Aid Worker Voices

Addressing the binary illusion of ‘expat vs local’ aid workers

“…today’s expat aid worker can be from anywhere and go to anywhere.”

-J (Evil Genius)

Addressing the binary illusion of ‘expat vs local’ aid workers

False binary
Very simple message here.

Bluntly put, the ‘expat versus local’ narrative perpetuates a sloppy false binary. In order to articulate our understanding of the world we all tend to shorthand toward generalizations that make sense in terms of our lived experience, most of the time unconsciously so.  We see and understand the world around us through the lens of our most recent experiences which most times are in a somewhat fixed in location.  Even the most learned among us default to overreachingly broad comments to make a point.

Color me guilty as well.

Badass sociologist C. Wright Mills

One antidote for this tendency was described in the mid-20th century by C. Wright Mills, an American sociologist who coined the phrase “the sociological imagination.”  Using this tool, one habitually takes the broadest appropriate view of issues both temporally and geographically. But the danger here is literally TMI, ‘too much information’ and thus tends to handcuff the thinker with ‘the paralysis of analysis.’

As discussions about the status of all aid and development workers moves forward we can do well to clarify our talking points, definitions, and points of view.  This, and ask some hard questions.

‘Tales of hunting’
That the narrative driving much (most?) discourse in the sector -including the ‘expat v local’ is dominated by
a global north, largely white and relatively privledged population seems apparent.

That said, this is being written by a global north, relatively privileged white male, so it could be argued that my perspective is inherently biased as well. Neither Mills nor I can defend that barb except to say that as much as sociology is a science and scientific knowledge is transcendent then, yes, with effort, objectivity, and clarity our observations can be viewed as useful.  But I digress.

As an aside, if someone responds that “all [aid worker] lives matter” are they are saying, in effect, “all lives matter”, and do we really want to go there?

Clarifying observations?
Of the hundreds of thousands around the globe right now doing what can be called aid and development work (and yes, I know I am driving some readers crazy inferring the two are conflated), there are many who defy easy categorization.  J (Evil Genius), points out that,

“Much of the local (and international) angst about expats seems to be grounded in some outdated (and often also ethnocentric) assumptions about who the expats are and where they’re from. When @TMSruge (low-hanging fruit example) rants on about expats in Africa, he’s not talking about the gazillion Chinese, nor is he talking about all the Filipinos, nor is he talking about all the Kenyans in Uganda, or all the Ugandans in South Africa, or all the South Africans in Mali. He’s talking about the white dudes (and to a lesser extent, white women because they seem to do more selfies)….”

What percentages of all aid and development workers from the global north fall onto one of the following three buckets:

  • Those exclusively doing work in their home country.
  • Those who work mostly outside of their home country.
  • Those who work exclusively outside of their home country.

Same question, but what percentages of those from the global south fall into each of those buckets?

Here is a simple 2×2 table illustrating my views on the perception versus reality regarding aid workers.

As J (quoted above) goes on to point out, any discussion of ‘expats versus locals’  “needs to be nuanced around the fact that today’s expat aid worker can be from anywhere and go to anywhere.” He goes on to say “… it needs to be further nuanced around the motivations and expectations of the various categories and sub-categories within the very broad “expat.” I suspect (this would be an amazing question to study… 😉 😉 ) that the reasons white Western people go into international aid work is different from the reasons all the Kenyans, Congolese, Zimbabweans, and Ugandans do. Which are probably different still from the reasons why Japanese, Singaporeans, and Sri Lankans so…”

I hear the J is working on a non-fiction book tentatively titled “Expat” and I look forward to learning from his well thought out insights that, I suspect, would make C.Wright Mills proud.  As someone who has ‘been there, done that’ more than most, I know he has a wide angle perspective worth a read.

Another false binary
That the convenient ‘global north/global south’ distinction is also a false binary complicates our analysis further.  Certainly the ‘gazillion Chinese’ mentioned above stress this distinction. One consideration is that most nations are not ‘one nation’ in many senses.  Though from the outside China might be painted as a monolithic whole, the differences between the perceptions, actions, and agency of the elites in Shanghai or Beijing and the rural poor in the Xinjiang region are stark and significant.

To even further deepen the discussion one aid worker pointed out that “…in my experience, those that are ‘local aid workers’ don’t necessarily know that they’re working in aid.”  She makes a good point and raises the question as to how all aid workers see themselves in terms of the ‘expat/local’ and ‘North/South’ taxonomy.  My guess is that a massive number would reject such simplistic and narrow pigeon holes.  Perhaps we -yours truly included- should as well.

Above I have addressed both the ‘expat vs. local’ and the ‘Global North vs. Global South’ issues in a way that I hope will raise even more questions and offer a small ray of light.  Clarifying what we are talking about -and then talking about the same thing with each other- is productive, and perhaps some of the above moves us in that direction.  For my part I will continue researching and reporting aid worker voices in general and more specifically on the whole topic of ‘ localization’, whatever that means.

Have a link you recommend that I look at, a reading suggestion, or comments in general?  Contact me.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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‘Localization’ and brain-drain in the Philippines (and elsewhere)

 ‘Localization’ and brain-drain in the Philippines (and elsewhere)

This is a followup post to one I wrote several weeks ago about what ‘localization’ means in the Filipino context.

