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(2018-9) Disparities in pay amongst foreign and local aid workers

By Sophie Holden, Isabella Blackley, Ziyad Said-Wardell, Alex Mills, and Momoka Sato

The inspiration for our topic was taken from a series of news articles explaining the stark difference in pay between foreign and local aid workers. One striking report by a local aid worker in ‘The Secret Aid Worker’ (2017) claimed that an expat graduate was recruited to earn three times more than them despite the fact that they had masters’ degrees from universities ranked in the top fifty worldwide. This led us into the exploration of why this happens, what processes allow this to happen, and what solutions can be found in order to resolve this disparity.

One theory that highlights the hegemony apparent in aid organisations is the concept of ‘professionalization’, as discussed by Roth (2012). This is the idea that aid workers should be professionally trained to work in their filed. However, Roth revealed that the majority of training programmes in aid agencies are not available to all staff. Furthermore, high managerial roles in NGOs are only open to a small minority of workers, many positions require a relevant masters’ qualification as a prerequisite to be considered. Passionate local staff are often limited to groundwork, whilst international staff, with weaker ties to the nation and people, fill managerial roles. Roth’s work concludes that the most relevant jobs for successful development projects were done by local workers whilst carrying out aid work on the ground.

This insight not only allows us to question the utility of ‘professionalization’ but also implies that the aid work carried out by local staff is more valuable, at least in terms of a practical skill set. One critique of Roth is that she claims that the skills and experience of all workers have dramatically improved as a result of ‘professionalization’. The industry has advanced, and consequentially, aid work is more effective. While this may be the case, Roth does not go far enough in highlighting how the training tool of ‘professionalization’ has introduced a glass ceiling of new inequalities that cement already established hierarchies of knowledge amongst NGO employees.

As mentioned in ‘This Is Africa’, these circumstances are deeply rooted in the legacies of colonialism and scientific racism. NGO’s hold a monopoly over the type of work that deserves higher pay; NGO’s choose to pay more to those in administration, who are surprisingly or unsurprisingly almost always white, opposed to interpreters and those on the ground that facilitate and build relationships with the recipients, who are usually black or brown. It is thus a racist rhetoric that negates the possibility for locals to fill senior roles. Their levels of education are dismissed and, in some cases, those with fewer qualifications are paid more, simply because they are from the ‘civilised’ West. This makes us question whether the lies of scientific racism that claimed black and brown people are less intelligent are still at work.

Peters (2016) addresses the complex ways both NGOs and local staff reinforce the pre-existing hierarchy in Angola. Here, NGOs have a habit of regarding Namibian aid workers as ‘local staff’ despite the fact that they did not grow up nor currently live there. Peter’s highlights that many of the local workers were born in Angola but grew up in neighbouring Namibia. This goes unaddressed by the NGO simply because they are fluent in the languages of the locality. The organisations do not  attempt to fully assess whether their staff are in fact local, which seems complacent.

Could it be that the image of having local workers is more important to NGO’s? Or that the continent in which they work in is monolithic to them, and so the idiosyncrasies between Angola and Namibia are irrelevant or non-existent? If this is the case this reveals an extremely problematic perspectives, not only in relation to the people they work with, but also towards the people they are administering aid to. The implications for this could be that they decide to give a ‘one-size fits all’ remedy to situations that need attentive care given to the complex issues of each locality.

We cannot just assess this issue under the assumption that international workers are inherently bad. Roth (2015) discusses aid workers having a sense of guilt surrounding the pay inequality and attempt to resolve this by helping out their local colleagues with medical bills and school fees. Expatriate workers aware of the income difference were also hesitant about how they responded to local staff’s cheating and stealing, which they chose to overlook. Roth notes that the disparity of pay is rarely addressed by aid organizations and instead the ethical burden is carried by the aid workers themselves. Although the expatriate workers attempt to solve the issue on an interpersonal level, Roth provides no examples of them trying to address this disparity on a systematic level. For this reason we would like to ask our visitor, whether the University of Manchester Volunteering and Community Engagement Team are aware of this hierarchy.

It is clear that disparities in pay create disproportionate power relations between international staff and local staff. Ishbel McWha argues that to successfully implement major development goals, namely localisation and capacity development, the hierarchical nature of NGOs needs to be addressed (2011:38).  In order to do this McWha suggests that there needs to be more of a focus on relations between volunteering expats and local staff (2011:38). In her study of NGOs in Cambodia, she observed volunteering expats were paid less than their permanent colleagues, and as a result were treated in the same way as the local staff (McWha, 2011). On this basis, McWha argues more emphasis should be made on relations between volunteers and local staff, which will allow for more effective capacity development implementation by ensuring job roles are assigned appropriately (2011:38).

While McWha attempts to create more equality between staff by finding a solution to better implement capacity development, she excessively overcomplicates the matter. Instead, NGOs simply need to start paying all their staff equally, no matter if they are local or expatriate. Not only will this help everyone to be treated fairly, but the better relations between staff, as a result, will likely make the work of NGOs more effective.


McWha, I. (2011) The roles of, and relationships between, expatriates, volunteers, and local development workers, Development in Practice, 21:1, 29-40

Peters, R. (2016). Local in Practice: Professional Distinctions in Angolan Development Work. American Anthropologist, 118(3), pp.495-507.

Roth, S. (2012). Professionalisation Trends and Inequality: experiences and practices in aid relationships. Third World Quarterly, 33(8), pp.1459-1474.

Roth, S. (2015). Paradoxes of Aid Work: Passionate Professionals. London: Routledge, pp. 128-14

The Secret Aid Worker. 2015. The Guardian.

Sekiyamah, D.N.2014. Why are expats paid more than locals? This Is Africa.