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Chapter Three: Review of the FAO Associate Professional Officers Programme (1988-1997)


59 . FAO has relied on the ECOSOC Resolution 849 (XXXII) of 1961 as the basic framework for its Associate Professional Officers (APO) Programme. The programme's objectives are two-fold: (i) in-service training of young professionals in FAO under the technical supervision of its senior staff; and (ii) provision of additional assistance through FAO to developing countries.

60 . The FAO APO Programme, dating back to 1954, is one of the oldest and largest among the UN agencies; in 1998, UNDP had the largest number of APOs (some 350), followed by FAO (219) and UNHCR (98). During the 10-year period covered, a total of 867 APOs entered and 983 separated from the FAO Programme: some 35% were women but their proportion increased from 25-30% during 1988-90 to nearly 40% in 1996-97. The great majority served in the field on projects and programmes (65% in 1996-98) in comparison with HQ (25%), country FAO Representations (6%), and Regional and Sub-regional Offices (3%). However, there has been a steady decline in the number of new entrants to the programme during the 10-year period, from 170 in 1988 to 90 in 1994 to 21 in 1997. The programme had 18 donors 10 in 1998, larger one being the Netherlands (32% of the total APOs), Belgium (16%), Denmark (10%), Germany (8%) and Italy (7%). Three donors (Italy, Japan and the Netherlands) funded a total of 28 APOs from developing countries, besides their own nationals.

61 . The review of this programme was warranted by a number of pressing issues including:

62 . The review involved: a questionnaire survey of former and current APOs, APO supervisors and APO host countries (over a thousand questionnaires issued and 337 returned); key informant interviews with the same groups; and contacts and visit to a representative sample of donors as well as other UN and non-UN agencies with APO schemes. The surveys were complemented by an enquiry into the FAO personnel computerised database regarding APOs and their subsequent employment by FAO over the same period (1988-97). The following aspects were examined to assess the programme results: (a) improved APO expertise in development work; (b) APO's career prospects after their participation in the programme; (c) additional, effective contribution to development assistance; and (d) additional support for FAO's normative role.


63 . Overall benefits as perceived by programme participants/stakeholders : Ninety-six percent of APO supervisors and 83 percent of FAORs classify the programme as “very useful or useful” and “invaluable”. Host developing countries and APOs themselves are generally also very positive. However, the significance of the group of dissatisfied people should not be under-estimated; in particular, 10 percent of current or former APOs rate the programme as “poor”. These, added to those that consider it only “average”, mean that fully 30 percent must be considered as “not fully satisfied”. It is also a matter of concern that no less than 29 percent of host countries see the programme as average, many expressing the view that the level of expertise of APOs is only equal to that of national experts and does not justify their status as international civil servants.

64 . The reasons for APO's dissatisfaction include inadequate briefing and debriefing, insufficient or unsatisfactory technical supervision, disputes with supervisors about their workplan or lack of an agreed workplan, a feeling of being exploited to do clerk-type jobs, difficulties in transferring to what seems like a better position in another project or country, etc. In particular, nearly half the APOs indicated they were not satisfied with the quality of supervision received. Thus, points that require attention include: (a) the APO selection process; (b) APO briefing, particularly technical briefing; (c) work methods and APO supervision; (d) monitoring APO performance; (e) travel budgets; and (f) debriefing and follow-up.

65 . Benefits for APOs : In terms of professional/technical training, APOs tend to become more satisfied as they served longer periods (84% satisfied in the second year as opposed to 48% in the first year). Over 50 percent also felt that acquired skills were good or better in language proficiency, management and presentation and promotional activities.

66 . Besides the question of enhancing their skills, the review examined the APO's career prospects following their assignment. Of the total 983 APOs who separated from FAO over this period, 36 percent found employment with FAO in various capacities (for 20 percent their first professional contract was with FAO, usually at the P-3 level). On occasion, an APO contract may be extended beyond the time of the initial contract under a cost-sharing arrangement between the donor concerned and FAO. This arrangement has worked in favour of APOs in obtaining employment with FAO.

67 . APOs are also in a better position to obtain a job outside FAO at the end of their assignment: 62 percent of former APOs indicated that they found another job inside of two months and 91 percent within one year. After 18 months, only 6 percent were left searching for a job, and what is even more striking is that of those respondents who separated most recently from FAO (48 APOs in 1997-98), fully 85 percent had found a job within two months and 100 percent within one year. However, a considerable proportion of former APOs end up in non-development work, particularly women (53 percent in non-development jobs).

68 . Benefits for donor countries: The rate of recruitment of former APOs varies considerably from donor to donor and, for any given donor, from year to year 11 . The average grade of entry into FAO has been P-4, a level that is not accessible to APOs. The more APOs a country provides, the more likely that a relatively large number will find some kind of employment in FAO. However, the uptake percentage is likely to come down as the number increases, particularly if the country is already over-represented among professional staff. The latter point has affected adversely APOs from developing countries, with 18 percent of them having obtained employment with FAO. Factors dependent on the APO's particular circumstances have a strong influence including location in a continuing project or programme; and existence of an explicit donor policy to link its APO Programme with Trust Fund activities. These uptake rates were compared with those of other international agencies (WFP, IFAD, UNESCO and OECD), and FAO seems to be doing about as well as, or perhaps slightly better than other similar UN organizations.

69 . Benefits for developing countries : Developing countries pointed to the following benefits they hadreceived from APOs: a positive exchange between different cultures; an opportunity for national counterpart staff to get additional training; a good source of up-to-date information and provision of latest skills; useful inputs to planning and management; and good liaison work with local authorities and the international/donor community. But the rating as “average” of the performance of some APOs by 10 percent of the FAORs surveyed may be a diplomatic euphemism for “poor”. The main causes of concern seem to be inadequate inter-personal relations and lack of experience.