Sobering to say, recent events in Manila and in Marawi are now testing the resiliency of Filipino culture and the mettle of the civil sector, including humanitarians. An even closer look at the response seems ever more urgent.  In the meantime, here are some further thoughts on ‘localization.’

The UK based Start Network defines the term ‘localization’ here as “a series of measures which different constituent parts of the international humanitarian system should adopt in order to re-balance the system more in favour of national actors, so that a re-calibrated system works to the relevant strengths of its constituent parts and enhances partnership approaches to humanitarian action.”  Their mission, in part, is to foster, “…a system that reduces the power of centralised institutions and bureaucrats and gives more control to communities and individuals on the front line of every crisis.” A ‘Grand Bargain‘ indeed.

I offer that perhaps the term should be not ‘localization’ but rather ‘re-localization’ or even ‘de-paternalizing’.  My point regarding ‘re-localization’ is that historically the Filipino culture -like all viable cultures- have many systems in place to insure appropriate response in times of crisis:  people pull together during disasters.  I discuss the sociological groundings for this observation here.  As for ‘de-paternalization’ I point to 400+ years of colonial and neocolonial influences that remain an integral part of the Filipino historical, sociocultural, political and economic landscape.

Getting into the weeds with regards to the Grand Bargain
Localization means building the capacity of local and national humanitarian aid and development entities, but these efforts are sometimes hampered by the fairly common phenomena of ‘cherry-picking’ the best and brightest local staff to work for INGO’s.  The Start Network looked at this phenomena and used the Philippines as a case study, arguing that recruitment and hiring practices of some INGO’s were undermining local capacity.

In the end their report makes sound recommendations.  In broad strokes I do think that ‘localization’ in the Philippines is (1) going in a positive and progressive direction and (2) can and should continue to proceed with all deliberate urgency.  Our survey data support these views (see the whole series of posts on this blog reviewing our data from Filipino aid and development workers).

But is there a negative side to ‘localization’?

A down side to ‘localization’?
In this hyper-globalizing world with fluid or non-existent economic boundaries ‘brain drain’ is a significant issue.  This is true for all manner of sociopolitical entities, all the way from small villages to nations.  Any list of entities impacted by brain drain certainly includes local aid and development CBO’s and NGO’s in the Philippines and elsewhere.  Brain drain in the Philippines is significant, with 10% of the population living abroad (the highest percentage living in the US).  In looking at this issue much emphasis has been placed on the medical field for good reason.

Brains and talent may leave the Philippines but all is not lost, far from it.

Looking at data from the World Bank, we can see that globally remittances have almost doubled in the last decade going from US$330 billion in 2006 to US$601 billion in 2015.

“Of that amount, developing countries are estimated to receive about $441 billion, nearly three times the amount of official development assistance. The true size of remittances, including unrecorded flows through formal and informal channels, is believed to be significantly larger.” [emphasis added]

The Philippines is the world’s third top remittance receiving nation with nearly US$30 billion in 2015, behind only India and China.  This sum represents 10% of their total national GDP.

Though the Philippine Development Plan hopes to curb brain drain the fact remains that impact of Filipinos moving abroad to work is significant.  No one knows with certainty the amount of money flowing into the Philippines every year from remittances, but if indeed this figure dwarfs that of all development funds coming in (see above), one has to wonder if, in the end, brain drain may be a good thing after all.

The tragedy of the commons:  everyone is making rational decisions
But whether or not brain drain is good or bad may be a moot question.  Both people and organizations tend to make decisions based on their own self interest, and, to put a fine point on this, if I am a young, mobile, highly trained and skilled aid or development worker the most rational thing I can do is to seek out -or respond positively to- job offers from INGO’s, especially if they pay more.  For their part the INGO’s are  responding to the very positive and progressive goal of having a diverse team employed that, well, are not all from the global north.  Making policy and practice suggestions like the Start Network has done is useful and necessary, but may not hit at the fundamental reality that the humanitarian sector is part of the larger global employment/economic system.

Final thought
Allowing for the open labor market to control the flow of workers -labor commodities- by an ‘invisible hand’ implicitly supports a neoliberal agenda.  The brain draining, capacity sucking, cherrypicking of skilled ‘local aid workers’ will continue, hampering the ‘localization’ of the aid and development sector in the Philippines and the rest of the global south.  This is so because most of us fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room that is the global economy which inexorably responds to the largely unquestioned system of free market capitalism.

Comments and questions?  Yes, reach me here.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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What is corruption?

“One man’s corruption is another man’s wealth redistribution system. I find it hard to judge others on this.”

What is corruption?

This is pretty much low hanging fruit, I know, and way past due.

Impacting how the aid sector responds to corruption
My simple thesis in this post is that as the entire humanitarian sector deals with corruption of various kinds, the Trump administration, a perfect example of what some might call nepotism, is providing a model -justification?- for other leaders around the world thus making it ever more difficult for aid workers at all levels to confront these behaviors.

The negative, unintended consequence of this US example is that it gives great support to arguments -at all levels, from the village to the Presidency-  that hiring family and friends despite lack of qualifications is acceptable. This NY Times story puts Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the middle of the Russia investigation, and provides an example of how nepotism can play out.

