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#35 A Tidy Salary and Dank Perks

March 17, 2011

Submitted by David Fox

Expat Aid Workers love a tidy salary, and the perks that go with real EAW status.

If one starts at the very beginning . . . many, many moons ago, traveling to foreign lands to help people meant suffering tremendous privation, possible death (by disease or angry locals) and NOT getting paid well (if at all).  Back in the day, the EAW was driven by his or her sincere desire to help less fortunate people in foreign lands (editor’s note: or the conviction that the natives needed to be evangelized). Giving up the comforts of the home country was not an obstacle to getting out there and fighting poverty, injustice, civil war, and you know, all that other shit that people in developing countries have problems with.

In today’s world, however, aid work is often much less about noble self-sacrifice and much more about getting hooked up with a dank salary and some pretty sweet perks.  By “dank salary”, we are talking by Western standards. By local standards, we might just call that a “small fortune”.   Many EAWs earning an “international salary” will moan about their meager earnings and neglect to mention that all housing, food and utilities are paid for and they are getting a pretty sweet per diem or “hardship” payment. In the end, some EAWs actually put as much money in the bank as someone making twice that “meager” salary in the West.  When we add “no taxes” to the picture, all of a sudden an Expat Aid Worker making a mere 25k USD can more accurately be compared to someone making 75k USD living back in New York…

If the salary isn’t enough for ya, just consider the perks! That rent-a-car that costs more per month than the average local’s monthly salary? Expat Aid Workers cannot survive without it (well, unless they have a personal driver of course)! Sure there is a cheap bus system that the locals use, but the locals smell funny and Expat Aid Workers don’t want to stain their new Anthropologie/J Crew clothing items ordered online and FedEx’ed to their office.  And anyway, the nearest Western-style grocery store is all the way across town, and it would be a HUGE pain in the ass to lug those boxes of Kraft mac and cheese, cheerios, and pringles (without which saving the world would be impossible) back to the apartment/ compound.

Speaking of another perk necessary for EAWs to save the world, we cannot forget the license to PAR-TAY!  While we don’t have any photos of said license on file, we all know that it is automatically issued to all Expat Aid Workers no matter where in the world they are posted.  Yes, despite the offensive nature in many countries of alcohol consumption and late-night parties with blaring music, partying hard is absolutely necessary for EAWs to forget their woes and do their jobs properly.  Sure, the local insurgent forces are now performing reconnaissance on the walled, guarded compound they live in because neighbors have tipped them off about the loud, godless, alcohol imbibing foreigners in their midst, but the fact that Joe Aid Worker got hammered and sacked up with Natalya the hot Russian aid worker gives him an extra skip in his step while putting together kick-ass power points at the office the next day.

Yes, yes, every now and again, there is one of those funny Expat Aid Workers that works for a local salary (*gasp*), buys the same food that the locals do, lives in the same type of accommodations that the locals do, and – worst of all – gets NO PERKS!! These EAWs make the EAWs with the international salary packages uncomfortable, because they are used to telling themselves and others that unhappy people can’t do aid work (or really help people in any way at all), and happiness is directly linked to having a nice salary and perks.

These “local-ish” expat aid workers who actually live pretty much like locals and know more than 50 words in the local language often find themselves at Expat Aid worker Parties, but they are there more as a curiosity then anything else.  It is considered “bad form” for them to bring up the idea of excessive salaries, perks, or flamboyant lifestyles of the standard Expat Aid Worker.  There is the unspoken threat that such talk could lead to the local-ish aid worker being “accidentally” left off the guest list at the next alcohol-fueled EAW party.  This is a serious threat for the local-ish EAW, as all the time in the field has given him or her a true local’s desire to sleep with those exotic and wealthy “foreigners” that are somehow now out of his or her league.

46 Comments leave one →
  1. tio permalink
    March 17, 2011 7:50 am

    From what I notice, some EAW did shitty job but still got very high salary. Forwarding email is not categorized as a good job right? No offense.

