Aid Worker Voices

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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Maybe local aid workers could do most expat roles better and more cost-effectively

Maybe local aid workers could do most expat roles better and more cost-effectively 

by @arbiebaguios

Tom and I recently launched a survey that solicited the perspectives of national and local Filipino aid workers on a range of issues within the aid sector – in particular, the (in)equalities that exist between expat and local staff.

Arbie (far left) with colleagues in Mongolia.

Arbie (far left) with colleagues in Mongolia.

In a previous blog, we highlighted the ever-present issue of expat vs local staff salary. Our survey’s preliminary findings suggest that local Filipino aid workers think they are being paid less than their expat equivalent for doing the same work. Throughout the years, many blogs, articles and research have attempted to dissect this issue – and as the most recent Guardian piece from Tobias Denskus says, it’s complicated.

His article is one of the most nuanced ones to date to discuss this: it recognises the increasing ‘localisation’ of aid; highlights the changing dynamics of labour in our globalised economies; and acknowledges the pragmatic considerations of expat pay (being away from home, working longer hours, etc). I actually agree with most of what he’s written, especially with the crux of his analysis: “We need to think about how we can move the debate forward beyond salaries.”

I concur, so let’s.

Here’s my hypothesis: local aid workers can do most expat workers’ job just as well, in a more cost-effective manner, and in a way that maximises aid programmes’ ownership and accountability.

Although this is only a hypothesis – I do not have scientific evidence to back this up (yet), apart from my own observed and lived experience; and also, well, I could be wrong – and therefore would appreciate constructive discussions around this issue.

Now, let’s go back to the question from the survey: “Which statement below best describes your perception concerning any pay differences between Filipino aid workers and that of expat (non-Filipino) aid workers doing the same or similar jobs in the Philippines.” Key phrase: the same or similar jobs.

Screenshot 2017-04-20 13.25.28

What this tells us is that it’s not just that local aid workers are aware that they are being paid less than their foreign colleagues, but that they think they are being paid less for virtually doing the same job as expats. So, looking beyond why expat staff are being paid more than local staff, I would like to ask: why hire expats?

I pose this question in the context of the Philippines where this survey was taken: it is a newly industrialised country whose economy (per GDP) is 36th largest in the world, above Singapore, Finland or Luxembourg. Of course that is not to say that the Philippines’ level of development by conventional measures is at par with those countries – after all, it still has a high rate of poverty, high rate of inequality, low per capita income, and generally weak public welfare systems  – although this does give us an idea of the capacities that exist within the country. As Tobias wrote in his article, “Skilled professionals for project management, IT and creative industries are already in demand in growing economies across Africa and Asia, and the relatively small aid industry will have to offer incentives to attract and retain local talent. A new generation of internationally educated, global professionals with local language skills is sought in many sectors.”

Full disclosure: I am a Filipino. And yes, I’d like to believe I could do an expat’s job in the Philippines just as well. In fact, I’m an “expat” now, although I went the other way: I am one of only a handful of Global South citizens working at a large humanitarian organisation’s headquarters in London; I have worked in my current role for close to a year now, after having been promoted from my junior position. And this is despite the fact that I started out my career as a local staff in the Philippines, and I’m not even internationally educated (I only have a bachelor’s degree from a university in Manila – which, for non-work related purposes, I had to pay £200 for so that it can be recognised as equivalent to a UK degree)!

Here’s the thing: I am not an exception. I personally know so many well-educated, adequately-skilled, highly qualified fellow Filipinos who could fill – and excel in ­– “expat” positions within international NGOs in the Philippines. The country is especially teeming with eager, passionate, capable young people who are keen to contribute positively to their own society.

But the reality is this: international NGOs offer a pitiable salary compared to, say, the private sector. Now – in this globalised economy where people from both Global North and Global South alike want iPhones or aspire to backpack around the world – suppose you’re a young Filipino fresh out of a really good university: would you rather begin to build your career as a local staff for an INGO and receive a low pay, or work for a multinational corporation and receive generous compensation that affords the products of a globalised economy? For many of the Philippines’ competent young labour force, the choice is easy to make. (Although the good thing is, despite the pay differences, many still choose to work for non-profits out of their motivation to help others).

So, I go back to the question I earlier posed: why hire expats? I imagine that even if an INGO matches a multinational corporation’s salary for local staff, it would still be cheaper than paying for an expat. At the same time, local staff provide the added benefit of understanding the local context and culture; potential for greater engagement with target populations (instead of beneficiaries feeling “obliged to be grateful” to foreign aid workers); and greater ownership of aid programmes.

Then again, it’s complicated. The humanitarian sector is part of wider complex social, political and economic systems; at this very moment, I wouldn’t be able to say what the full far-reaching implications are if INGOs hired local staff for expat roles. I also acknowledge that in the business of emergency response (particularly in sudden onset disasters), there is still an added value from expats’ technical proficiencies.