Why OK there and not here?
How does a country director anywhere in the world deal with the very simple and compelling question, “if is is OK in the US why isn’t it OK here?” Laws in the US regarding the legality of this apparent favoritism and nepotism in the current US administration are not clear, at least to some, but at the very least the past 6 months in the US seen behaviors modeled at the highest levels that lie in direct opposition to how, for example, the global north would have governments in the global south to function.

In the survey the J (Evil Genius) and I completed in 2014 we asked about corruption and many aid workers had some very astute observations. Here’s one:

This respondent, a thirty-something female, further critiques the development sector and waxes poetic about the nature of the human condition, imperialism and the fine semantic distinctions that arise when talking about corruption:

“In the organisation, it is bloated with money and many people simply gorge at the trough of development aid. I am thankfully removed from this in my field, I have little reason to interact with others in my organisation. I do see the old boys network everywhere, the British upper middle classes in particular seem to have taken over other organisations, such as parts of the UN for example. Corruption is endemic to the human condition however. Regarding the region (mostly Africa) – there is a fine line between helping ones friends and families and corruption, in some cultural contexts this line is not where we expect. It is imperialism to impose our values on others like this when we have so much ‘acceptable’ corruption in our own private and public sector. We should get our own house in order (for me, the UK) before we judge others.” [emphasis added]

Positive direction
This issue is complicated at best.  Perhaps what we need are policies -both internationally and in the US- which articulate specific qualification rubrics for making appointments of influence by Presidents and other leaders.  These rubrics would not necessarily disqualify friends and family, but would move in a direction where they would have to at least meet basic qualifications.  Simply having them go through any transparent vetting process at all would serve a very positive function.  Indeed, we need to ‘get our own house in order’ so as to better model for others.

Going one step further, perhaps there should be basic numeracy and literacy tests for leaders in general, but I digress.

Back to our regular programming soon.  In the meantime, contact me with comment or feedback.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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How the sector can be more effective in improving the lives of Filipinos?

“Put more effort and energy into localization and building the capacity of local NGOs/CSOs to lead humanitarian and development work.”

“Listen to the people always.”

Local Aid Worker Voices
This series reporting on a survey of Filipino aid and development workers is now extensive, with a dozen posts totaling well over 10,000 words.  Though each post can stand alone, I invite you to scroll down and read the entire series started about six weeks ago.  Our end point is getting near and a final ‘executive summary’ article will be drafted in the coming weeks.

Before starting these last posts, I thought some ‘35,000 feet’ comments were in order.

Cultural context matters
The efforts of aid and development workers are best understood through a sociocultural lens that takes into consideration -in equal measure- important historical narratives, global influences, and current political, social, and environmental factors.  Though not exclusively, in many locations the international aid sector can be and be seen as a colonial and/or neocolonial influence that both positively and negatively interacts with indigenous culture and civil society. The cultural impact, though bi-directional, tends always to be asymmetrical, with the host culture bearing the brunt of the change.  Language is a good example of this impact, and the words and documents that official business is conducted in tends to be that of the colonizer.  Not that it needs to be restated, but cultural context matters.

In the case of the Philippines this means taking into account four hundred years of colonial influence, first from Spain and then the United States, and noting how these influences impacted, and were impacted by, sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology) and culture.

Important in the Philippines -and certainly elsewhere in nations all along the development spectrum- is the important ‘third sector’ (the other two are business and  government) or civil society .  Along with one of the founders of sociology, Emile Durkheim, I find the elements of a culture that function as a ‘social glue’ to be vital, and this third sector is very grassroots based, with origins and manifestations in family, clan, neighborhood and village.

There are hundreds of thousands of community-based ‘third sector’ organizations in the Philippines, with more being started every year.  Below is a relevant summary that provides historical context.

“The basis for civil society in the Philippines comes from the Filipino concepts of pakikipagkapwa (holistic interaction with others) and kapwa (shared inner self). Voluntary assistance or charity connotes for Filipinos an equal status between the provider of assistance and the recipient, which is embodied in the terms damayan (assistance of peers in periods of crisis) and pagtutulungan (mutual self-help). The Western notion of kawanggawa (charity) may have been introduced to the Philippines by Catholic missionaries.” [emphasis added]

Comment by Filipino aid worker Arbie.

The South African word ubuntu, here explained by Nelson Mandela, can be translated as “I am because you are” and perhaps can be seen as parallel to the Filipino words above, pakikipagkapwa and
pagtutulungan.  Durkheim would suggest that concepts such as these serve to engender social cohesion and solidarity and these or similar concepts are likely cultural universals among pre-industrial cultures.  I suggest that a full understanding of how aid and development are perceived and can move forward as ‘local-international’ partnerships must take into account this ubuntu-like cultural universal, underlining the likelihood that ‘charity’ is a fairly modern and mostly Western concept.

So with that, on to our data.

Improving the lives of Filipinos
At the end of our 28 item survey we asked three open ended questions.  That deep into the survey only about 93 of the original 115  respondents were still active. On a very positive note, well over half of those chose to provide narrative feedback to our first open-ended question.

