Earning a wage in development: an issue of corruption?

An interview with Godifri Mutindi. 

Working overseas in development can often create some rather sticky situations. One such situation occurs when there is a considerable gap in pay between foreign NGO staff and local workers. Very little is known about the true effects of this gap, both in terms of relationships between foreign and local staff, and on the effectiveness of programs. This week on whydev.org, we have a special interview with Godifri Mutindi, a development consultant who grew up and studied in Zimbabwe. His opinion on the subject is both raw and insightful.

 

Godifri, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions on this topic. What is your professional background and what is your particular interest in aid and development?

I trained as a secondary school teacher and taught for 12 years in Zimbabwe. I am concluding my Masters of Business Administration with a South African university. In Mozambique I worked as a teacher of English Language and then for an international NGO.

I am interested in bringing positive change to developing countries which are victims of several historical injustices – cruel chiefs, mercantile capitalism, slavery, colonialism, destructive and bloody liberation struggles, civil wars (in some countries), dictatorships, coups (in some), corruption and the list is endless. I believe that despite all these challenges, especially Africa has a very promising future. And the countries which bring ‘aid’ and ‘peace’ planted these conflicts in the first place and are coming to do business.

 

In this post on How Matters, you stated that “ large gaps between the locals and the expatriate conditions of service, even for people with the same qualifications” constitutues a form of corruption. Can you please expand on that point?

When a person’s hiring criterion or their conditions of service do not depend on competence, but on their country of origin, I submit this is corruption. It is the same issue we have in developing countries of leaders employing their party supporters or tribes. And usually, they bring non-Blacks to developing countries (nothing racial here).

 

Do you think that gaps in conditions, such as salary, between expatriate staff and local staff contribute to creating a divide between these staff members? If so, what is the effect of this divide?

There is obviously frustration from local staff, who may be of equal or higher qualifications or performance. There is also animosity that the development partners appear as seeking to create equality and human rights, but they actually further the difference.

Developed countries have a responsibility to and legal obligation to help the developing countries, for our poverty and problems are directly related to slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. We are not campaigning for people to sit and relax but it should not be presented as if we are beggars.

 

On a wider scale, do you think that the gap in conditions can actually lead to less effective delivery of aid? If so, how so?

It can not be exactly like that. The Western people are intelligent and at a higher level that developing countries. They actually budget for these issues, like the USAID’s Buy America, in which they create their home industries through buying a certain percentage of goods from the US. But on performance yes, there is a negative point. These people will be earning big money and other perks and the local people will be sweating. This, unfortunately, is the reality.

And Western countries, as always, continue shifting goal posts. They easily manipulate international law and recuse themselves of the commitments they signed some years ago (Denmark and the Netherlands have pulled out of education despite developing countries being very far from reaching Millennium Development Goals).

Poverty is a multi-million dollar business which they do not want to end.

  

What practical steps do you suggest that NGOs take to close this gap? For example, do you advocate that they pay expatriate staff less, and local staff more?

This issue needs serious research as there are serious issues and many stakeholders are interested. What is the reason of paying local staff in local currency when the budget is in US$, for example? I have never been to a country where it is illegal to pay people adequately. Development work is short term, by nature, and very risky.

 

We recently posted an article about the divide between expatriate staff and local staff and how language can help shape that divide. For example, white people who work abroad are only ever known as expats, whereas people going the other way are usually called migrants. What are your thoughts on the matter?

It is part of the same plot.


For many young people in this field, leaving behind their home countries can be a daunting task. Often there is pressure from various sources to earn a decent wage, and costs such as mortgages that have to be taken into account. What advice do you have for people in this situation?

Younger and middle aged people should take the chance and learn out there. There are opportunities which one can get and it is good to get the experience from there, rather than only the text book. Even if they do not physically return, they contribute towards their countries’ development in ideas and resources.

 

What other advice do you have for young people working in developing countries?

It’s good to invest in one’s country’s human development. It is part of nationalism, Pan-Africanism or solidarity with the former oppressed people all over the world.

 

So there you have it. A complex issue that needs further research. We’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments. Do you agree with Godifri? Is there a better way forward? Drop us a line. 

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13 thoughts on “Earning a wage in development: an issue of corruption?”

  1. This is obviously an issue that many people are interested in and I thank you all for your comments, which I've learnt a lot from.

    The only other thing that I should add is that this is not just a simple discussion about salary, but also about opportunity and capacity. Any good NGO working in poor countries would recognise this, and ensure that as part of their practice, they also spend time developing the skills of local staff that they employ. This is itself is part of capacity building and development, to further allow local staff to (in the future) compete for positions that otherwise would be snapped up by foreigners. In hand with this, NGOs need to make sure that they don't stipulate that vacant positions can only go to foreign staff, but rather, base the requirements on expertise, to allow local staff to compete on an equal footing with foreigners.

  2. Your generalizing really turns me off. The comments bring up excellent, important points.
    Two more:
    1) More and more expat aid workers are not western.
    2) Many INGOs DO try to match national/expat salaries where it is appropriate with local markets, skills and positions (Kenya is a good example).
    Your post, as many, is too simple and while it may be well intentioned it misses the complexities of real life.

