How the WHO is attracting more geographically diverse talent: A Q&A with Eric Tagnon

Eric Tagnon, the World Health Organization’s new regional human resources manager. Photo by: WHO

The World Health Organization’s regional office in Western Pacific has started a new initiative to attract more geographically diverse talent from the region.

Called “Go WHO!”, the initiative is the regional office’s response to the low numbers of applicants from select countries in the region, like those in the Pacific islands.

These countries hold the bulk of unrepresented and under-represented talent at the regional United Nations health body, but the reasons for this vary, according to Eric Tagnon, the WHO’s new regional human resources manager, who arrived at the Manila-based institution in November 2016. International experience is lacking among applicants from small Pacific island countries, while applicants from other countries lack knowledge of the WHO and the skillset and experience the aid agency requires of applicants, Tagnon told Devex.

Source: World Health Organization

The seasoned HR specialist spent over two decades recruiting for the Central Bank of African States in Dakar, Senegal, and the WHO’s regional office in Brazzaville, Congo, prior to his new assignment. He shared with Devex current recruitment trends in the development sector, the opportunities and challenges in hiring for diversity in Asia Pacific, particularly for the health sector, and a few more more details on the “Go WHO!” initiative. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.  

How has the recruitment landscape in the development sector evolved over the last decade?

For international public organizations, the context of talent acquisition has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. The world is more connected today than ever before — which means more access to information and opportunities. For most people, and especially young people, there is no such thing as a job for life any more — this means the recruitment landscape is more dynamic and even more volatile than it used to be. So we have to develop strategies for both attracting and retaining talent. We are also constantly looking for ways to be more agile and efficient — this is sometimes a challenge in large organizations such as the U.N., but it is especially crucial during emergencies and crises.

How different is the hiring landscape in Africa versus in Asia Pacific for a health organization like WHO?

In terms of the hiring landscape, the biggest difference between Africa and the Western Pacific is the nature of the health issues WHO deals with in these places. The nature of the health problems WHO’s works with has implications for the profile of the workforce we need to recruit.

In Africa in recent years, responding to health emergencies has been a major focus, following the Ebola outbreak. Communicable diseases such as HIV are a huge issue, and health systems in many countries are fragile. Another issue in Africa is that there are many duty stations which are not suitable for families. This makes it hard to attract people with families to go there. For the most part, this is less of an issue in Asia Pacific.

In Asia Pacific, however, there are a wide range of pressing health issues. Increasing rates of non-communicable disease (such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes) are a major challenge for most countries, with rates of key risk factors, such as tobacco smoking, among the highest in the world. Universal health coverage is a major focus of WHO’s work in this region — with different countries at very different stages on the path towards universal health coverage, and subsequently requiring different levels of support and advice from WHO. The Western Pacific is a hotspot for health security threats: for example, SARS, H5N1 and H7N9, and of course many countries in the region are prone to natural disasters. Ensuring countries are prepared for health threats which emerge in this region, or elsewhere, is a major focus of our work.

Can you describe the hiring landscape in Asia Pacific, and more specifically, in the health sector?

In one word, competitive! There are so many talented and skilled people, and for every person already working in global health there is another one (at least) wanting to break in. Increasingly, we are seeing people with very diverse professional backgrounds and skills working in global health — beyond the traditional skill set of people with a medical background. This is a good thing, because these days, global health is about much more than medical science. The factors which impact on people’s health — the environment, for example — are outside the health sector.

WHO’s Western Pacific office, for example, has a relatively good balance of gender ratio in total. Are you using any innovative approaches in recruitment to ensure you’re hitting all your targets when it comes to diversity?

There aren’t any magic bullets. However, our Regional Director Dr. Shin Young-Soo is very proud, and rightly so, of the fact that his senior management team in the regional office is made up of 50 percent women. Three of the four technical program directors in the regional office are women. And this is really one of the most important factors: Leadership. When the leadership of an organization takes gender equality seriously, that sends a message to others, and creates a culture in which you start to see real change over time.

What opportunities and challenges have you come across in the region that is making it easy or difficult to have a fully diversified workforce at the WHO?

The biggest thing we have going for us is that people want to work for WHO. We often receive hundreds of applications when we advertise a job. So there is no shortage of people to choose from. One of our biggest challenges is matching all that talent with the right jobs — different jobs in different countries often require a particular mix of technical, communication, political and diplomatic skills. At WHO, our people are our most important asset, so we need to make sure we have the right people in the right places.

As well as striving for better gender balance in our workforce, at the moment we’re also very focused on getting a more geographically diverse workforce. Just recently we’ve started the program “Go WHO!”, aimed at attracting people from countries unrepresented or under-represented in the international professional staff category in the WHO workforce.  Applicants from some of these countries do not succeed in WHO's recruitment process as often as their peers from other countries, even though they are well-qualified. So the objective of these workshops is to attract young talent from these countries with a large human resource gap, and to coach young professionals in how to prepare well if they are applying for a job at WHO.

Which countries in Asia Pacific are unrepresented and under-represented and why?

Unrepresented countries include most of those in the Pacific. Under-represented countries are China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore.

Can you tell me a bit more about “Go WHO!” — what does it look like in practice?

“Go WHO!” started last year, so it is relatively new. This is a Western Pacific region-specific initiative, but outreach programmes of various shapes and sizes have been going on across the globe for many years. With “Go WHO!”, WHO partners with a university or an institution — in the case of the most recent event in the Republic of Korea, Seoul National University — to jointly convene a workshop for interested students and young professionals. The workshop often involves a short talk from a WHO staff member about his or her experience working for WHO, and then a screening and discussion of individual staff participants’ eligibility for employment with WHO, based on basic criteria (language and international experience). At the last event in the Republic of Korea, there were over 160 participants — and feedback from the event was very positive.

Is this type of initiative replicable? What advice would you give to hiring managers trying to increase geographic diversity?

Yes, it’s replicable! In this day and age, every organization should be thinking about creative ways of tapping into the talent that is out there. It’s key to think about making your organization a place people want to come to work at, and again, this goes beyond hiring managers and to the issue of leadership.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.