We asked, “As an aid or development worker, what are your thoughts about how the sector can be more effective in improving the lives of Filipinos?”  The responses below take on deeper meaning since they come from Filipinos who -at least on some level- likely embrace the pakikipagkapwa perspective.

Mental health
Many themes emerged from these data.  One speaks to a topic I mentioned in my last post, namely mental health issues.  Leadership in INGO’s and local organizations alike are aware of their need to minister to the ‘whole’ person, and realize that, for example PTSD will be an issue long after homes are rebuilt. Research on this topic is fairly robust, and this article, for example, speaks to not only PTSD but to Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) (“…debilitating condition characterized by a change of behaviors or emotions associated in the act of helping or wanting to help others who have experienced traumatic events.”)  as well.  Though the article focuses on nurses dealing with typhoon victims, I believe the main points are transferable to aid workers as well.

These two comments, the first from a female respondent, the second from a male, point to the need to keep mental health issues near the top of the priority list.

“The sector should farther extend the support not only financially, livelihood, but also on the psychological recovery.  [emphasis added]”

“I think that psychological conditioning through seminars/symposium will help the people a lot with their mindsets about how to go with everyday life. If they have happy/positive disposition in life, it can impact their activities of daily living with positive outcomes. Not just providing material things or what not, the sector can focus on improving the people’s perspective of life along with the provision of their basic needs.”

Deeper engagement with local communities
Several respondents reaffirmed the need to work more -and more intentionally- at a very local level, many offering specific advice.   The first cautionary ‘one size does not fit all’ comment is universally true, though the inertia behind proceeding forward in an ‘economy of scale’ manner is considerable because for big box organizations it often makes the most fiscal and bureaucratic sense. The remaining comments represent additional perspectives.

Always be aware of the local context in every situation. What worked for one area may not work for another.”

“Programs/ projects should come from the ground that should be culturally and context sensitive. Aid should be motivated by needs, and not by warehouse approach– this has been happening lately because ofthe expats’ wrong programming and reading of the situation, that is, they most of the time insist on what they think is ‘right’.”

“I hope there would be more genuine engagement with the communities, looking at people as not merely beneficiaries, but partners.”

“They should aim to reach the most deprived and marginalized, and address gaps.”

“They should listen more to their local counterparts and understand the context in the field more.”

“I think it will boil down simply to a bottom-up approach and not employing a one-size fits all solution to projects. Consultation is key.”

This last respondent offers some specific suggestions, addressing inherent bureaucratic challenges,

“Put more effort and energy into localization and building the capacity of local NGOs/CSOs to lead humanitarian and development work. For example, financial management issues (e.g., local NGOs do not have the capacity to meet the financial tracking requirements of donors) are often seen as a barrier to improving localization, so focus on finding viable solutions to reducing this barrier through a combination of less bureaucratic reporting/tracking requirements and capacitating NNGOs/NCSOs to better manage financial reporting/tracking requirements.” 

There are presently well over a half million registered and unregistered CSO/NGO and CO’s in the Philippines. The bureaucratic challenges to moving the needle in a positive direction along the lines suggested in this comment are, well, daunting.

Leadership:  tilting the power balance
This next comment speaks to the content in a previous post regarding to what extent are ‘localization’ efforts effective,

“There should be a synergy of efforts and close working relationship with the Philippine government and other development actors. The Philippines should also begin to take on most of the leadership roles in development as a middle income country.”

Surge response
This next set of comments  speak to the blurred line between ‘aid’ and ‘development’ and nods to the growing movement to strengthen surge response capability.  As climate change becomes more of a factor globally, but especially in typhoon prone nations like the Philippines, this kind of capacity building is key.

“I believe that strengthening the local aid workers capability to respond.. and strengthening the local community ability to prepare, response to disaster​ is more effective.”

“The sector can be more effective in improving the lives of the Filipinos by giving continuity of support after emergency phase.-> Developmental Phase”

Three legged stool
Finally, this comment, I am sure, will resonate with aid workers around the world, and perhaps hits on a key point when trying to balance on that ‘three legged stool’ oft referred to by my colleague J (Evil Genius), namely the aid sector, the ‘beneficiary”, and the donor.  Simple, powerful words, these,

“Programs should be made people-driven, not donor-driver. Programs should be based on what the people need, not what the donor wants.”

As always, contact me with questions, comments, or suggestions.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Security for both local and expat aid workers in the Philippines

Perceptions of risk security for both local and expat aid workers in the Philippines

Some background
Security has always been an issue for aid workers, and beginning in the mid-1990’s programs like Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT),  Hostile Environments & Emergency First Aid Training (HEFAT) and Security Risk Management Training (SRMT) have increasingly been in-house operations in many larger INGO’s.  Many organizations outsource this training to some well established non-profits, and there are independent training opportunities geared to the aid sector for smaller organizations as well.  Outside of the sector, media organizations and transnational corporations have parallel programs, see here and here for examples.

Despite training and a long term array of well intended actions there is still danger for both local and international aid workers that can become too much to bear. The most extreme example in sector history arguably being MSF pulling put of Somalia in 2013 after 22+ years of presence due to killings and kidnappings.

Historically the security situation in the Philippines is not quite as extreme as some other parts of the world where organizations have had to temporarily pull out aid workers, though changes in leadership and a recent influx of both drug related and Daesh-sympathetic organizations bears close watch.

