economic apartheid: i’m a local adviser at an ngo in africa, i make less than the international intern

October 11, 2017
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By Nawal Allal, AFROPUNK Contributor

Is it self-righteous for an international development agency to come to a developing country looking to implement programmes that aim to improve local lives socially and economically, yet financially discriminate against local staff within their own organisation?

Perhaps local staff is considered to be more of an implementation and supporting tool for bilateral aid programmes without the expertise to make the big decisions…

Perhaps, they don’t picture the global vision of that specific development programme…

Or maybe they don’t understand international relations and development economic policies…

I am a local adviser at a bilateral development programme in the African continent. Given my foreign qualifications, I negotiated so hard for my salary of roughly the equivalent of $1,000 a month, making me one of the highest paid local staff. That is higher than the local average salary, which represents almost 6 times the local minimum wage. However if we compare within the office’s hierarchy, it is still lower than the international intern.

So given my international experience and my degree from one of the best higher education institutions, why don’t I have a salary match?

Dismissing the experience and degree differences theory, The Poverty Research Group Center for Global Health, Trinity College Dublin has conducted a 3 years research programme called Are Development Discrepancies Undermining Performance? – ADDUP where they explained the dual salaries existence through origins, as expats are usually from higher-income economies and labour markets.

Dual salaries are popularly referred to in some countries as “Economic Apartheid”. Even if the term used is debatable, having this kind of nomenclature in the international development sector is ironic considering its fight against poverty and inequalities.

The dual salary system is a difficult structural inequity that makes it hard for many workers in aid and development – both local and international staff alike – to work together, support each other and achieve project goals.

The ADDUP research surveyed 1300 local and expats from 200 different organisations found that expats earn between 400% and 900%, Across this sampling, local staff was paid four times less on average than their international counterparts. This was despite having similar education and experience. In Malawi and Uganda, the average rose to nine. In individual cases, the difference was far greater. Expatriate staff receives between $4,000 and $10,000 a month. This is not uncommon in bilateral development programmes, especially the ones based in the African continent.

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 an uproar, so why is it acceptable in those international programmes?

Despite earning salaries that are several times higher than local staff, expats receive even more goodies from NGOs in their benefit packages – Almost apologising to them for making the sacrifice to work in the old continent.

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 staff member should receive such extravagant compensations, a pure wastage of taxpayers’ funds that should be channelled into the programme itself and the community. Rather, none of us should get such royal treatment.

Even more double standards can be pointed out regarding per diems, rest and recuperation, and even flight tickets (local staff travel in economy class, while expats go on a business one even when on the same flight). In challenging locations, foreign employees are given high hardship allowances and extra monthly leave days to visit home, travel expenses paid.

International consultants, on the other hand, live entirely on another planet. Usually, the upper limit is $500 a day, but I have encountered short-term senior consultants being paid up to $3,000 a day, which makes a 10 days assignment 5 times more costly than a local staff annual salary.

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

Probably poor governance, mediocre deliverables and failure of local government initiatives led the local societies to blindly trust and prefer anything with an international character even in the basic necessities’ consumption, which gives more credit to bilateral programmes and favours international staff.

Dual salary systems may make it hard for the international development sector to achieve its goals, and building sustainable strategies in the recipient countries. It is contributing to a brain drain because talented local staff in most cases end up leaving their home countries for higher-paying jobs overseas.

In the meantime, with foreigners holding the power and the money, the neo-colonialist legacy continues. We locals, who are lucky enough to be employed by NGOs bite our tongues and accept our relative privileges over fellow citizens.

We use boldness to fight inequalities within communities and tenacity to forget the ones in our workplace.


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