Should aid workers live comfortable lives?
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Should aid workers live comfortable lives?

Should aid workers live comfortable lives?

By Terence Wood

Photo credit: Alex Jameson,

In May last year a friend lent me their jeep while they went home to Australia for a holiday. Large and white, it was a development archetype – one of the famed vehicles that signal the arrival of aid workers everywhere on Earth. It was also a god-send. At the time I was in the process of organising permissions for my PhD research, which meant shuttling from office to office and from one end of town to the other. I had been travelling by bus, taxi and on foot, which was rapidly wearing me out. Upon the arrival of the jeep, slow, stop-start commutes were replaced by air-conditioned travel into town in under 10 minutes. Hillside suburbs were now easily accessible and, all of a sudden, I could get several things done in a morning.

And yet, at the same time the jeep created barriers. Instead of saying good morning to the street sellers who I walked past on the way to the bus stop, I now trundled past them encased in a vehicle they could never afford. I’m not going to pretend that before the jeep I was living as the locals do. I wasn’t. But, for all the comfort it brought, my newfound private motor vehicle did, at the very least, contribute to the gulf that existed between my life and theirs.

Nowadays, I’m back on the bus, with all the additional tiredness that this brings to my life, but I was reminded of my jeep driving days when reading of the recent furore associated with Oxfam closing the pool in its guesthouse in Nairobi. The guest house is run on a for-profit basis by Oxfam (who then use the profits to fund aid work) and its clientele is predominantly aid workers. The pool wasn’t custom fitted by Oxfam – it came with the guest house property. On one hand Nairobi is hot and dry, and having a pool to soak in must make aid workers’ lives somewhat more pleasant. On the other hand Nairobi is hot and dry, so hot and so dry that it has been in the middle of a drought. The water used to fill the pool has no material impact on the drought itself but it was thought that aid workers soaking while the rest of the country baked would be a bad look, and so the pool was closed.

And in their different ways, my jeep and Oxfam’s pool tap into an aspect of aid work that is rarely talked about but also the subject of profound discomfort amongst many aid workers: the difference in living standards between aid workers (at least most of the time) and the people who they work with.

In Honiara the differences are readily apparent: while much of the city lives crowded into informal settlements, most aid agency staff enjoy comfortable residences nestled the various hillside suburbs nestled behind the town (for the record this PhD student hasn’t quite made it into the hills but can be found in a very comfortable room, just a short dash from the cooling Pacific ocean).

There are three reasons why I think we find aid opulence discomforting.

The first is financial: every dollar that is spent on residences for aid agency staff could, in theory, be spent on vaccinations, or roads, or nurses, or teachers or other actual end products.

The second reason is to do with information: isolated in enclaves it can be hard for aid workers to stay in touch with the real needs of the people they work with.

The third is to do with local perceptions: aid discourse may be all about partnership and this may be genuinely intended by aid agencies, but when aid staff lead isolated and lives of astounding affluence (by local standards) this would seem likely to undermine ideals of equal partnership, at least in the minds of aid recipients.

Above and beyond this, I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable, simply because it feels wrong to be experiencing comfort in the midst of such profound lack. These are all good reasons for concern. But on the other hand, there are also very good explanations for why the discrepancies exist. There’s safety for a start: Honiara’s not particularly dangerous, but home invasions occur and expats have been murdered over the years. And other aid destinations (think the large cities of Africa or Latin America or Port Moresby) are often very dangerous. Safety necessitates enclave living.

There’s also exhaustion. People living in the comfortable, orderly, temperate cities of the average donor country may scoff at this. But the fact of the matter is that aid work is often hard work. And living in most developing countries can be profoundly exhausting. Although, as I learnt, creature comforts can ease this to some extent. And, given how hard most aid workers work, it seems unfair, not to mention ultimately inefficient, to expect aid workers to spend their entire careers in a state of uncomfortable exhaustion.

Finally, urban areas in most developing countries are often cleaved by deep economic inequality. There often isn’t much in the way of middle class living for aid workers to be inserted into. Meaning, that affording aid workers some degree of comfort and safety often requires going all the way to affluence.

This doesn’t excuse every excess that occurs in the world of aid. Some consultants are paid far too much for example. Or, in the case of Honiara, a reasonable number of short term aid workers end up in the city’s most expensive hotel, when they could be accommodated just fine in other nearby hotels for quite a lot less.

Nor do my justifications in the second half of this article mean that the sources of discomfort that I raised aren’t real. They are. But I guess that this is – for the most part – an inescapable aspect of the deeply unequal world that we live in: the fact that even attempts at doing good often bring with them huge inequalities of their own.


Terence Wood is a PhD student at ANU. Prior to commencing study he worked for the New Zealand government aid programme. You can find his own blog here. This is a crosspost from the DevPolicy blog. Thanks to them for allowing us to repost this here.

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6 thoughts on “Should aid workers live comfortable lives?

  1. julie butera

    I think as an aid worker you need to live as the people are living to gain their respect and trust. Also, you will better feel what the people are going through if you’re there with them. It’s true It gets exhausting mentally and physically in which case we have to know when to time out. I try to be aware of my exhaustion level and when I feel I need a break , I take one where I can regroup myself. I can’t help anyone if I’m not well. This is my suggestion .

  2. Thanks for a very interesting post Terence. I don’t think there’s really an answer to this one. I think it’s really encumbent on each of us to evaluate our own situations and determine a ‘fair’ living standard wherever we are based.