The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) is a project of Humanitarian Outcomes, and has been collecting and vetting comprehensive data related to aid worker security for nearly 20 years.  Data  specific to the Philippines for the period from 2005 through 2015 indicate that locals are more likely to be targets by ratio of 5:1, just a bit lower than the aggregate data globally from 1997 – present where the ratio is 8:1.  Those numbers alone distort the bigger, more accurate picture, though, since there are many more local aid workers in most locations than there are expats.

A broader comparison?
Another factor to consider when discussing local versus expat worker risk is traffic accidents, one of the leading causes of death and injury world wide, and especially so in low- and middle- income countries.  Local aid workers frequently need to use local transport – not a NGO supplied SUV with driver- or have to drive sometimes long commutes to work, increasing their risk for death or injury.

There are other factors as well to take into account -diseases like malaria, for example- and perhaps any definitive study should compare overall mortality rates comparing these two populations.  Given the fluidity of the definition of ‘expat’ and ‘local’ aid workers -not as binary as most discussions make it sound- I am not holding my breath for those data to appear anytime soon.

But if we are indeed serious about having an inclusive discussion and comparison around the topic of risks to aid and development workers we can’t only focus on physical well being.  Mental health cannot be ignored, and rates of burn-out, work-related stress, sexual harassment, and a range of related issues -not the least of which is suicide – need be considered.  The rates of mental health related issues among aid workers is a a topic often covered, but most of what I found focuses more on mental health issues related to expats. See here and here for examples.

Our data from the Philippines
That organizations which employ aid and development workers have an obligation to minimize risk through proper staff training, safe facilities, property articulated and acted upon HR policies, human and material security infrastructures is a given.  Safety and security must always be a top priority. In our survey we asked two questions related to security, results below.

Equivalent security?
Local aid worker views regarding organizational efforts to insure worker safety were explored in this question, “Aid and development organisations have a responsibility to ensure that all their staff (both local and expat) are safe while doing their job. Which statement below best describes your current situation?”

The data are quite clear, with a slim majority -55%- indicating that, “Both local and expat aid and development workers have about the same security risks.”  What jumped out at me when I looked at the results was that none -as in 0%- thought that local aid workers got “more security support than expats” and 45% believed that “expat aid workers generally receive more support.”  These data must be seen in the context of our next question.

At risk
We next asked about perceptions regarding risks while on the job, “Which statement below best describes your perception regarding aid and development work in the Philippines?” and the data here were telling.  While a slim majority -52%- believed that expats and locals bore about the same risk, the remainder of the respondents were split, 27% thinking locals were more at risk and 21% believing the opposite, that expats were at higher risk.  Most survey researchers tend to be critical of their own questions, and this is painfully true of this question.  It would be very illuminating too hear why these Filipinos responded as they did and wish I could retroactively add a comment box for this question.


Gender a factor?
I was curious as to what degree the gender identity of the respondent played in to their response.  As you can see, the data do show that nearly twice as many -30% compared to 17%- males who thought that expat aid workers were at higher risk.



The ‘what’ and the ‘why’
For me the data on these two survey prompts raise far more questions than they answer, and again I am frustrated by the inherent nature -and purpose- of exploratory research, namely to raise questions.  In this case one main question is, ‘why a good percentage of local aid workers feel that the expats are at higher risk?’  I can offer conjecture, but I defer to the future when more -and more comprehensive- data are available.  In the meantime the data do indicate that (1) many Filipinos think that expats receive more security than local workers but that (2) well over one in four -27%- felt that local aid workers were at higher risk.

Questions or comments?  Please contact me.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Motives and impact of INGO’s: Filipino perceptions

Motives and impact of INGO’s:  Filipino perceptions

“International Organizations paved a great impact in one’s life.. it has the power to reform and help unfortunate people and save lives. It has an overall positive impact in the Phillippines specially during disasters like Yolanda 3 years ago.”

-female aid  worker, HQ based in the Philippines

Why are you here?
As a follow up to the last post discussing ‘Localization’ in the Philippines, here are data from two related questions.  This first one allowed the respondents to opine as to the motivations of INGO’s, and the results are pretty positive with the overwhelming majority -77%- indicating that “They have good intentions and genuinely want to help.”  The glass half empty interpretation, though, is that a sizable percentage -nearly one in four- questioned the motivations.  This question certainly merits  follow-up.

But are the INGO’s helping to move the needle in a positive direction?  84% indicated yes, agreeing that “Overall, I believe that international aid organizations have had a positive impact in the Philippines.”  Here again, though, is a smaller -16%- yet still troubling percentage indicating meh, not so much.

Soon I’ll add discussion and analysis, but for now contact me if you have comments or questions.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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“Localization’ in the Philippines

“Aside from local donors, the funding source come from the international aid organization. Genuine partnership between local and international organization is still a work in progress.”

-female aid worker, working for national organization (HQ based in the Philippines)


The Grand Bargain
How can we move toward a sector that is more ‘localized?’  With some fanfare this question was addressed last May at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.  Although some have stressed that The Grand Bargain  was intended for mostly aid work -response to natural and human made disasters, etc.- the language infers that there remains a blurring between ‘aid’ and ‘development’ work. One passage reads,

“Its purpose is to ensure that we are able to anticipate and prepare for crises, that we can deliver protection and assistance better to the most vulnerable and that we can restore opportunity and dignity to them.”

