A related post previously appeared in The Guardian.
By Michael Keller
“Men don’t know what it’s like to be women…. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”
Despite a few of its luminaries, such as Paul Farmer, hailing from humbler backgrounds, the unique perspective of international aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds is not often heard in the sector. But, we have recently seen widespread, welcome discussion of the overrepresentation of “Posh White Blokes” in aid. This year’s excellent World Development Report even explores how most development professionals “have never personally experienced the psychological and social contexts of poverty or scarcity; as a result, their decision-making processes may differ from those of people living in poverty.”
Perhaps 2015 will be the year we hear more from expat aid workers for whom a steady salary and free housing are viewed as privileges, rather than a sign of sacrifice compared to what could be earned back home.
Increasing the number of international aid workers who grew up poor would bring several significant advantages to the sector, which remain beyond reach if we continue simply hiring elites from developing countries and calling it “diversity”.
First, heightened awareness of the impression one gives as an aid worker in poor communities can ensure a minimal level of alienation. It is much easier to be attuned to beneficiaries’ disdain for privileged classes when you have stood on the outside of your own society looking in. For this minority of aid workers, running loud generators all night to keep the AC on is not normal. Having the driver wait with the always-pristine Land Cruiser while you enjoy a restaurant he could never afford is not normal. Popping over to the other side of the continent for a vague workshop is not normal. Because these things are not normal for the majority of our planet. And doing them makes us even more incomprehensible to impoverished locals… and, more importantly, vice-versa.
Knowing what it feels like to come into contact with people from an economic class far above your own can serve as a powerful tool in understanding how communities perceive the behaviour of aid workers and how foreigners can better gain local trust and respect.
Second, the minority of aid workers who did not grow up in relative wealth are, I suspect, healthily sceptical of the presumed expertise of external actors, including their own organisations. Having witnessed the limitations of domestic NGOs, as well as the habitual failure of their own political leaders to adequately address the needs of the poor, these aid workers are less likely to put unrealistic amounts of faith in the ability of outsiders to solve an issue as intractable as poverty. True change, they realize, tends to start with the will to change.
Third, an aid worker who herself has been the subject of charity might expect beneficiary humiliation rather than gratefulness when the goodies are loaded off the truck, and think of tactics to mitigate it. Personally, I can’t claim to have been raised in a refugee camp, but the day I found a holiday basket of food donated by a local charity on my family’s doorstep after school was not exactly a highlight of my youth.
Fourth, money is valued more by those who have had less of it, with important consequences for aid programming. I’ve often been struck by most aid workers’ incomprehension of the strongly incentivizing (or disincentivising) effects of small sums of money on local populations. People who value USAID cardboard boxes for their roofing qualities can change their behaviour considerably for a few extra cents.
A common lament today centres on the absurd inability to hold workshops in some countries without distributing hefty per diems. Yet at some initial point, someone thought it would be appropriate to pay people the equivalent of several days’ wages performing back-breaking labour to sit in a room for several hours while getting free meals and having tea or Fanta breaks throughout the day. And enough aid workers thereafter felt that the amounts of money involved were small enough not to bother eliminating; as long as they fit in the budget, why bother worrying about the effects of a few dollars at the household level? Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much money to cause significant damage to aid programming.
This value attached to a single dollar, along with a more personal sense of solidarity, may also be an important clue as to why lower-income people tend to give more money to charity than the well off. The poorest quintile in the U.S. gives more than twice as much to charity as a percentage of income as the top quintile. Perhaps this also means workers from less well-off backgrounds feel more personal injury and are less tolerant when $20 that they, or their grandmother, donated is wasted or stolen.
Fifth, personal experience with unusual coping mechanisms can add insight into seemingly odd beneficiary behaviour. The fear of not knowing whether basic necessities will be available to you can lead to all sorts of seemingly irrational decisions that cannot be captured in any logframe but must nevertheless be considered and mitigated. A farmer keeping his children out of school to work in the fields perhaps makes more sense to someone who has skipped doctor’s visits for lack of health insurance.
Sixth, many of the most committed aid workers I know are not only the poorest, they actively avoid climbing the career ladder to more “desirable” posts. “Making it” to a cushy UN job can be viewed as joining the elitist club they see as out of touch with the realities of aid work, which are best witnessed close to the ground, far from cluster conference rooms.
Career advancement in aid means becoming a manager of other aid workers, leaving direct, front-line work to newcomers, the less qualified, and eccentrics. On a bureaucratic level, therefore, aid organisations would benefit from fostering a culture in which frugality and a deep affinity for “down-and-dirty field work” are virtues, rather than signs of madness or failed careers.
Where can we go from here?
While aid workers from poorer backgrounds could bring numerous benefits to the sector, the priority must of course remain on having a professional and quality workforce. The good news is that aid organisations don’t need to sacrifice quality of staff to hire more aid workers with personal connections to poverty. Plenty of them are getting the same quality education as wealthier aid workers, but they are held back by several factors the aid sector needs to more consciously mitigate.
Getting a foot in the door of the aid industry is a daunting task for all newcomers. For those with no connections and not enough money to self-fund internships (or even flights to interviews), the door can seem firmly shut (see: the unpaid internship question). Employers should ensure that at least some funded internships are set aside on a needs basis, and make it clear to university career centres that they are interested in addressing the underrepresentation of poorer aid workers.
In hiring, meanwhile, the industry fails to assign any usefulness to employee (expat or local) experience of poverty. However, placing more value on this factor, and looking for applicants with the qualities described above, could dramatically influence the direction of the sector’s most fundamental debates and give voice to the poor to a degree that no empowerment initiative or listening exercise has managed to do.
Beneficiaries have often seen me as a Posh White Bloke simply because I am a white bloke. Let’s hope for a day when the ironic association between foreign aid worker and wealth is no longer as instinctive. Aid organisations and academics can play a big role in getting us closer to that point; they can start by exploring this issue in greater depth and seeking out the perspectives of aid workers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
For an extended discussion on this topic, see Michael’s Facebook page. Michael Keller is an international development expert, having worked in Africa and the greater Middle East for a number of international aid organisations. You can follow him on Twitter.
Featured image shows a row of homes in Camden, New Jersey. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.