In sub-Saharan Africa, health systems are fragile and staffing is grossly inadequate to meet rising health needs. Despite growing international attention, donors have been reluctant to undertake the significant investments required to address the human resources problem comprehensively, given social and political sensitivities, and concerns regarding sustainability of interventions and risks of rising donor dependency. In Malawi, one of the poorest nations in Africa, declining human resource levels have fueled an accelerating collapse of public health services since the late 1990s. In an effort to improve health outcomes, in 2004 the government launched a new health initiative to deliver an Essential Health Package, including a major scale-up of HIV and AIDS related services. Improving staffing levels is the single biggest challenge to implementing this approach. Donors agreed to help the government develop an Emergency Human Resources Programme with five main facets: improving incentives for recruitment and retention of staff through salary top-ups, expanding domestic training capacity, using international volunteer doctors and nurse tutors as a stop-gap measure, providing international technical assistance to bolster planning and management capacity and skills, and establishing more robust monitoring and evaluation capacity. Industrial relations were a prominent consideration in determining the shape of the Programme. The combination of short- and long-term measures appears to be helpful in maintaining commitment to the programme.