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#66 Offices in VIP Neighborhoods

June 20, 2011

(Thimphu, Bhutan)

Expat Aid Workers really hate colonialism and disdain any sort of colonial behavior in other people or institutions — like mining companies, multinationals, the local wealthy, and China (especially China). But they do like having offices in big old colonial homes or newer homes located in the VIP sector of town.

Having an office in a giant old house rather than an office building is a plus for many reasons. To begin with, you can be sure that you’ll be in same neighborhood as all the other INGOs and UN Agencies. This makes it easier to coordinate meetings and luncheons with your colleagues to hear all the EAW gossip and find out about job opportunities for lateral movement without having to brave traffic.

In addition, these neighborhoods are built with the best kinds of gates and fences to keep out the riff raff. The EAW doesn’t have to worry so much about street children bothering him or her (those kids need to be in programs, not begging on the street! That’s why the EAW approved funding for their favorite SLoNGO’s Micro-entrepreneurial Opportunities, Self-Esteem Strengthening and Family Caring and Awareness Program for Children Living on the Street!) because the best US Embassy-vetted private security companies are already there keeping an eye on things, so if the INGO gets an office there, it can be sure to have the requisite high security that EAWs (the friends of ‘the people’) need when working in developing countries. Compared to a fortified compound, a well-secured mansion feels really homey!

(Sonora, Mexico)

Offices in colonial or VIP neighborhoods are normally where you also find the houses of the local elite, the top wealthy business owners, and the homes of government officials. This means that the roads are always the best, and problems with black outs, lack of internet or cell phone network and water cuts are minimized.  The EAW and the INGO staff, unlike most people in developing countries, have jobs to do, and so minimizing these types of service interruptions is really necessary to avoid drags on productivity. (Be sure you do not rent an office near anyone that people regularly protest against or you might have to deal with periodic interruptions to your work day.)

In some countries, having an office in the colonial sector affords a lovely view of the coastline or maybe a swimming pool in the back yard. In other countries, it’s right near the mall, the expat book store, the best expat restaurants and bars and the American/International School, making it quite convenient for social gatherings and getting the children to school in the mornings, especially on those occasions when the driver or the maid hasn’t shown up to work and the EAW has to step in to do their job for them.

The tree-lined streets that characterize many of these neighborhoods (save certain desert-y climates) provide shade so that the EAW doesn’t to expose him or herself to the hot sun when strolling over to the expat coffee shop to meet friends from other offices in the same district to discuss partnerships or joint work. The EAW will usually live in the same neighborhood as the office, or in a home in one of the other top neighborhoods, in a large house built for a different former colonist, or in a neighborhood of new constructions that offers all the amenities an EAW would expect, perhaps a neighborhood in a beautiful, hilly, fertile area that until recently was covered with trees and wildlife.

(Neiba, Dominican Republic)

Offices in old colonial homes or newly constructed mansions allow the director of the INGO to have a large office with big windows overlooking the well-kept garden or with a view out towards the sea (though unfortunately one of the windows may be partially blocked by the air conditioning unit, and all the ground and second-floor windows probably have bars over them). He or she can also have a private bathroom right in his or her office (helpful for maintaining dignity when experiencing stomach troubles).

The only real downside to having an office in the colonial or VIP sector is the lack of parking for the multiple Land Cruisers that support the work of the INGO. Luckily the national director has a special parking spot, and there is always a driver to re-park any cars so that he or she can move in and out, and the security guards are there to protect any vehicles left on the street in case any of the local thugs happen to venture into the neighborhood.

The office in the colonial home or newly constructed mansion may seem like a luxury to outsiders but, really, the comfort and convenience that it brings along with the rise in morale and productivity make it a wise business decision.

Note: Updated with locations of the photos on 6/23/2011.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Nunyo Business permalink
    June 21, 2011 8:02 am

    What expat aid workers REALLY like is to write snide ironic articles about the comparative wealth of aid workers; they they like to write them on their laptops from the comfort of homes that have reliable electricity and good security. They like to do it with the superior attitude of one who is “one with the poor people” in ways that those other rich expats will never understand.

    Oh, grow up. No matter how much you want to be “one with the poor people” you are a privileged child of a privileged nation. It ain’t a gonna happen, even if you set up your offices in the slums, arrange to have a third of your staff sick with malaria, and let all your equipment be stolen by local thugs. You don’t get to have “the authentic poverty experience” when poverty is a lifestyle choice.

    • Jane Smith permalink
      June 22, 2011 12:35 am

      There’s quite a bit of middle ground between poverty and excess. I think this post does a pretty good job of poking fun at precisely the kind of mentality that equates having a mansion with all sorts of household help in a VIP neighborhood with merely a “decent standard of living.” Plenty of people in the developed world are able to do very well for themselves in middle class neighborhoods, doing their own laundry and cooking and maybe not even having a pool(!) But for some reason (maybe the favorable exchange rate?), in developing countries suddenly that’s no longer enough. Now we can’t do with any less that a colonial mansion office and a giant SUV with driver. Obviously! Or the local political VIPs will never take us seriously and that would really lower morale and productivity.

      • Nunyo Business permalink
        June 24, 2011 9:58 am

        So you think that somewhere in poor countries there is a large middle class with reliable and safe electricity and water and good personal security that uses appliances instead of servants and prizes autonomy over giving someone a job? Never saw one in a poor country; maybe in middle income countries. Poor countries have two tier societies.

        As for drivers, most Westerners are ill equipped to navigate the anarchy that passes for poor country driving; don’t speak local language well enough to ask for directions when they get lost; don’t know the local terrain well enough to avoid really bad areas; don’t know how to deal with routine police harassment effectively; all the while their lily white (and usually female) faces mark them as easy targets for local predators. Maybe you are the exception. But what do you think will happen if you are driving and you are in an accident?

        In a poor country, you are a very rich person in a class based and male dominated society with massive poverty. Even if you pretend to be poor, the rich people will think you are not serious and the poor people will not be fooled. What is their life is just your exciting year abroad. Get over the discomfort it causes your self image and do whatever it takes to be effective at your job. Isn’t that why you are there?

  2. June 22, 2011 3:15 pm

    That top photo is the UNICEF headquarters in Thimphu, Bhutan. (,+Norzin+Lam,+Opp.+to+Bank+of+Bhutan,+Tshering+Sonam+Building,+Thimphu,+Bhutan+@27.474132,89.637311)
    Transparent practice would be to cite where that photo is from, so you’re not misleading your readers into thinking it’s China, which you reference in the first sentence of the paragraph.

    I don’t think a building of that size is unreasonable the country headquarters of a very well respected NGO in Bhutan. If you want unreasonable, you should look into SAARC Village in Thimphu…

    • June 23, 2011 7:32 am

      I was in no way implying that the photo is taken in China. The links all point to where the offices are located. But have added locations under the photos in case people don’t notice the links.

  3. Joe permalink
    June 22, 2011 9:48 pm

    Oops, the jig is up, Slate just published a piece exposing the wild partying practice of NGOs in Cambodia

  4. Bob Walsh permalink
    July 11, 2015 5:24 am

    This piece may well have been written in Yangon. Just about every aid agency or donor has its offices in a colonial mansion or a newly built monstrosity in the Golden Valley neighborhood. UNICEF is paying $100K/month to one of the military generals for it office, and DAI (USAID contractor) is paying about the same to General Khin Nhyunt’s family.

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