But I am bringing up this relatively radical idea to highlight that contexts like the Philippines now have strong existing capacities (which I’m sure the many years of INGOs’ “capacity building” has improved – so if anything, those interventions in the past worked!); and that maybe we need to rethink how current INGOs operate in these particular contexts.  Maybe it’s time to imagine an alternative to the default configuration of what Evil Genius calls the “humanitarian ménage a trois” of donors, implementers and beneficiaries, to wit, where are the local actors in that?

One phrase from Tobias’s article caught my attention: he wrote that despite the increasing localisation of aid and the rapidly changing world we live in, “expat aid workers will continue to exist.” I can’t help but wonder: is he saying that as long as low-income countries receive international aid funding, then expat aid workers will continue to exist? Or is he saying this in a broader sense – that expat aid workers will continue to exist indefinitely?

As a citizen of the Global South, I am motivated to work within the international development and humanitarian sector towards the goal that aid-receiving countries such as my own will progress in such a way that we won’t need international assistance in the future anymore (or as much) – just like the US or the UK or much of the “developed world.” I’d like to think this is what my fellow countrymen aspire for, too. In fact in our survey, a slight majority of Filipino aid workers think that the aid sector in the Philippines is “very quickly becoming more ‘localized’” as opposed to continuing to be “dominated by international aid organizations.”

Screenshot 2017-04-20 13.22.18

And I hope our partners and colleagues from the UK or US or Japan or other traditional donor countries envision the same outcome for our society.

So does my hypothesis – that local aid workers can do most expat roles better in the Philippines – prove true? TBC, needs further research! But I definitely think it’s high time to acknowledge the changing, increasingly stronger existing capacities in countries like the Philippines, and have a frank, honest and constructive discussion about the international development and humanitarian sector’s way of working in the future.

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts!  You can contact me on Twitter @arbiebaguios or Tom via email or Twitter @tarcaro.

Note: Our survey of aid and development workers in the Philippines closes on Monday.  Very soon after that we will be doing some posts about the results.



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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Tweet explained

[updated 19-4-17]

Tweet explained

A few days ago I tweeted “Local aid workers more satisfied, perceive higher work impact than expats despite seeing compensation disparity.”  Here’s some clarification.

I based this statement on data from the survey J (Evil Genius) and I began in 2014 and more recent data from a survey focusing exclusively on aid and development workers in The Philippines.  Elsewhere in this blog I wrote aboutScreenshot 2017-04-18 15.25.31 the compensation disparity here and the job satisfaction and perception of making an impact here.  I put those two posts together and composed the tweet.  If you have time read these posts for detail and background.

One size does not fit all
What I did not do in the tweet -I am a symptom of the problem- is add any qualifiers and/or contextualizing modifiers.  Hey, with a 140 character limit how much you can say?

The bottom line is that I presented a generalization that raised more questions than it answered. My tweet added mud to already pretty charged and unclear waters, namely the issues surrounding the expat versus local worker discussions that appear to be a steady source of rancor –or at least discussion– within the sector.  Here my colleague Tobias Denskus gives his sage views. He says, in part, that “Aid work is professionalising and that will mean more opportunities for local workers and changing roles for expats.” Indeed, that the sector rapidly continues evolving, morphing and adapting necessitates continuous discussion, reflection and, yes, policy changes including within HR departments.

Here’s the deal regarding any ‘local’ versus ‘expat’ worker comparisons:  there is no ‘one size fits all’ explanation. Each region of the world and each type of aid/development environment is unique and needs to be examined as such.  The Philippines are not Jordan, Syria, DRC, Cambodia or the Sudan.  Innumerable historical, sociocultural, bureaucratic, and economic context dependent variables must come in to play in any discussion of ‘expat v. local’ disparities.  That there are disparities is a given, but again these differences are context dependent.  Two critical questions seem to be (1) why this is the case and (2) is it ‘fair’?

In response to the above Evil Genius added,

“I would also argue that motivations for working internationally, as an “expat aid worker” are a critical piece of the picture because those motivations drive assumptions and expectations about what constitutes “fair” compensation. And I would further argue that those motivations are shaped by one’s life experience, which in turn is rooted in where they are from in the world. It is not enough to dissect the specifics of the contexts that expats work in, but also where they’re from.”

I could not agree more. In addition to the variables I cite above, any thoughtful discussion regarding expat versus local anything must reflect that fact that neither ‘expat aid workers’ nor ‘local aid workers’ are monolithic, static, homogeneous or, critically, that their motivations are immaterial.

From top to bottom and in different locations -urban and rural- the complex array of personnel that is takes to keep any projects moving is staggering to comprehend, let alone make blanket generalizations about.  And as J points out above, the lived experience of any single worker (expat or local) is going to be complicated and involve many factors such as the stage in one’s career, marital/partnered status, children (and ages thereof), where ‘home’ happens to be, and on and on.  All of these factors come into play as the question of ‘fair’ compensation gets aired.

Indeed, the very phrase ‘expat versus local’ infers a neat binary categorization scheme which increasingly is hard to define let alone defend.

History lesson
One of the earliest serious discussions of how to address the compensation packages for staff from a varietyUnknown of nations was held in meetings among those who first populated the League of Nations a century ago.  It was in this context that the Noblemaire and Flemming principles were first articulated.  Here is a very pity summary of the Noblemarie principle, and below is one version of both principles.

