#47 Not being “that kind” of Expat Aid Worker
The general public in most countries knows the stereotypical Expat Aid Worker. These are the foreigners who wear outdoorswear or try to dress in local garb. They ride around in SUVs with personal drivers. They have giant houses up on the hill (or in the gated community) with killer landscaping, servants and guards. Their children go to International Schools and play high-class sports. They make huge salaries and still moan about paying their household help a living wage. They spend all their time at the office and barely make it to ‘the field’. They mangle local languages and keep the fancy supermarkets, bars, hotels and restaurants in business….
But it just might surprise the public that “localish” EAWs who live completely different lifestyles do actually exist. They often get together with each other and their local friends and show their pride at not being that kind of Expat Aid Worker (eg., the kind that everyone expects them to be). They are very proud of their vow of poverty and their lifestyle choice.
They often marry locals and live in rural communities or middle-class neighborhoods in the capital rather than in a mansion on a hill. They can be seen purchasing food at local markets and looking for clothing at local shops or used clothing stalls. They may have more local friends than EAW friends, and you might see them using public transportation or even walking places. They might nonchalantly mention taking cold bucket baths or having to carry water. They may even send their children to local private (or public!) schools rather than to the International School or the American School.
These are the EAWs who speak the local language fluently. They live pretty much like a regular person in a developing country. They work with local NGOs or at INGOs making local salaries. They (or if male, chances are it’s their wife) probably wash their own clothes by hand and hang them to dry outside on a clothesline. They don’t get per diem or emergency allowances or hardship salaries or special treatment. They bargain with taxi drivers in the local language and on principle because, dammit, they want that taxi driver to know that they are localish EAWs, not typical ones.
These EAWs will demonstrate their pride at not being that kind of Expat Aid Worker whenever possible. It shows their moral superiority.
Localish EAWs make the fancier variety of EAW uncomfortable — and vice versa. They hold themselves aloft and feel a certain saintliness, a ruggedness (a badassness) at their abilities to “go native” and “live natively” and circulate “like a local”. They openly wonder why the other EAWs need to have all the amenities of EAW living in order to be happy. What? Are they weak? Racist? Neo-colonizers? They look down on the international salaries, the maids, the guards, the personal drivers, the Land Cruisers, the expensive private schools. They feel that being one with the people is a necessary condition in order to be able to really make a difference. It’s all about solidarity.
Well, until they’ve been at it for several years — proudly not fitting in with typical EAWs, yet at the same time feeling somehow left out. Then comes the day when they start worrying about their future or their children’s education. They wonder if taking that voluntary vow of poverty is really worth it. They watch their fancy EAW friends take kick-ass R&R vacations that they can’t afford. They wonder what the point is of doing all that cooking and housework when they could just hire someone — it would help the local economy (just think of how many people they could hire at the house if they earned a better salary) and they would spend more time with the family in addition to being able to do their jobs for more hours in the day!
They know that they can handle earning a lot of money and having additional privileges without compromising their values. It’s not really selling out – they’ve paid their dues. After all, every local NGO director they know is earning a pretty healthy salary. We’re talking professionalization of the field of development work here, and professionalization necessarily comes with a certain salary level. Not to mention that they are doing the same amount of work as the fancy EAWs with the fancy salaries, and it’s not really fair to get paid so much less. And anyway, it is pretty paternalistic (or something) to stay forever poor, because that is kind of like assuming that everyone else should stay forever poor, and in this business of alleviating poverty, that really doesn’t make a lot of sense. All the locals want to earn a decent living; so if you think about it, it is actually pretty insulting and patronizing to play poor when you really don’t have to, to not take advantage of the opportunities in front of you.
So the localish EAW will decide to go for that UN job or that International Position that pays 8 times what they currently earn. They know they won’t sell out. They will keep their down home value system. They are only going to do this for a little while, to save up some money, and that tidy salary and those dank perks will not make them lose their souls…. They will continue to wear the veneer of the localish EAW; they will maintain their self-righteousness — they get to have it both ways, because they used to live like locals so they know what it’s like. They will keep their field cred, for sure — they’ve earned it. Just don’t ever call them out on their shift over to the dark side, because they will never admit to becoming that kind of EAW. In their own minds; this is just a temporary hiatus, a well-deserved break, part of the natural learning and maturation process. And anyway, in EAW culture it’s rude to talk about those things openly.