  2. Philip permalink
    March 17, 2011 12:26 pm

    1.) Two words in one headline that I have to look up…remember “using words in other languages”???

  3. karen permalink
    March 17, 2011 5:50 pm

    What a sad, cynical load of rubbish. Get out there in the real world and actually look at some of the work that these ‘aid’ workers do and the passion they have for the help they can provide. It may not change the world but it sure makes a difference to the lives they touch, how can you discredit a whole group of people wanting to make whatever difference they can, even if in the end it is not enough, it is certainly something. Get a heart and appreciate that helping others comes from goodness and humanity in people. If you happen to know a few ‘bad eggs’ in the expat aid community it does not mean you have the right to bag all the rest!

    • Mike permalink
      March 18, 2011 3:01 am

      You might not want to discredit 100% of aid workers if 60% where of the type you suggest.
      You shouldn’t praise them all neither if only 10% fall into that category.

      You must be either parent to an aid worker kid that sells you a lot of bullshit or one of those incompetent idealist leaving in the bush with a few goats.
      In any case you are obviously leaving far away from the typical expat hub.

    • amelia permalink
      March 22, 2011 3:21 am

      @Karen: The great thing about this blog is no matter the real percentage of EAWs that these vignettes represent, I think we all (speaking as a “local-ish EAW”) see something of ourselves in a lot of them. It gives us (me) the opportunity to laugh at myself and puts some perspective on the habits and psychological states/hang-ups that sometimes go unobserved.

      A little self-reflection and humor never hurt anyone.

    • June 21, 2011 6:07 am

      Unfortunately, in a country like Cambodia, the EAWs created a select group of high class (with exceptions, of course, but few…) Ask some young people where do they want to work after graduation: ‘In a NGO’… Not for humanitarian reasons, but for $$$reasons (to live like the foreigners live).

    • Jason permalink
      September 29, 2011 12:15 pm

      Haha…something tells me that Karen has a VERY comfortable expat life.

  4. Tim permalink
    March 18, 2011 10:00 am

    This is ridiculous generalisation and poor journalism… shame on you…

    • McKay permalink
      March 27, 2011 5:55 am

      “Journalism”? haha, you clearly don’t get the point of this blog. Self-reflection and a biting one at that is part of the EAW sanity check. It’s in no way meant to be as rigorous as the RCT evaluations we run, in no way as meaningful as our sexy village media project, and as no way as unbiased in its perspective as our grant applications. :)

  5. Adam permalink
    March 18, 2011 12:28 pm

    Most of the posts on SEAW are quite funny. This one is just bitter, and not very well written.

  6. Lely permalink
    March 18, 2011 6:52 pm

    Don’t forget about married EAW with kids! They get to send their kids to the best private schools in the country of residence- much better than any public one the EAW would have to rely on in his/her home country- on the dime of the INGO. This can get tricky when explaining to local finance staff- the ones that pay those local private school bills- why they can’t get a cost-of-living/inflation raise.

  7. David Fox permalink
    March 18, 2011 7:25 pm

    Wow! Looks like I’ve touched a nerve here . . . Obviously my real name is posted which should indicate to all that I stand by this piece. I am coming to the end of my relationship with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East), who I worked for as a volunteer to found and then manage a community fitness center in a Palestinian refugee camp (Gaza Camp) in Jordan. In order to manage this project as best as I could, I moved to the camp itself and lived on the premises of the center throughout its construction and opening until the present time (over a year now). I have many friends and aquintances who are ‘traditional’ expat aid workers who live in Amman, and this piece is largely based on my observations of them and the contradiction between their lifestyles and mine. I challenge any of my detractors to actually post their name, position, and salary, as well as share the salaries of local staff members of their organizations. Am I bitter? I’ll admit to a degree of bitterness, although I like to think that I just call it how I see it.

