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How the aid sector fails the local aid worker

First things first, this is not a conversation about the difference in salaries between expats and local aid workers. Depending on which side you ask the answer varies from “it’s complicated” to “oh there’s no point, we need to tolerate this/them as we have been doing all these years“. We all know that, so moving on to other things in this opinion/reflection post from personal experience and conversations with other local aid workers.

Being Baby-Sitters for Expats

Most of non-western cultures are very hospitable and open. Which means, there’s a lot of unpaid labour and emotional investment that goes into the mix. Whenever an expat aid worker is received by the local aid workers they have to be nice and help them adjust to the local environment. This is something they do, by sacrificing their time and energy outside work hours and obligations. The time they could use for their own personal well-being, spending it with their family or friends. Inviting them to family events like festivals and regular social impromptu events treating them with home cooked delicious food (that actually has flavour). All most of the time for free. Something that is not reciprocated by their expat counterparts.

The expats also require additional safety and a lot of resources are spent to keep their stay in the local country safe and secure. Mostly because they are treated as privileged guests by the local aid workers, as if their own country’s reputation depends on the happiness index of these expat aid workers. Everyone wants to have a good customer feedback. Except, in this case since its still unpaid labour, there is no real benefit for the local aid worker except thoughts and prayers and an occasional thank you message. And the ease of access to privileges like jobs, travel to other countries that is available to expats is not available to the local aid workers.

“Thank you for the lovely time and your hospitality.”

But why is it a let-down? All this is unpaid labour out of their professional obligation to work as a less paid local aid worker compared to the idiot expat aid worker who has to be tolerated at all times because that’s how things work in this business of aid.

Quoting an experienced local aid worker below, who says the locals are required to adapt and do not get assistance from their expat counterparts when they visit their countries. The expat workers are quick to consider it as something that is not part of their job while they take it for granted when travelling themselves expecting the local aid workers to do unpaid labour for them.

“I think I have experience on babysitting expat.. they don’t speak our language so I have to cover for their tasks, let it be interviewing partners and then provide summary for them. too much unnecessary work…
I agree about the pressure to give the best hospitality. One time I showed around a colleague from Australia travelling to Jkt. And she said she appreciates it so much. She was honest to say that she feels like a burden when colleague from implementing countries come and it feels like they have to accompany those who travel or something. And most of the times she didn’t accompany the guests. So, ‘local’ are required to adapt when travelling to their countries while they are entitled to the best hospitality we can offer.…because of the safety issues and such lol

Comment by a local aid worker on the draft version of this post. Received on 26.06.2020

LOL indeed, we have to laugh it off because that’s the irony of their jobs. Exploitation with a smile and kindness. It is very normal for a local aid workers to feel the pressure and feel the obligation by virtue of their culture, nature and the power dynamics of the industry to do this. It’s a part of our identity and who we are. Which the expats are well aware of, but they still choose to be silent beneficiaries of this as part of their entitlements. Even when they receive almost 10 times more salary than their local counterparts. The least they could do is find ways to pay for the time from their own salary, it would be peanuts in local money for them anyways. [Read: Expat wages up to 900% higher than for local employees, research shows.]

It’s almost similar to household work and other care/emotional labour done by women that is barely considered real work to be paid for. People who enjoy the benefit can choose to be silent, while those who have to do the work, are ignored, silenced or ridiculed by being called “crazy”. [Read a report by Oxfam on the topic of unpaid labour.]

Delegitimisation & Dehumanisation of Knowledge & Skills

this is a good and much-needed article and you cover key points. i think the profound reason how aid sector fails is because they have the knowledge that ppl in Global South needs help thats why they send the savior with their knowledge which god knows will be applicable or not. that mindset seeps in the daily practice, thus the delegitimatisation and dehumanisation..

Comment by a local aid worker on the draft version of this post. Received on 26.06.2020

Most of the local aid workers and community aid workers do not receive a formal education. They have spent their lives working for their community, because they are personally affected and motivated by the cause. In the context of India, a lot of the local work is done by people who might not have received their education in the language of the colonial masters. They always have to work under people who have had some form of education. Now imagine someone with a Masters in International Development degree from one of the western countries arrives at the local office, because the funding overlords decided it might be a good idea to have such a person as the project manager. They might be tasked with Monitoring, Evaluation, Impact Assessment and reporting from the donor’s side. A skill that they mastered during their flight to India by teaching themselves Excel or Strata instantly. This is the current day norm and reality and how things work in this business of aid.

What happens as a result of this in a local aid workers mind?

The feelings of resentment are already on its optimum, seeing their local educated counterparts enjoy privileges they could never have on their own. Career progressions in this sector without a modern education is next to impossible for such local aid workers. They form the demographic of people which the HQ levels refer to as the bottom-most of the pyramid. Now they have to be nice to a young foreigner, a local boss who they already resent.

This is almost like an industry manufactured emotional torture on a daily basis for such local aid workers resulting in deteriorating mental well-being. They see a lot of money being spent on necessary things, which can be spent on things far more important for the local communities. Such local aid workers are closer to their communities, are aware of the problems and the needs. Even those needs, which wouldn’t be easily shared in open participatory meetings with their educated aid workers.

As a result of this manufactured slow process of emotional torture, they are made to believe as sub-humans in their own line of work. Because firstly, their knowledge, skills and intelligence has been deemed to be illegitimate as they have to work for people who just happen to have a modern education. This is a blatant act of disrespecting their experience which should be considered as home schooling and at par with others. Secondly, at a point everyone treats them as sub-humans, where their opinions, suggestions and voices don’t find space at the decision-making table.

Sending predators without appropriate background checks

Predators come in all forms, shapes and sizes. Also, what is legal in one country doesn’t necessarily have to be legal in another country. Sexual harassment at workplace has a different standard in every country. Most of the time, expat aid workers get away with heinous crimes just because of the nature of power and privilege they come with. Once they are caught, the whole machinery is destined to protect the privileged and the powerful than the victimised individual in the local country of operation.

Since this is a very sensitive topic I am going to leave it at that. Everyone knows how the industry fails the most underprivileged when those in power get away because of some legal loophole or the nationality they have.

The way I see it the sector fails the local aid workers and their communities by not doing due diligence when sending expat aid workers or seniors on higher positions at the local work place. And secondly, when they are caught there are almost no consequences that the perpetrators face because all if it happens under the table. So, there is no transparency, mostly because the reputation of the whole do-gooder businessmen is at stake.

If you are a local aid worker and have your views to share about expat aid workers as part of the Local Aid Worker Voices series, please feel free to share it anonymously using the contact info mentioned here. You can also join the discussion with other local aid workers on our Facebook Group - Majority (Local) Aid Worker Voices, a safe space.

If you are an academic and would like to cite this page here is a suggested citation as part of ISSN 2700-290X:

Kumar, A. (2020) “How the aid sector fails the local aid worker” In Rural Human Review, #5, June 2020. Muenster: Rural Human Review. Retrieved month dd, yyyy from

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