global Task Force for Humanitarian Work Psychology and the first Chair of the Global Organisation for Humanitarian Work Psychology (GOHWP), Dr. Ishbel McWha-Hermann.  This is not Ishbel’s first time in TIP’s pages—far from it!  Readers who have followed this column have seen her name in the byline in the past, and mentions of her important work both in the “Spotlight” column and in reports from SIOP’s UN team.  She has lived and worked all over the world, and through her work has developed a perspective on issues related to work in the humanitarian sphere that has helped to significantly expand the borders of I-O psychology.

One of her recent undertakings is Project FAIR, which she described last summer on the GOHWP website.  Because this is such an important project, I asked her to write a piece on it for TIP, and she graciously accepted.  She first provides some background on Project FAIR and its precursors, then answers several questions TIP readers might have about the project.  With that, I give you Dr. Ishbel McWha-Hermann!


When international nongovernment organizations (INGOs) send staff abroad they traditionally send them on an international reward package, which includes pay benchmarked to global pay data, and different benefits and allowances to those given to national staff. Historically, those sent on international packages were from the headquarter country, or from other similar (higher income) contexts, so the international package was used to attract skilled people into these roles, and to reflect the market from which they were being recruited. Times have changed now, though; for example, we see more regional-level and South-South recruitment, as well as increasing skills amongst national staff, bringing the relevance of these big packages into question.

The focus of this column is on Project FAIR, which builds on previous research that examined the psychological impact of reward packages offered to national and international employees of 202 organizations in six countries. In the original project (Project ADDUP) we found dual salaries (i.e., where national and international staff have different remuneration scales) had a negative impact on employees, but particularly on host country national employees in terms of motivation, satisfaction, and thoughts of leaving the organization.

One of the key goals following Project ADDUP was to reach out to INGOs and share the results of the project, in the hope we might facilitate some change in how staff are rewarded. What we found was that human resource (HR) and reward managers didn’t need evidence of the issues with dual salary systems.  Rather, they needed evidence-based alternatives to these systems. Our findings aligned with what managers were hearing from their staff feedback, and they felt frustrated about the situation, but powerless to change it without research into how it could or should be done. As we spoke to organizations about the issue, we also discovered that some had started trialling different reward options, but few were speaking to one another about what they were doing and how it was working.

Project FAIR was born from the desire to gather these options together and begin to build an evidence base of different reward options that are being used by organizations. We wanted to gather stories from organizations about what works and what doesn’t work, as well as the challenges faced in the process. HR and reward managers could then use this information as a basis for making decisions about how to set up rewards in their own organizations. We undertook 18 qualitative interviews with HR and reward managers from 15 INGOs of varying size and scope, and developed some insights into the different approaches to reward that are being undertaken, as organizations try to find ways to make their reward systems fairer. A full report on the project findings is available on the website

How did you get involved in Project FAIR?

Having worked in the NGO sector in both India and Cambodia prior to doing my PhD, I was drawn to issues of intergroup dynamics within development work, and the complicated role of social identity and social dominance on the long term prosocial goals of international aid and development work. Disparate salaries between national and international employees are one clear source of dominance and potential conflict for employees. I began looking at the psychological impact of dual salaries during my PhD with Stu Carr at Massey University, and continue to focus on this in my own research at the University of Edinburgh, with a particular focus on organizational justice.

What have been some of the key outcomes of the project?

Of the 15 organizations involved in the project, three have already eradicated the dual salary system, and a further five have developed what we have called a ‘hybrid’ system, where they have taken steps toward reducing the gap between national and international reward, but still retain a dual system of some kind. Examples of this might be putting international employees on headquarter packages, rather than international packages, or matching executive salaries for all employees regardless of nationality. We were surprised to find such a lot of variability between the organizational approaches. However, while we found that organizations are taking different approaches to developing fairer systems there are some strategic issues that are commonly addressed before making changes, for example, deciding on their mobility strategy, commitment to localization, and examining their total reward package.

A published report of the full findings is available on the project website, along with six organizational case studies. We are really excited about being able to produce these case studies as open access resources. We’ve already had a lot of great feedback from INGOs that they are really helpful for enabling them to think about how they might address the topic of fair reward, and to use as tools to advocate for change within their organizations. Side note for academic readers - they are also a great resource for teaching!

In addition to the project outputs, we ran a full-day interactive workshop with HR and reward managers in London, as well as three webinars for audiences from different parts of the globe. There has been a huge amount of interest in the issue, perhaps (at least in part) because of the pressure on the INGO sector from international agreements like the Charter4Change (which focuses on the importance of localizing roles in INGOs), and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Goal 8 specifically aims to have equal pay for work of equal value by 2030.)