    @Tim – this is a blog, not journalism, although if you want me to provide you the situations and inspired each part of the submission, I’d be more than happy to . . .
    @Karen – I’ve travelled all over the Middle East and lived and worked in many different areas of Jordan. I like to think this qualifies as experience in the “real world.” Concerning the rest of your post, I will say that very rarely have I seen expat aid workers who were really PASSIONATE about their work. Passionate about their career, yes, about their work, no. I’m sorry but you can’t change my impression by verbally scolding me.
    @mike – As I explained, I am not a son of an expat aid worker. If you ever want to come to Gaza Camp and take a gander at the fitness center I founded, I think you will have a difficult time accusing me of being incompetant. Also, I am about the farthest away from being an idealist as you can possibly imagine.
    @Adam – I am sorry for my poor writing. I will go and give myself 100 lashings for offending your delicate tastes when it comes to prose.


    David Fox

    • Sofo permalink
      March 21, 2011 11:32 pm

      David, you really touched touched a nerve among those whose bottoms sometimes get injured from spending time in well-cushioned chairs!

      As a volunteer, you really to have a great perspective on the EAWs who know their host country perfectly well from reading the executive summaries of the reports they collect and file away as well as from talking to other expats and, quite possibly, the members of the privileged class in their host country.

      Honestly, I thought your description was nowhere near as bad as the duty station where I serve. I have heard EAWs complaining about their maids wanting more than US$100 a month or about not wanting to babysit on weekends because they want to be with their own families. Imagine that, the sad EAW having to fork out a couple of bucks for a nanny on a weekend so that they can hop into their big SUV to go have a dinner that will cost no less than $30 a head.

    • Justine permalink
      March 28, 2011 3:41 pm

      I would say that the people who have taken this offensively are just a little reluctant to take a long hard look at themselves! lol! Oh heck, lighten up people, it’s supposed to be funny!! I LOVE this blog, I recognise myself in some of it and a lot of other people I meet along the way too, most of it is bang on the nail!

      @ David – good news is with all that grass roots experience on your resume you’ll be able to get a salaried EAW job with all those lush perks now … ;-)

    • LAW (Local Aid Worker) permalink
      April 11, 2011 5:30 am

      Great work David, as they say “guilty conscious needs no accusers”, however, here they have got an accuser too. Being a “local aid work”, I greatly admire your courage for coming up with such an article. Our esteemed EAWs ought to know what opinion do the local aid workers have for the most of them. Of course, most of the funds acquired in the name of the poor go as salary and perks for the EAWs.

    • Mick permalink
      January 25, 2012 11:11 pm

      Dude, great piece !

      I can see the faces of so many people I know as I read it !

      The only disagreement I would have is about the passion of people. I’ve met a lot of people over my years as an EAW that are totally committed to the work they do and love to do it. The only real exception to this, that I’ve found, is the” Organisation Who Wears Light Blue, and Likes People To Genuflect When They Walk In The Room”. We refer to them a “career humanitarians” in other words, career first, allowances second, aid work third !

      Again, great piece !

    • October 21, 2014 5:17 am

      interesting piece. I know quite a few of those NGO employees (the UN sort). Living large indeed. interesting.

  8. Tongue-In-Cheek permalink
    March 19, 2011 12:12 am

    But seriously – to all commenters – including our author – please keep your tongues in your cheeks for this blog. If you actually feel bitter about something, perhaps save it for your own blogsite. Humour and irony make this blogsite read-worthy and readable.

    I agree we needed this post, although probably it could have had a separate post for our ‘right-to-PARTAY’. Salaries and perks are worth a chuckle and poke at, as they do seem to be something we both bemoan and are uncomfortable with. Thanks for writing it David, though your comment defending your legitimacy seems over the top for a site called “SEAWL”. This ain’t the NYTs.

    • David Fox permalink
      March 19, 2011 5:50 am

      I guess I’m not clever enough for tongue-in-cheek humor. MA BAD!!! And my apologies for my attempt at defending myself in too serious a manner – again, I am must remind everyone that I am crippled socially by my lack of cleverness. EAWs being a generally political correct crowd, you all should be more sensitive with me considering my disability and try to be more gentle when directing your ad hominem attacks towards me.