Within the Grand Bargain document policy commitment number 7 (of 10) promises to, “Increase collaborative humanitarian multi-year planning and funding” making it clear that progress will be measured in long term.

And so, looking toward the Philippines, one wonders what modifications in the relationship between the “big box” INGO’s and the local humanitarian sector will be apparent if (sadly, more likely when) the next season brings another Yolanda.

Although it is seductive to take a one country or region narrow view, the humanitarian ecosystem is global, and what happens locally will always be impacted by larger, global forces.  One analyst sums up the big picture thusly,

“The debate over humanitarian reform is one of money, principles, and institutional change. But for many organisations involved, these boil down to one thing: power – and specifically for local organisations, the unwillingness of their international counterparts to give up any of it.” 

Another speaks of the “Faustian nature” of the Grand Bargain and warns that local NGO’s better “Be careful what [they] wish for.”

Another statement in the document addresses the fear that the Grand Bargain is only about thew ‘bog players’ and optimistically presents the argument that,

“… an understanding inherent to the Grand Bargain is that benefits are for all partners, not just the big organisations.”

So, what of our data from the Philippines?  How is the Grand Bargain’ movement toward a more ‘localized’ sector working out so far?

Work in progress
What I see from the data below is strong evidence that ‘localization’ of the sector is, I’ll hazard, on course, with well over a third of the respondents -36%- agreeing that “Yes, the aid sector in the Philippines is very quickly becoming more ‘localized.'” If you combine that number with those who see change happening, but more slowly, you have a total of 68%.  That one third -33%- did not see any change is significant, and merits deeper attention. The data as a whole for this question may well be an indication that there were likely varying interpretations of both “change” and “localization.”

Local aid worker voices
This was one of several questions where we invited comments. The offering below is specific to the Philippines, of course, but what is said may be true of many places around the globe.  More progress toward ‘localization’, it is inferred, demands increased levels of governmental accountability and action.  Alternately, INGO’s with their support create governmental dependency.  Or both.

“The aid sector proliferates in my country because our own government consistently fails to address the many problems that beset our country. As long as many of our people are poor and remains to be poor, there will always be non govt devpt orgns who will be dependent on foreign aid and donations to fund their projects and to keep their orgns afloat.”

This respondent hits the dependency point directly,

“After decades of ‘partnership’ local groups are so dependent, financially and programmatically, to foreign groups.”

Why is the ‘localization’ progressing as well as it is?  This respondent had an answer,

“In my organization, at least, the benefits of having local aid workers is clear: better familiarity with local culture and language, greater likelihood of staying in the organization in the long run, etc. There has been a concerted effort to hire more locals from top to bottom.”

This last comment tempers the above view, pointing out that indeed ‘localization’ is still a work in progress,

“International aid organizations still have a long learning curve. While staff composition is becoming localized, key power holders are still expats and decision making is still with global HQs.”

Progress?  But how?
So, at least in this corner of the world -the Philippines- there appears to be some progress toward localization, but without longitudinal data we have no grounds to argue for any kind of consistent direction.  Perhaps another survey in a year would be in order.

My read of the data indicates there seems to be some progress, but one must ask ‘what factors, policies, etc. allowed it to happen?’ and also ‘how can this one specific location tell us about how to proceed forward in other locations toward the goal of localization?’

I am very sober to the fact that our sample of Filipino aid and development workers is very limited and that we have raised far more questions than we have answered.  More work needs to be done. More comment and analysis soon.



All for now on this question, in the meantime contact me if you have questions or comments.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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The local – expat relationship: its complicated.

“Expat dev workers, after a day or two in the PH, believe they know what’s bugging the country.”

-veteran male Filipino aid worker

The local – expat relationship

Here we continue to explore the results of our survey of Filipino aid and development workers.  Look here and here and here and here and here for our preious posts and here for our methodology notes. As we get to the end of our data analysis we will write one ‘executive summary’ report, likely in several weeks.  Our ultimate goal is to have the full results presented in article form.

How locals think they are viewed by expats
One of the main goals of our survey was to explore the relationship between local aid and development workers and their expat colleagues.  Here is some of what we found.

Most of our sample (64%) work directly with expats in the same office or space and the vast majority -80%- reported having “a positive working experience with foreign colleagues.”

Near the middle of the survey we asked simply, “Which comment best describes the way your foreign colleagues interact with you?” and 44% answered “They [foreign colleagues] think they are superior to local aid workers.”

A second question probed for an additional dimension of this same topic.  Nearly half -49%- of the respondents noted, regarding interactions with their foreign colleges, that, “They listen to the advice of local people and try to understand the local context/culture sometimes (emphasis added).”  Another 8% indicated, “They rarely listen to the advice of local people nor try to understand the local context/culture.”  In sum well over half  -57%- responded in a way that indicates they feel less than fully respected by their expat counterparts.

That’s the glass half empty view.  What do you see when you look at the data below?