  3. As one who works for a volunteer sending NGO, this is an issue I'm very familiar with, and it is indeed very complex.

    Like Alex's friend (first comment above) I do feel that the more comparable the living arrangements of foreign and local workers, the more likely the expat can understand the realities facing his colleagues. Furthermore, fostering interdependence between expat aid workers and locals (eg. situations where expats rely on locals as much as vice versa, and where expats cannot escape to a luxury villa or high wage/allowance/stipend but live as closely as possible in the style of the local) allows much more genuine relationships. Unfortunately 'relationships' sounds to some like an overly-idealistic word used by compassionate but naive 'hippies', but a genuine relationship in which the expat faces open and honest criticism from his/her counterparts allows better practice from both. I have seen some truly wonderful examples of this, but am limited in the size of comments to fully articulate them.

    Though I recruit and send volunteers, I am also one of the first to defend aid workers from simplistic arguments such as the occasional News Ltd attack on waste (http://www.palms.org.au/news/volunteers-continue-humbly-in-big-business-of-overseas-aid/) or highly paid consultants (http://www.palms.org.au/news/palmspost/how-effective-is-australia%E2%80%99s-aid/).

    The issue is actually much broader and reflects arguments over salaries in other fields (see recent ruling about gender discrimination against social sector workers). There is a hypocritical expectation that the people working most closely with 'the poor' should not earn much more, while those arguably doing very little to reduce inequality are deserving of their massive paycheques.

  4. Interesting post, although not really that helpful. The issue of salaries vexes many in the "aid industry", but I agree with some of the comments : expats, even when paid the same, are not the same as local staff, and should not pretend that they are (insurance, health care etc) and arguably don't add anything to the mix if they were.

    Secondly, overpaid expat staff tend to work for Govt. and international organisations, not NGOs.
    Third: the key issue is not the salaries (which reflect the home country situation, not the situation in the field), but whether the expat staff are performing against set standards and targets. Can the expat demonstrate added value?
    Fourth: NGO salaries for local staff tend to be well above salaries in the public sector in developing countries, effectively robbing Government services of the 'best and brightest', and therefore in effect undermine the host country's capacity. Would the author consider that a form of corruption too?

    Corruption is a very important development issue. Let's use the term for what it is meant for, not for things we simply are unhappy with…

  5. The ex-pat lifestyle in many developing countries is pretty extravagant, and is so far removed from local standards that you have to wonder if the aid workers really know anything about the people they’re trying to “help.” Further, it seems simply unfair, and discriminator, to pay an ex-pat more than a local with similar qualifications for doing the same job.

    At the same time, though, we have to consider that ex-pats have expenses back home, such as mortgages, university tuition for children, perhaps supporting a spouse who lives at home, and so on, making their total cost of living inherently higher than a local’s.

    It’s a tricky situation. Ultimately, I don’t think being an aid worker should preclude an ex-pat from caring for their family. But, at the same time, I think Westerners should make more of an effort to live according to local standards.

  6. Expats have access to a different labour market to local staff – a labour market with higher wages – so their reservation wage is higher. Simple supply and demand, as Scott says. The real crime is that Westerners can freely gallivant around the world pretty much wherever they choose, whereas citizens of poor countries aren't allowed into rich countries.

    1. Scott, can you explain that a little more? How does wage inflation hurt developing countries? And what is the advantage of incentivizing local employment in the private sector over employment in local offices of INGOs? Or employment in grassroots NGOS; where do they fit in your approach?

  7. I think it's unhelpful to generalise so extravagantly, as in "Poverty is part of a million dollar business which Western countries do not want to end". What kind of progress or sharing of skills or greater understanding can you get if everything is viewed through a lens of Western conspiracy? To assume that every poverty and development issue was and is sheeted home to "The West" also elides the resposibility and potential for action of so many other players in the system, including governments in developing countries.

  8. This is a tricky problem. On one hand, I once had an US Peace Corps friend, who earned a salary on par with his Ethiopian colleagues’ state that his small stipend – $100 a month, approx – made it easier to work within the local community, because “he was the same”. Now, the flights home, trips to neighbouring countries and domestic tourist destinations, and airmailed chocolate bars probably didn’t create the sense of equality my friend thought he had, but I could see his point.
    On the other hand, in many countries, the NGO sector is a high-paying sector for locals, and in fact can be seen as a ticket to middle-class status. I have had it argued that inflated salaries and the perks of NGO work are such a draw to local workers –Ethiopia is my example – that it essentially kills entrepreneurship and job creation. In countries with huge informal working sectors an NGO job means stability and a salary, which aren’t bad, but the NGO sector dependence on foreign donors make this a less than ideal way to foster economic growth.
    There isn’t a good solution. If you pay foreigners less you may have fewer dedicated and talented people working in low-income countries; people who often have high levels of expertise and cultural knowledge. If you pay locals more (or equal salaries) and you may create a false economy or an NGO economy, which goes against any community development ideas I know.

    1. I agree. I see the same thing in Burma. Take for example, students who study for scholarships. Often their goal is to work at an iNGO, because they are the highest paying jobs around. And you see a phenomenon of local iNGO workers moving into the middle class where NGO work becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end of helping the community. Thus, grassroots organizations lose many of the best workers because they are lured away by iNGOs. As one director of a civil society group told me, "a janitor at the UN makes more than I do."

What are you thinking?