  9. Adam permalink
    March 19, 2011 4:51 am

    May I refer the author to previous SEAWL entries including, notably, numbers 1, 2, 12, 17 and 20. And humbly suggest that self-righteousness rather kills any humour, intended or otherwise. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the writing: it’s the tone and intention.

  10. mike permalink
    March 19, 2011 10:27 am

    David, my comment was meant for Karen.
    I’m with you 100%.

  11. March 19, 2011 2:46 pm

    ooooh, david, you touched some nerves it seems!

    you should stand in an arena in a gladiator outfit and call out: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

    I see that as an answer to mostly everything. dress up in a cut up pleated leather skirt and start yelling, r u not entertained. it works. try it.

    • Doug permalink
      March 22, 2011 5:46 pm

      I am seriously going to start using that phrase now, thank you! I’ll have to get back to you about the leather skirt, tho

    • David Fox permalink
      March 27, 2011 7:42 am

      Thanks for the support Zehra :) I thought that the denunciations would continue in the comments sections, and I’m glad some readers stepped in in my defense. Love the Gladiator quotation as well – perfect.

  12. March 19, 2011 2:50 pm

    Oh and it’s totally true what you write. I think the tongue in cheek is all very good etc, but doesn’t hurt us to look at ourselves too every once in a while. I am thrilled that not only do I get to do the work i want to do, but I get paid (well!!!) to do it! It amazes me every day.

    i don’t think it takes away from anything that I do that I get paid for it. i should. i’m a professional like anyone else who gets paid. every business has a bunch of yahoos in it…why should this be any different?

  13. bunga permalink
    March 20, 2011 11:10 pm

    And often, those EAW with big salary and all that require locals to accompany them to translate everything, put things into context, provide situational analysis and yet locals receive one tenth of their salary.

  14. March 22, 2011 5:02 pm

    yeah, as alwways here you’re right.
    But t…..
    Tidy salary, tidy salary, that is reality but not if you work for a french NGO. Furthermore, not if you work for the french section of an international NGO.

    No tidy salaries there, and if ever you try to exlain that working all your life under a volonteer status (and not the UN one OK, no no no, something between 300 & 600€ per month, something you appreciate only if ever you’re a teen or almost, living at daddy home between two missions. When you become some kind of self dependant adult , the “french NGO salary” is just ….. A way to become closer to beneficiaries?), it is explained to you that you are sooooooo naughty, a real “cause traitor”.

  15. Ntang permalink
    March 26, 2011 5:24 pm

    Ha – love this. You think I’d do this job if I *weren’t* getting paid plenty of bank? Hells no – I dunno about you folks, but I outgrew that self-sacrifice bullshit years ago in my early 20s. I work for money, not the warped sense of noblesse some of our peers get by on.

    One of the cool things about this blog is holding up a mirror to our “community” and seeing what we see. Up with controversy!

  16. Ruairí permalink
    April 6, 2011 4:08 pm

    Nice one, David. Have recently returned from two years in Rwanda where I lived in a small village with no running water or electricity and travelled everywhere on foot or on the back of a hired motorcycle. Due to post-genocide guilt, Rwanda is possibly the most NGO-infested country in the world b ut you need to go to the capital Kigali to see them. Occasionally, one or two would appear in a fleet of 4x4s, have a meeting and then disappear, no doubt congratulating themselves on getting to grips with the ‘real’ Rwanda.

    Some of the comments above I agree with – there are genuine and effective people working for many NGOs and accomplishing good things, but there is a serious percentage who wallow in the free house, maids, drivers, tax-free salary and so on. And, yes – most of them avoided the likes of me and my other VSO volunteer colleagues like the plague (of course, we are just amateurs, whereas they are development professionals, so probably better we know our place!). Kidding. Well, kinda.