So here’s what I am seeing from the quantitative data.  Filipino aid workers believe they are getting compensated far less for doing the same job, many sense that expats feel they are superior to them, feel less than respected by their expat colleagues, and yet, tellingly, the vast majority have a positive experience working with expats.

Some local aid worker voices
Beyond the numbers are the many respondents who took the time to elaborate on their views and opinions.    Below are responses to our open-ended question, “Please elaborate on any of your answers above about working with non-Filipino colleagues” which will serve to add useful nuance to the quantitative data.

One female working for an international organization with its HQ based outside of the Philippines observed,

“In the more than 20 yrs of my devpt work experience, non-Filipino colleagues generally receive special treatments from their local counterparts in the Philippines. [They have] bigger pay, better benefits, more security clout. Local aid workers has to be constantly on its toes trying to get them be acquainted in local situations to protect them. Foreign technical consultants such as scientists, engineers etc oftentimes feels that they are more superior than local professionals within the organization.”

A male doing aid/relief work wrote,

“Most of them travel in the Philippines in parachutes. What I mean is that they travel here without the full understanding of the context and culture. Without the local staff, they cannot deliver their work. But we, as local staff, are the frontliners especially on dealing with the Local government units and the communities. Our reports are theirs. Our accomplishments are theirs. Most of the time, local staff look at them as more skilled, more superior. They are paid way more than what the local staff receives.”

A few responses were very critical.  This local worker vents,

“Expats get paid way higher than local aid workers. It is the local aid workers who are doing the actual tasks. Expats consult Filipinos for technical inputs because they come here lacking technical knowledge and experience yet they grab the credit from the Filipino employees. The expats are the ones being promoted, and the Filipinos remain in the rank and file for several years. Worse, Filipinos are treated like slaves in their very own country.”

There were many positive comments as well, these two female offerings,

“My non-Filipino colleagues loves the Filipino culture and has always been open to the idea of discovering/understanding the local context of Filipino social issues.”

“…its a great previllege working with them such an honor.

Not final thoughts
There is so much analysis and parsing out of the results above (and the results to come) yet to be done.

What I am sensing very clearly is that there are more questions being raised than there are answers being given; such is the case with all exploratory research.  That said, my sociological instincts tell me that (1) there will be no complete set of answers forthcoming but that (2) the discussions about the issues raised will all have to deal with complexities inherent in all of the questions.

Yes, the ‘local-expat’ relationship is complicated.

I’ll have more to say about this post soon, so check back for an updated version.  In the meantime you can contact me here.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Some results related to gender and LGBTQ

Some results related to gender and LGBTQ

Though there is much more data to sift through, this post will continue to add more depth to the picture of what aid and development workers in the Philippines think about a variety of issues.  Go here if you want to learn about our methodology and the demographics of our respondents.

Background:  gender equity in the Philippines
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Global Gender Gap 2016 report the Philippines ranked an impressive 7th out of 144 nations, number one in Asia, and has a long history as a matriarchal society predating colonial times.  Just for comparison sake, you’ll find the UK at number 20 and the US at 45 in that list of 144 nations.  Holding on to ‘last’ place in the WEF rankings, currently facing historic catastrophic humanitarian issues, is Yemen.

Much has been written about the impact of gender in the Philippines, and though many examples of male-dominated macho culture exist (see the current President), much of the social, economic, and political life is heavily influenced by women.  Yet as the WEF report notes, there has been a global backpedaling regarding gender equity, and much work needs to be done, even in the Philippines.  The waste and underuse of the human resources represented by women is a global issue, to be sure, and especially in developing nations like the Philippines that are hit regularly with natural (and partially human made) disasters.  For deeper background on gender equity in the labor market in the Philippines go here, but you might want to have a doughnut first, just for some really deep context (at least from one perspective).  But I wander.

The impact of gender
Responses to the question, “To what extent has your gender been a factor in your aid work experience?” provides some evidence that males have it a bit easier on the job than females, with males (41%) reporting their gender has been, “Overall a very positive factor,” more so than females 22%) almost twice as often.  Adding the ‘very positive’ and moderately positive’ numbers for each, though, yields almost the exact percentages (51.72% females and 51.35% males). While no males reported that their gender was a negative factor, a combined 9% of the females reported this was the case.

Screenshot 2017-04-27 11.20.46

This female, 10+ year local aid worker, captured both the positive and negative with her comment,

“Working in the field, many times people have said it is easier for beneficiaries to open up to women which has been positive. However, there have also been instances wherein I have been harassed (aggressively but mostly borderline) by colleagues and counterparts.”

A similar sentiment comes from yet another female, giving us a glimpse into the cultural nuances in play,

“I think my role entails a certain kind of charm/charisma when reaching out to possible partners from both ends of the spectrum–funders to grassroots community organizers. I believe that because most of my colleagues and the people I interact with are male, they tend to be ‘nicer’ and give in to certain requests more to a female requesting it from them (typical Filipino culture).”

One male noted, “I feel safer, overall, when doing field work than perhaps some of my female colleagues. I am less likely to be a target, being male. I have not experienced any direct bias for or against myself due to my gender.”

