DEVELOPMENT: Secret aid worker: Why do expats earn more than the rest of us?

April 24, 2016
People riding on British pound banknotes in sky above city.

Aid agencies are all about empowering the communities they serve, but overlook equal treatment of staff in their own organisations. Photograph: Alamy

Is it hypocritical for an aid agency to come to a developing country looking to improve local lives, yet economically discriminate against local staff within their organisation? Or is there a line that separates extremely poor citizens targeted as beneficiaries from the average working citizen? Are their needs, such as equal treatment in the workplace, irrelevant?Perhaps local staff are seen more as tools to implement aid programmes without the expertise to make the big decisions. But local staff have knowledge that cannot be learned at any institution and many are highly educated with years of experience in their field, so why don’t they have the salary to match?

I am a local aid worker at an international humanitarian NGO in an east African country. Given my foreign qualifications, I negotiated hard for my salary of over $1,500 (£1,000) a month, making me one of the highest paid local staff. On average, a local employee receives a third of that, (if they are lucky) as my organisation reminds me on those times I dare to raise my head above the parapet.

On the other hand, expatriate staff receive between $3,000 and $8,000 a month. This is not uncommon in the international NGO (INGO) world. In fact, in a particularly renowned UN programme, the highest paid local employee receives less than the international intern.

In most companies, if two people who did the same role and had the same amount of experience got paid vastly different salaries, there would be uproar. Not so in the NGO world. I recently asked around my aid worker friends for their own stories of inequality in the workplace. One told me how when an expat programme director left their country office, a national staff member was hired. She was paid half his salary despite having both superior academic qualifications and experience.

Do I, as a local, not deserve the same standard of living? I pay my own rent, in the cramped, cheaper outskirts of the city. I would love to have a car that allows me to explore my country and visit its famous sights that expat workers enjoy but I only dream about. I wake up extremely early to board the cramped public minibuses to get to work on time, paying with my own money. A personal vehicle would be a great privilege. While the children of expat colleagues go to the country’s top schools, I struggle to pay the fees for my kids attending schools of a standard I can afford. I guess this economic imbalance will perpetuate into the next generation.

Do expat colleagues deserve these privileges more than I do? Must I accept unequal treatment because they are bringing in goods and services that are otherwise unavailable? I am not advocating that every NGO worker should receive mansions and cars, a pure wastage of funds that should be channelled into the community. Rather, none should get such royal treatment.

Even more double standards can be pointed out regarding per diems, rest and recuperation (R&R), and consultants. When a foreign employee travels here, they are given per diem double what we are given when we travel within the country. This usually results in a separation of groups at mealtimes – with expats fine dining and citizens grabbing something from the local joint. In challenging locations, foreign employees are given high hardship allowances and extra monthly leave days to visit home, travel expenses paid. Usually, local employees do not receive R&R. International consultants live on another planet entirely. Usually the upper limit is $800 a day, but I have encountered short-term consultants being paid up to $3,000 a day. One consultant I know was flown in for 12 days and earned $36,000, six times the average annual salary of a local employee.

The discrepancies in compensation and benefits reflect the difference in value assigned not only to needs, but to the capabilities of local versus expat staff. Foreign “experts” are assumed to know more about how to improve local lives than the locals themselves. This means that the highest positions in INGOs are almost all held by foreigners from the country in which the INGO is headquartered.

And so, with foreigners holding the power and the money, the neo-colonialist legacy continues. We locals, who are lucky enough to be employed by INGOs bite our tongues and accept our relative privilege over fellow citizens, not daring to risk questioning the inequality within the workplace lest we lose our jobs.

 

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