    • Justine permalink
      April 7, 2011 4:23 am

      Ha ha, as someone who’s been a VSO volunteer and is now kind of an EAW the righteous indignation of VSO volunteers kind of makes me laugh … like most of these guys wouldn’t be well chuffed if they ended up with all the perks!! It’s two different lives, the salaried ex-pat and the volunteers, but at the end of the day for most people it’s not ALL about altruism – most VSO volunteers get just as much out of their ‘experience’ as they get back (I remember when the ‘sharing skills, changing lives’ VSO logo came out we all thought it was probably referring to how much OUR lives had changed!), and whilst they love to look down on the EAW as much as the EAW look down on them, they wouldn’t say not a 4X4 and a fancy house if someone offered it to them. The fact is, if you compared the amount of difference that one EAW makes to the difference that one VSO volunteer makes the stats would probably come out in favour of the EAW as they are working at a bigger level … a VSO friend here once reported that on leaving his boss said ‘ah, now you will leave and you will write us a manual so we can continue your work when you are gone, and it will get buried under a pile of papers and never looked at again …’ I’m not slagging off VSO – it’s a fantastic organisation, and I’ve watched it grow into a much more serious development organisation since I was a volunteer with them, but having been on both sides of the fence I just find the VSO volunteer comtempt for EAWs kind of amusing :-)

      And let me just say that the MOST self-satisfied of the EAW ilk probably has to be … the former VSO / Peace Corps volunteer who is now a salaried EAW as, you know, we’ve BEEN there, we KNOW what it’s like to live in the community (though we’re bloody glad we now have a fancy house with a pool and a nice car thank you very much!)

  17. Dirk permalink
    June 20, 2011 3:48 pm

    Kigali has a lot of this expat world of SUV+compound+party. But also rich Rwandans like this style. That’s what you see in most USA-movies.

    Kigalilife yahoo-mailinglist gives some examples, renting a house for 3000$, iphone+ipad buy&sell.

    Not my style.

    The sad thing a lot of money could be used more effective.

  18. June 22, 2011 1:08 pm

    This is a spot on posting. After 25 years of working in developing countries as an expat, I have developed an underlying theory of those who one encounters. ALL of us can be described with three words starting with the letter M. We are (i) Missionaries; (ii) Misfits; and/or (iii) Mercenaries. Without exception all three attributes exist in everyone one of us, the only question is which is dominant.

    ‘Missionaries’ work in these countries because of the personal or professional challenges that are offered. We can do things that we just don’t get the opportunity to do back in the west. As an engineer, I’ve worked on projects putting in new infrastructure which just don’t happen any more in the west.

    ‘Misfits’ are expatriates who have been away too long. They couldn’t get a job back ‘home’ (if they remembered where it was!) if they tried. However, they have a local wife/girlfriend/mia noy, speak the local language, and have a long CV with local experience so they keep on getting hired by foreign companies who want to win the work. The biggest problem is finding them drunk at 8 a.m. (which I’ve seen too many times to count).

    ‘Mercenaries’ are there for the per diem, tax free status, etc. In the early 90’s I paid off my mortgage in three years through my tax free salary and saving 100% of my per diem, which meant living like a local, taking local buses etc. Gave me a fantastic financial kick start.

    So to my fellow expats I would say that relax and be honest with yourself. There is a good reason why you are willing to forgo the benefits of the comfortable lives we have in the west to put up with conditions in developing countries. Even if you aren’t making wads of money, often you ego is being stoked by the respect and power that you have. There is nothing wrong per se with it, as long as when you leave the people you are there to help are better off. For in the end, that is what the measure of success should be: that we’ve had a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate than us.

    And if you *really* want to look at snouts in the trough, check out the International Financing Institutions.

    To close, a poem by a colleague:

    It’s not so bad
    in Chad.

    Rest of the world eventually got rich…
    son of a bitch.

    No more institutional strengthening
    projects worth mentioning.

    The whole development menagerie
    has perched here gleefully.

    Poverty’s last outpost, couldn’t be worse
    we’re all here to fill our purse.

    Everywhere team leaders and specialists meet the eye
    sucking this last IFI tit dry.

    Air-conditioned offices out of the sun
    training seminars are still such fun.

    After here, no more per diem, no more fee
    just dull, taxed domesticity.

    It’s not so bad
    here in Chad.

