The Local/International Divide: Reflection of a Deeper Problem in Humanitarian Aid?

02/17/2016 12:45 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2017

Several years ago, I waited in the lobby for an interview with an international humanitarian non-government organization (NGO) in West Africa. I studied the salmon-pink walls with flecks of mustard yellow showing where the paint had chipped, and I read the office memos posted there. One memo caught my eye, detailing accommodation and per diem rates (money for meals and incidental expenses) for staff members temporarily working outside of their home bases. The rate information in one town in particular sunk a little fishhook in my conscience that I've never managed to dislodge: the NGO authorized "international" (or "expatriate") staff members to receive more per diem and to stay in a nicer hotel than the "national" staff members working in the same location. Where was this -- Birmingham, circa 1953?

Those rates were the tip of a much larger iceberg of inequality. In the world of international humanitarian and development aid, most agencies employ dual salary scales -- one for internationally recruited staff and another, typically much lower, for staff who are recruited from the "local" labor market. Benefits for "international" staff members also raise their actual remuneration in ways that "national" staff members can merely observe and contemplate: housing allowances (or the provision of free furnished housing), the use of organizational vehicles (usually 4x4s) on nights and weekends, hardship allowances, and cost-of-living allowances. Some organizations provide education stipends for workers' children in locations deemed "accompanied," or safe enough for spouses and children to join the primary breadwinner; education allowances are often tens of thousands of dollars per year per child, buttressing an entire sub-economy of "international schools" filled by the children of development workers as well as children of "local" political elites and entrepreneurs.

I have only ever lived on the "expatriate" side of this divide; in my ensuing years as a humanitarian aid worker, one who once comfortably accepted this bizarre status quo, I have come to see the system as inherently unjust. I cannot wrap my head around the inability to create integrated pay and benefits scales that are based on functions and roles rather than place of recruitment or "international/national" status. Yes, integrated salary scales might necessarily vary widely from bottom to top (from night guard to CEO), but a unified system would at least challenge the notion of irreducible differences between "international" and "national" staff, us and them, those coming from "helping" places and those from places being "helped."

To better understand the phenomenon, I reached out to my social media networks and learned that -- at least within the United Nations system (one entity among many) -- the differentiation is intentional. In the earliest days of the establishment of the United Nations, two commissions laid out the parallel principles that would underpin staff recruitment for internationally and locally recruited workers. For internationally recruited staff, the standard is the Noblemaire principle. Applying to the work of "professional officers," the Noblemaire principle sets the bar high, using U.S. civil service pay scales so that people of any nationality will be lured to apply: the League of Nations' Preparatory Commission for the establishment of the United Nations noted that "salary and allowance scales for the staffs of the United Nations ... should compare favourably to those of the most highly paid home and foreign services." Sounds lovely; sign me up! For locally recruited staff, the Flemming principle adheres: this principle, likewise dating to the years around the establishment of the United Nations, also set the pay bar high, noting that to recruit the best and the brightest, the United Nations would need to pay locally recruited staff providing "general services" to the agency "in comparison with 'best prevailing' local conditions." If you want the best, you pay top dollar. I'm on board.

But the more I learn about this system, the less I understand. Is there, for example, a viable difference between the "general services" that locally recruited staff members provide and the "professional" services that internationally recruited staff give? If so, are these differences so profound that a unified, graduated pay scale could not serve both purposes? Why, in fact, are these two principles at all? I also find no small amount of irony that a system designed to eliminate discrimination or bias "on the grounds of...nationality" has -- at last in a de facto sense as per subsequent iterations and as applied outside of the United Nations by other organizations -- come to represent a fundamental wall between those of one nationality ("national staff" in country X) and all others.

I've heard any number of arguments in favor of "international" salaries: for example, to get the best people, organizations have to pay competitive salaries. Or that "national" staff members are more subject to corruption than their "international" counterparts, given that their families and networks are nearby. Or to ensure that expatriates are "willing" to work in difficult places, aid agencies much make sure that jobs are as appealing as possible. None of the arguments for a dual system holds. "International" pay scales feel like a smokescreen that allows us to pretend that -- because we are not of a place -- we are not part of the systems operating there.

In the end, I fail to understand how dual salary scales address the justifications that emerge and persist. Could not a unified pay scale that lays out clear functions, responsibilities, qualifications, and expertise at each level -- and provides competitive compensation in tandem -- not accomplish the same goals without perpetuating a fictitious local/expat divide?

I passed the interview. I went on to work for that international NGO in West Africa, and my trips to the town where accommodation was segregated were always strange. I and my "international colleagues" stayed in the approved beachside hotel while our "national" colleagues (at least three of whom were from neighboring countries, thus not "national" at all!) stayed at a much simpler -- and perfectly adequate -- hotel in town. We participated in these systems with only the most whisper-hushed questions, and isn't that how power works? We sip it and believe, or just dream, that it is rightfully ours.