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The divide between 'international' and 'local': wages and conditions in aid agencies

I can't remember the number of field trips I have been on where the foreigners have stayed in one hotel (which is more expensive) while local staff have stayed in a cheaper one.

And I have written on this Forum previously about the experience of doing budgeting at an NGO all staff meeting, and seeing the budget line with my international adviser salary against those of the field staff. In front of the whole team it was plain to see that I was earning multiple times their salary, even though they often had a far more demanding job.

On the whole us internationals either hate this issue being brought up because it is so uncomfortable, or we take some kind of pleasure in laying out the guilt that we carry.

I raise it now because of a probing article this week by Mark Carnavera in the Huffington Post (see link below) highlighting the ‘divide’ in aid agencies between local and international staff positions and expectations of wages and conditions.

He goes through some of the arguments in favour of the ‘local-international’ separation. But overall he reckons that ‘"international" pay scales feel like a smokescreen that allows us to pretend that -- because we are not of a place -- we are not part of the systems operating there’.

He asks ‘could not a unified pay scale that lays out clear functions, responsibilities, qualifications, and expertise at each level…not accomplish the same goals without perpetuating a fictitious local/expat divide?’

I don’t know what the answer is, but in the end I feel like the disparity between ‘international’ and ‘local’ rules about wages and conditions is a reflection of the fact that we live in a very unequal world.

These questions are uncomfortable because aid agencies are often a microcosm of global inequality. The lives of those in richer countries are like staying in a more expensive hotel – there are better services and conditions and wages.

And it is important to note that the lives of ‘local’ UN or NGO managers are also very different to the lives of people in the villages where aid agencies work. The most confronting versions of inequality in the aid sector may be international-local, but there are also significant local-local divides.

The difference is that if we are sitting in an office in Seattle or London or Singapore we may not have the direct experience of inequality and therefore it doesn’t feel so uncomfortable.

So in this way, working in an aid agency can be an everyday window into inequality in the world.

But the core question agencies need to ask themselves is whether they want to be a place that simply reflects global inequality, or one that models something different?

We can, of course, explain wage differences by saying ‘if I worked in my own country I could earn more than this’. But this is an argument drawing on the fact of global inequality.

And isn’t that inequality the very thing that NGOs and UN agencies are seeking to change? And if so, why shouldn’t they also change internally?

There is no easy answer. And I – as an expensive hotel staying, wage earning expatriate – am hardly one to take the moral high ground.

But if aid agencies are content to simply reflect global inequality, rather than model something different, then one wonders about their ability to really bring change in the world. pic: myantravels…/the-localinternational-di_b…

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