70 . Benefits for FAO : APOs provide FAO with additional expertise free-of-charge for technical assistance activities, and they bring new, up-to-date knowledge and youthful idealism and enthusiasm to their work. APOs were also found to be useful to FAO not only in the field, in traditional-type cooperation projects, but also in normative work at Headquarters and in the Regional and Sub-regional Offices.


71 . In spite of its successes, the APO Programme faces a number of issues, notably:


72 . These issues point to the need for FAO to enhance the attractiveness of the programme to potential donors and APOs and to maintain effectiveness in implementation. Similarly, if FAO is to retain its status as a “centre of excellence”, it should take account of the state-of-the-art contributions that are characteristic of young professionals, recently out of academia. Tapping the pool of APOs to strengthen FAO's staff renewal process would entail first putting in place a systematic approach aimed at identifying the best performing APOs.

73 . To improve management of the APO Programme , the following measures are suggested:

  • establish modern management methods for oversight and quality control;
  • issue a circular to raise staff awareness of the APO Programme objectives and operating procedures, both at Headquarters and in the decentralized offices;
  • enhance communication with external parties, including production of a brochure explaining the APO Programme objectives and working arrangements, and circulate it widely. Also, develop an APO Programme website; and
  • give priority to maintaining uninterrupted donor contact and transparent reporting, including transparent financial reporting.

74 . Results-based management is predicated on the establishment of a clear management centre through the formal appointment of a task manager who would:

    1. be responsible for coordination of all services and decentralized offices involved in the functioning of the programmes covering young experts, in particular:
      1. the establishment and operation of an independent APO performance monitoring system, mainly based on regular assessments made by the APO supervisors;
      2. production and updating of a standardised information folder to be provided to entering APOs (the brochure mentioned above could also be one of the tasks);
      3. the organization of debriefing workshops for departing APOs, including job counselling through the concerned technical services;
      4. the establishment of a roster incorporating performance monitoring information for former APOs to be considered as consultants; and
      5. the launching of a systematic process of briefing all FAO staff involved in APO supervision and, as needed, organizing the coaching of supervisors in training techniques;
    2. serve as a reference person or “ombudsman” for APOs to help sort out post transfers or other disputes (to some extent, TCDM already plays this role, but it is not given the importance it deserves).

75 . To strengthen FAO's technical expertise and as a “centre of excellence” , the APO Programme should be used as a source for recruiting well-qualified young professionals as part of FAO's human resources strategy. This would also help meet the expressed wishes of donors . It is thus recommended: to introduce recruitment measures which would open up greater opportunities for well-qualified APOs for professional posts at lower grades (P-2/P-3); and to establish an independent APO performance monitoring system which is a prerequisite to assist in a pre-selection of the more promising candidates.


i. The Technical Cooperation Department has decided to introduce a number of measures in follow-up to the conclusions and recommendations of the donors meeting and of the internal review of the APO Programme over the last ten years. These focus on two levels with different timeframes:

  • in the immediate period, they aim to improve the operational management of the programme to make it more attractive and effective to donors, especially in terms of training/learning. These measures, to be implemented by a full-time team made up of one P-3 Programme Officer and three General Service staff, consist in:
  • establishing modern management methods of oversight and quality control of the programme (building a database to monitor the training and professional competence of APOs);
  • enhancing communication with external parties and promoting the image of the Organization (brochure, website, visits to beneficiaries and users of APOs); and
  • maintaining permanent contact with donors and APOs, and ensuring transparency of financial procedures;
  • in the medium and long term, based on a consultants study, they will aim to use the programme to reinforce FAO's technical expertise with, notably, the establishment by the Personnel Division of an integrated system of FAO human resources management. Working closely with this division, a consultant will be recruited to introduce an integrated human resources management system based on the concept of competency. The following elements will be taken into consideration: recruitment planning; placement; training; performance; further training; career counselling; and preparation for separation.


(Report of the 84 th Session, September 2000 13 )

ii. The Committee recognised the significance of the Associate Professional Officer Programme, under which many young professionals, mainly the nationals of the participating donor countries but also some from developing countries, have served the Organization in many different geographical locations. It also appreciated that the APOs successfully completing the programme could be an important potential source of future professional staff for FAO. It noted that while the programme was generally appreciated by broad segments of the stakeholders, especially by FAO staff working with the APOs, there had been sharp declines in the number of new entrants during recent years and serious weaknesses existed in the programme administration and support, particularly in monitoring, supervision and training of the APOs.

iii. The Committee endorsed the recommendations of the review aimed at strengthening the effectiveness and coherence in managing and administering the programme, especially by instituting a systematic monitoring of APO performance. Regarding the second recommendation on the introduction of measures for opening greater opportunities for well-qualified APOs for junior professional posts, the Committee received clarification that specific measures for this purpose were subject to further review and eventual decision in the context of FAO's staff recruitment policy and practices.

iv. The Committee noted that this review had been undertaken to examine the relevance, efficiency and effectiveness of the APO Programme in the face of declining numbers of newly-entering APOs. While it recognized the potential utility of such an exercise, the Committee considered that the review fell short of the expected standards for evaluation, particularly with respect to analytical rigour in addressing the cost-effectiveness issues. Similarly, the review did not provide clear analysis on some questions, such as why APOs from developing countries had a low rate of employment with FAO. The Committee underlined the importance of maintaining the quality of evaluation work consistently at high standards.

10. They are Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America.

11. Percentages recruited were: Belgium 23%; France 42%; Germany 35%; Italy 39%; Netherlands 19%; Sweden 20%; UK 50%; Canada 22%; USA 22%; and Japan 31%.

12. PC 84/5 Annex.

13. PC 84/REP paras 52-54.

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