Throughout all the interactions with practitioners the important role of academic researchers in facilitating knowledge sharing on a sensitive topic has been emphasised. As external and objective individuals we enable organizations to talk about reward-related issues and challenges they face and brainstorm ideas, as well as share lessons learnt, but to do so in an anonymous way.

What have reactions been to your work, from the various constituencies involved in the international aid sector?

The project has been welcomed by most major INGOs, some of whom we have now developed longer term relationships with and plan to engage in ongoing research on the topic. There is a general feeling within the INGO sector that for systemic change like this to occur organizations need to move together, not in a pay-fixing, prescriptive way, but in a collaborative way that helps to move the sector toward paying in a way that reflects shared goals. This might be, for example, an agreement to build principles of fairness into their reward systems (whether this be based on equity, equality, or need). Academic researchers and projects like this are key to supporting that.

What kinds of challenges has the project team encountered in doing its work?

The biggest challenge was related to the emotive and sensitive nature of the topic. We uncovered some excellent examples and cases where organizations were doing innovative and creative things to underpin their reward policies with fairness, but many of them we are not able to discuss in detail for reasons of confidentiality. Organizations were often happy to share with us their strategies, but only under condition of anonymity, even when their strategies were among the most progressive in our study. For example, of the 15 organizations we interviewed, three have revised their reward packages to eradicate the dual salary system, and have now put all employees on a single scale (which is often based on a blend of national and international salary benchmarking data). Of those three organizations, only one was willing to be profiled as a case study, or even to be named. This hesitancy to discuss how people are being rewarded contributes to a general feeling within the sector that there is much less movement toward addressing reward disparities than is actually the case.

What do you see as the next steps, either for Project FAIR or beyond the current project?

There is so much we as researchers can do to contribute to positive change in the context of managing human resources in INGOs, in particular there is a relative lack of research examining the experiences of host country national employees. Given the importance the international aid and development sector places on building national capacity, this might be even more important in this sector than in others. In terms of reward fairness, we are currently in the process of developing a toolkit for organizations to use as they work through the process of considering change in their reward systems, and we are engaging in longitudinal evaluation of changes in some organizations. From a research perspective we are exploring what fairness actually means for reward in INGOs (this might be a context where need is more important than equality or equity, for example). I’m also planning a project that explores employee identity, reward expectations, and motivation for working with INGOs, to help to provide a clearer picture of the people working in the sector. Finally, I’m working to develop company sponsored dissertations for MSc students at my university to work on projects defined by INGOs. This is a win-win for students and INGOs, and is a lot of demand from students for prosocially-oriented work.

Beyond the project itself, we need to find ways to actively contribute to the UN SDGs –there is a wealth of opportunity for I-Os to get involved with this, and an interest from INGOs and multilateral organizations to use our skills to help them. The SDGs are a further justification for why they should do so. SIOP is already making great inroads into this through the UN team, but there are other options in our own research agendas to align with the SDGs and therefore to make contributions individually too.

Do you have any advice for TIP readers who might want to get involved in working with NGOs?

My number one piece of advice is to prioritize relationships. People move around a lot so it can be a challenge to retain collaborations with organizations that are long term, but building relationships and becoming part of the network enables a broader connection with the sector. The ability to be mobile is also useful, and in particular taking the opportunities to meet people in person is really valuable.

On the topic of relationships, if you are interested in getting involved in some of the work of the Project FAIR team, please don’t hesitate to get in touch (!

Is there anyone you particularly want to recognize for their work on Project FAIR?

This project has been a true collaborative effort, and is underpinned by a fantastic team spread around the globe – though our geographic dispersion means scheduling meetings is often a challenge! Working alongside me at the University of Edinburgh are Dr Jakov Jandric and Emily Cook-Lundgren, and we are very lucky to receive ongoing expert advice from Prof Stu Carr at Massey University in New Zealand. We are also joined by colleagues from two practitioner organizations – firstly, Sam Wakefield from CHS Alliance, a network organization focused on the humanitarian and development sector, and secondly, Curtis Grund from Birches Group, who offer expert compensation benchmarking and advice to the NGO sector.

Thanks so much, Ishbel, for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences on Project FAIR with TIP’s readers!

And speaking of the readers, if there are topics within the humanitarian sphere that you want to know more about, send me an email, either direct ( or by reaching out to the GOHWP executive board through our website (  We know that many of you are engaged in interesting and important work in the humanitarian sector, and would love to help you get the word out!

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