    • October 21, 2014 5:30 am

      “Even if you aren’t making wads of money, often you ego is being stoked by the respect and power that you have.”

      Chris, I took the liberty of including your quote here. I have seen this as well. “Mr/Madam”, “Sir”(I’ve heard it) as a title with the first name, a level of obsequiousness (is that a word?) towards certain types that is embarrassing to witness…

      I have been thinking over the past few years that to be a certain type of expat in a developing country must provide either an ego boost, as you mentioned, or lay the groundwork for the development of a “superiority complex.” One must be careful to avoid both.

  19. August 22, 2011 9:03 am

    This is the UN to a ‘T’. Even UNV’s grab 2-3K per month (Tax Free) 80% of the UNV’s come from Countries where the wage is $200-500 as a professional. It is a farce, fueled with nepotism, and incompetency, MBA idiots who have issues with dust and insects, and cant believe the hygiene issues, brandishing copy and paste documents as master plans that more than often end in failure (and have failed in the past). Many with R&R every 6-8 weeks, often in a resorts that the most (Real world 9-5’ers) scrape for as a once a year treat. You have a split dress code between hippie, yuppie and field, each disguised ego’s and ill fitting. Admittedly this is not all, however it is the UN as I have seen it.

    End of the day its a reality, the good, the bad, the ugly, all in it for the money…

  20. jytc permalink
    September 15, 2011 10:28 pm

    I didn’t think this sounded bitter at all! The tone seemed rather light-hearted to me.

    And your comment replying? Golden.

    I agree that your post probably could have been split up into several different ones…
    Just so that I could hear more about each one.

    But I was very entertained.

  21. Not an EAW permalink
    October 13, 2011 9:15 am

    This is so true!

    I think more than 50% of fund in a project goes to cover operational cost, which include employees’ salary (sometimes even more than the budget they use for the actual project activities – correct me if i’m wrong). And you guessed, a big part of that operational cost is used to pay expats’ salary and their perks – car allowance, school allowance for their kids, or what have you. Even my boss got something like a “joining bonus” when she transferred from a non-profit contractor to our INGO (this was the first time I heard of “joining bonus” up till a few months ago I’d only heard of “joining fee”). An EAW’s monthly salary sometimes equals to a local’s 3x annual salary.

    I’m a local with, of course, a local’s salary. Do I complain about what I get at the end of the month? Yeah, sometimes. Do I envy my boss? Hell yea! Do I want tidy salary and dank perks? Yes please…!

    Seriously, it’s always nice to have spare money at the end of the month for just partying or enjoying life – be it in a disaster or conflict zone or in my case, in an overpopulated Southeast Asian city and whether or not what you do change poor people’s life.

    I think as long as someone (expat or local) is competent, does a good job, really deliver what s/he’s tasked with, you won’t even think s/he’s overpaid. Problem is when someone does a crappy job but s/he gets paid a lot more than you. Now, I’ve seen that in many EAW, especially those doing post-tsunami work.

    Now, where do I sign up to be an EAW with tidy salary and dank perks? Or, a local with an expat’s salary?

    • February 3, 2013 8:44 am

      Would like to talk you about this. i’m currently researching an article on the disparities of the “local pay scale” and would like some opinions or comments.

  22. March 26, 2012 3:26 pm

    Now that I’m out of the expat aid worker business, I’ve had a bit of time to reflect. Here’s a little blog-post action that touches on this whole debate . .

  23. Aziza permalink
    April 7, 2017 1:27 am

    You’re hitting at a soft target for no good reason. A lot of folks working in development had to go into major debt studying at a top graduate school for the honour of doing at least one unpaid internship in a hardship post-and probably multiple-before receiving the charity that is a small stipend, then being paid a third of the rate with no benefits compared to their colleagues for the same work as a short-term consultant. After that expensive and grueling barrier to entry, still dedicating one’s life to eliminating poverty? I think that deserves a decent wage and some benefits. We carry the weight of a neglected world on our shoulders, should that not be recognized and remunerated as much as any other profession?


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