    I know some Embassy staffers based in Cambodia receive a hardship allowance, which is absolutely, unequivocally unnecessary. Some of these staffers also live in very swanky hotel apartments nestled on the river. I understand they spend what I earn in a month just on rent. Despite this vast difference, I think my own living conditions are very, very comfortable and certainly more comfortable than some volunteers I’ve met in Cambodia (VSOs for example, who seem to be paid the least of any of the paid volunteers in the country, are encouraged – as I understand it – to live as close to the local standard as possible). So even within the aid and development community there are inequalities. And, like Weh said, inequalities exist everywhere in the world.

    That said, I believe aid and development workers should be paid fairly based on their experience and knowledge and as an incentive to bring that knowledge to a country that can benefit from it. But I also think there should be some personal judgement made to live comfortably while not excessively – and this is important if we want to be respected by our colleagues in our host countries.

  3. Perhaps an important point to consider is the service economy that is created by the presence of foreign aid and development workers. In some places, were it not for the foreign aid workers in the city, there would be no service sector at all. Often the staff of higher-end hotels are able to make a good wage (I have met many who are paying their way through school) and are trying to learn English by interacting with guests. Drivers for aid and development organizations also usually make healthy wages.
    We can try and break things down and say that the “comfortable lives” of aid workers cause a lack of human connection, but if you ask any of the people involved in the service sector in a developing country, I’m sure they wouldn’t complain. Too often these negative notions about aid workers are simply the product of over-thinking a situation. My experience in the developing world has been a local population with more important things too worry about than the foreigner driving around in a 4×4.

  4. This is an interesting talking point, but ultimately I think comparisons between aid workers and local people is a never-ending spiral. I can’t really think of any situation that a foreign aid worker will be in where his life will approximate that of the average local person. This is not to say we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable, aware, or ashamed of it – we absolutely should. But that’s a global problem that everybody should be aware of, not just aid workers.

    What is perhaps more pertinent is focussing on thinking about the conditions that aid workers should be in to make them more effective (something that you’ve considered throughout this piece). By boxing aid workers into high class hotels, or compounds with high walls, or by putting a gap in pay between foreign aid workers and their local counterparts, how effective are these aid workers in being in touch enough with the local situation to make a difference. As you wrote Terence, “isolated in enclaves it can be hard for aid workers to stay in touch with the real needs of the people they work with”.

    On the other hand, ignoring the needs of aid workers can make them more stressed, more burnt out and ultimately less effective in achieving what they are trying to achieve. Ultimately, it should be about finding a nice balance point between the two. Therefore, in answering the central question of this article, the main factor should be answering a question about effectiveness, not about whether it is “fair” or not. On a global scale, “fair” is not even remotely relevant.

  5. Cross-posted from my latest link-review ( I like the reflectiveness of post-but I also think that the debate needs to be extended. In-country lives are only one aspect of aid worker professionalism and student debt, extra insurances, school fees for children or additional moving expenses should also be taken into consideration, before one makes statement likes ‘every dollar that is spent on residences for aid agency staff could, in theory, be spent on vaccinations, or roads, or nurses, or teachers or other actual end products’. Professional aid workers deserve an adequate compensation package and simply demanding that they should live like locals is not enough if the aid industry wants to make sure that quality people work in international development. It would be great to see more flexibility in the future – long-term pension contributions vs. the (stereo)typical jeep or lower salaries, but contributions to student loans or mortgage payments back ‘home’. It would also be interesting to hear comments from an older generation of aid workers (~40-60) on the pros and cons of short-term perks (R&R in Dubai) and long-term financial planning in an unstable industry.

  6. Laura

    Thank you Terence for your interesting article. I think many of the points you raised are worthy of debate and discussion. Your example of the jeep is very interesting because on one hand you mentioned the efficiency it allowed and as we are all aware, getting things done can sometimes be a nightmare in development. Any assistance to accelerate tasks, errands, work and projects should surely be a good thing. But as you said, the result of your convenient jeep simply deepened the barrier between yourself and the community you are trying to build meaningful and engaging relationships with.

    There is a brilliant book called Dog Ear Cafe by an Australian anthropologist cum social worker, Andrew Stojanovski who is working in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. He talks about integrating into a particular community over a period of many years and the divides that exist when you have a government 4WD drive in community. He talks about relationship and skin responsibilities and that if family members have access to a car they can’t deny other members the right to use the car too. But if these local workers have the right to use the car because they are engaged in a project (in this case a petrol sniffing prevention and rehabilitation project), then there are valid reasons and logistics dictating the use of the car(s) and they can not be taken out bush for days on end leaving the project transport-less. However, relationships are just as significant and important to prioritise too! I really recommend this book for anyone looking for a good read as it addresses many complex and challenging realities.

    So in regards to the main theme of your article being the opulence that some aid workers indulge in, I don’t have an answer. There is always a balance and a middle path and in my opinion the closer you are to a community and the standards of living that they are used to, the easier it is to engage, begin to understand and see exactly the sorts of issues that aid projects are trying to address.

    For example, it wasn’t until I lived with an Indonesian family of 5 in a 50 sq metre apartment that I could match the reality of local life with the shocking but abstract figures of high population density in Central Java. It is one thing to compare and study figures of population density and say “Wow, X country is really crowded”, compared to actually living it and recognising daily challenges of overcrowding.

    I think it is extremely important to get grass roots in a community and connect with the people as much as possible. Unfortunately, even basic communication tools such as having a mobile phone or laptop with portable internet connection is enough to mark you out from many community members. Finally, at the end of the day, you were not born there and probably after some months or years you will leave again so the reality is you are an outsider and everyone knows that!

    Great article, thank you again and it has me thinking this evening.

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