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#2 Blending In

December 11, 2010

Humanitarian aid worker with armed guard in Somalia

Humanitarian aid worker with armed guard in Somalia. Photo by Chris Daley, sourced from Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Guidebooks, field security managers and random globetrotting backpackers alike have one piece of essential advice for the Expat Aid Worker: Blend In.

We agree. Blending in is imperative. For two reasons.

First, it shows your solidarity with the locals. You eat their food, you wear their clothes, you’ve learned enough of their language to buy food and clothes. If you blend in well enough, they might mistake you for one of them. And there is no higher honor for the expat aid worker than to be mistaken for local.

Second, it keeps you safe. The nail that sticks up the tallest gets pounded down the hardest. And the expat aid worker who looks like an expat aid worker is just asking to be the target of a never-ending river of  beggars, shoe-shine boys, corrupt policemen, diamond mine owners in need of investors, pimps, bandits, and students who want to practice English.

It’s better to just blend in.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Ayesha Hasan permalink
    December 16, 2010 8:30 am


    Love the blog! My point of reference is Pakistan where I spent the last 7 years working for an international organization facilitating a number of missions from across the globe.

    A few things grate:

    Dressing like a local doesn’t make you a local.
    They do NOT “blend” in by doing so in fact just manage to stand out more
    Growing beard also doesn’t help either, it does not make them look like a local (profiling much?!)
    Why why why must they dress like long lost hippies?!
    Army fatigues, Che Guevara cap and a pony tail. Are they aiding in development or starting a revolution?
    Strolling on the streets. If locals aren’t doing it why must they? Same applies to jogging.
    Shopping like there’s no tomorrow.


    • January 14, 2013 7:58 pm

      Had to tweet this: Army fatigues, Che Guevara cap and a pony tail. Are they aiding in development or starting a revolution?

  2. Sam permalink
    January 6, 2011 6:37 pm

    I work with Afghan refugees in a Southeast asian country and have been with them for over a year, working in their homes, teaching English on their floors, helping them start small businesses, helping them get medical care, doing PR to bring awareness for their cause etc… After about 6 months of trying to “blend in” I found that the most prudent route wass to remain professional. Show them that you are there as an outside source of help, not someone from their community who’s going to gossip and be friends with one particular family, which then causes problems with a rival family and then snowballs and a group of people target you as an outsider who’s trying to blend in and causing problems in their community.

  3. melody permalink
    January 10, 2011 9:24 am

    Why does saving the world mean not wearing deodorant and having dread locks…seriously! People everywhere care deeply about how they look. Why must expats “blending in” dress down.

  4. Jessica permalink
    January 31, 2011 12:15 pm

    I think what the authors and commenters left out is that not all ex-pat aid workers are white!!!!!! I’m American of Ugandan descent and I work in Benin and have no problem at all blending in. :-D. I don’t even have to change my clothes.

    • curious permalink
      February 3, 2011 8:57 pm

      I hear you, but still, I’m curious how that works when you go to, say, Asia or certain parts of Latin America. And anyway, skin color is not the only reason foreigners stick out so obviously.

  5. Fred permalink
    March 8, 2011 10:34 am

    anyway, we can have trouble blending into some communties…i never picked up the habit of keeping white-white in the land of red dust so despite efforts to dress in a way that showed i respected the people I was meeting i was always the grubbiest person in some countries.

    Staying clean in the dust – a blending in tactic we could all do with…

  6. January 24, 2012 5:47 am

    Is it okay that on the picture only one kid has his identity protected?

    • February 1, 2012 3:10 pm

      A simple question but such a profound observation…

    • Amai permalink
      November 19, 2012 10:45 am

      Ofcourse not, just as its not okay that “local staff” or “third country nationals” who have earned their undergraduate and post graduate degrees from Western universities get paid less than their expat classmates while working in developing countries.

      • February 3, 2013 8:46 am

        I’m currently researching this topic of “Local pay scales” even when qualifications are the same. would love to get some comments or experiences


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