How do these data compare with our mostly expat 2014 numbers?
Even accounting for the wording changes in the question, data from the Philippines does contrast fairly dramatically with our 2014 data as you can see below. Over 40% of the 2014 female respondents seeing their gender as an overall negative factor compared to only 9% of the females in the Philippines.  There are several possible explanations for this difference most of which are tied to cultural differences as noted above, but I think an addition significant factor is that at least while on deployment expat workers have more of a 24/7 work day, with work and ‘social’ life blurring together as compared to local aid workers who presumably can go home to family after work hours.

Screenshot 2017-04-27 12.22.48

LGTBQ colleagues in the Philippines
We asked, “Which statement below best describes your perception regarding acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgerder, queer (LGBTQ) aid workers in the Philippines?” and at least to me the results appear guardedly positive.

From the data, I get the sense that at least within the aid sector Filipinos are fairly accepting of their LGTBQ colleaguesScreenshot 2017-04-27 14.35.56, with 75% reporting that, “LGBTQ aid workers are accepted by most colleagues.”  That a significant proportion of those responding -25%- signaling that LGTBQ colleagues are accepted only by some or no colleagues is troubling and to me indicates that more focused research should be done on this topic.

I did break the data from this question down by gender and found very little if any difference between how males and females responded.

One female aid worker noted,

“In my country, acceptance of LGBTQ aid workers is much easier if these workers declare their gender preferences at the start of their work in the orgn. Hiding their gender preferences is oftentimes unacceptable as this is considered as an act of deception.”  Another wrote, “Gender is not a big deal as long as you are qualified to do the job.”

Here I posted about results from a smaller survey from (mostly) expat aid workers where a similar question was asked.

In my next post I’ll go further into the few -but suggestive- additional gender related differences.

Closing thoughts for just now?
These beginning dives into the data have been instructive, serving to underline the basic truism that “one size does not fit all.”  Each nation has its own unique history and current state of affairs, all of which impact how the aid and development sector manifests itself locally. The tendency to make broad statements related to ‘local versus expat’ discussions remains, but one must be ever careful, always listening for important cultural nuances.

As always, contact me if you have any questions or thoughts.




Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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Methodology notes regarding our online survey of Filipino aid and development workers

Though in the coming days we’ll be posting more about the results I thought it might be useful for some to hear about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of our survey work on Filipino aid workers.

Methodology notes
One of the weaknesses of the survey that J (Evil Genius) and I circulated in spring 2014 was that only 5% of the total sample (n = 1010) self-identified as ‘local’ aid workers.  After publishing a post describing a small survey of Zambian aid and development workers in February I was contacted by Arbie Baguios. We worked together to construct a survey the intent of which was to generate meaningful -but mostlyScreenshot 2017-04-25 15.42.14
suggestive and exploratory- data from Filipino aid and development workers.  Included on the survey were, with some wording modifications, some of the same questions that were asked in 2014.  We beta tested the survey with some of Argie’s Filipino colleagues and redrafted to the final version.  After securing IRB permission from my university we began collecting data.  The survey opened with a detailed explanation of the intended purpose of the survey and an informed consent statement.  All respondents were voluntary.

Here is how we articulated the purpose of the survey to the respondents as part of the introduction:

Being a local aid worker is not the same as being an expat aid worker. Working in your home country, local aid workers face unique opportunities and challenges. The goal of this survey is to hear your voices, so that your stories can be told. Your participation will help us have a better understanding of how Filipino aid and development workers view their own jobs, their non-Filipino colleagues, and the wider aid and development sector.

Spreading the word using social media targeting Filipino aid and development workers (e.g., Facebook, emails, Twitter), the url for the survey was made available, with the survey remaining open for just over one month, late March to late April, 2017.  Our’s was a convenience sample using an ‘open’ survey and ultimately yielded 115 responses.  There were 28 questions total, 3 open-ended and 25 closed-ended with 8 of those allowing for open-ended comments.  While only 31% completed the entire survey -the last three questions were open-ended- over 80% completed all of the closed ended questions.  The average respondent spent just over 20 minutes working on the survey.

By comparison, the oft sited Carr, et al research focused on 6 nations and solicited responses from both expats and locals with their sample size ranging from 150 individuals (Solomon Islands) to 249 (China). All said and done, the results of our modest sample, I believe, merit note.

Some overall results describing the respondents
Screenshot 2017-04-25 15.26.03Virtually all (99%) counted the Philippines as their home nation and the vast majority -91% reported having inside knowledge of the aid, development, or charity sector/industry.  A fairly young sample, 60% have been in the sector 5 years or lass, the remaining 40% more than 5 years.  Reflecting what appears to be the demographics of the target population, 63% of the respondents were female.

A big majority -78%- worked for an international organization with its HQ based outside of the Philippines and only 5% worked for local organizations with its HQ based in the Philippines, working only in a specific barangay, municipality, city or region.

Most -60%- reported that their home organization did a mix of both relief and development, with 16% reporting just relief-type work and 14% doing development (community development, poverty elimination, etc.).

More to come very soon including views on LGTBQ aid workers, dealing with corruption, and views regarding the future of ‘localizing’ the aid sector in the Philippines.

You can contact me via email or Arbie on Twitter @arbiebaguios.




Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying about development issues for nearly two decades. He is currently working on implementing a vetting system for community based learning (both domestic and international) that will ensure the highest ethical pedagogical practices.

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