The League of Nations became the United Nations in 1945 and inherited, among other baggage, these guiding principles.  This 1997 statement below from the UN/International Civil Service Commission gives detail and is instructive.

“ICSC noted that the Noblemaire principle had a universal focus while the Flemming principle focused on local conditions of service. It was therefore difficult to compare a methodology that needed to be responsive to local labour market conditions, which could at times be volatile, with a methodology that needed to respond to the application of uniform conditions of service on a global basis. The reference labour markets of the Noblemaire and Flemming principles were essentially different, the former being linked to the public sector of one Member State and the latter linked to the overall labour market of individual Member States. In view of the linkage of the Noblemaire and Flemming principles to different labour markets, it was to be expected that the resulting measurement of conditions of service would be different.”

Though what is described as the ‘aid sector’ is made up of many kinds of organizations, big and small, I think that at least one fundamental issue regarding ‘local v. expat’ compensation is articulated fairly well using the Noblemaire and Flemming principle language.

Does a ‘duel compensation’ structure have negative impact?
Research initiated in New Zealand by the “ADDUP  project (Are Development Discrepancies Undermining Performance)” lead to the publication of “International–local remuneration differences across six countries: Do they undermine poverty reduction work?”   by Stuart C. Carr and Ishbel McWha, Malcolm MacLachlan, Adrian Furnham in 2010 and this update just a year ago.  Carr and McWha-Hermann’s sum up their findings with this statement “…the fall-out from pay disparities can damage relationships in the workplace and thereby interfere with aid effectiveness.” 

I am not positive that our data from The Philippines supports this statement.

Whenever there are compensation disparities, it will be noticed by those on the short end of the deal.  This is not an ‘aid sector’ phenomenon.  Just the opposite, recognition of ‘compensation disparities’ even transcends our species.  Here is researcher Frans de Waal (short; 2:39 play time) explaining our sense of fairness.  If you can invest ta bit more, here is a longer version.

Yes, in one sense I lied above when I said there is no ‘one size fits all’ explanation.

Our data
So, back to the question, does a ‘duel compensation’ structure have negative impact?  In terms of the Filipino aid and development workers -as I stated in my tweet- our data indicates that they like what they do and feel that their work makes a positive difference in their nation, this despite recognizing -and some of them carping about- a compensation disparity.

As a footnote I’ll add that at my home academic institution there are significant disparities in pay between the various schools within the university.  For example, Law school faculty get paid, on average, much more than Arts and Sciences.  Fair?  Perhaps yes.  Faculty get paid in large part based on simple supply and demand; what the market will bare.  I may carp, on occasion, but not loudly.  I like what I do and I think that it makes a positive impact. And so it goes.

Dialectician’s prayer
In sociology we talk about ‘real culture’ versus ‘ideal culture.’   Ideal culture is what we say things should be -official documents like the US Constitution or the UN Charter, for example.


-Kenneth Burke, Dialectician’s Prayer

Real culture is how things are:  at times ugly, unjust, and a bare imitation of our ideals.

The question faced by any organization at whatever level is how to minimize the gap between the real and the ideal.  A tough and never-ending job, that, especially when it comes to satisfying people’s sense of ‘fairness.’

In the case of the aid and development sector, closing that gap means more discussion, more collection of data, more stories shared, and ultimately, perhaps, revised policies both within specific organizations and even sector-wide. Changes will not come about quickly or to the satisfaction of everyone, but just engaging in the process of articulating and then working on the issue is the least we can do.

Questions or comments?  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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Comparing Filipino data with (mostly) expat data from 2014

A quick look comparing new Filipino data with (mostly) expat data from 2014

In spring of 2014 25+ year veteran aid worker J (Evil Genius) and I launched a survey that ultimately had over 1000 responses from aid and development workers globally.  Most who responded were ‘expat’ aid workers, and a majority of those from the global north. The results of that survey were the original basis for this blog and my book Aid Worker Voices.  In this short post I compare the responses from the 2014 data and the responses now coming in from aid and development workers in the Philippines where we currently have well over 100 respondents.   For the most part I will present the ‘what’ and not the ‘why’, leaving deeper analysis for when we close the current survey in a couple weeks.

What difference am I making?
Though the question and response option wordings were slightly different in the two surveys, the contrast between the Filipino aid and development workers and our larger, mostly expat responses are dramatic.  The vast majority -95%- of the workers from the Philippines reported that their work makes a big positive (76%) or at least a moderate positive (20%) impact. Here is the data so far from our survey in the Philippines.

Screenshot 2017-04-12 17.59.23
















By contrast, only 46% of the expat workers reported believing that their efforts make a big positive or moderate difference. Screenshot 2017-04-12 18.00.57Demographically the two samples are similar in terms of gender and years of service.  So, how to explain this huge difference with almost all -95%- to less than half -46%?  I’ll leave deeper analysis on that until we have all the data and examine the responses to more questions, but my impulse now is to attribute a portion of the difference to cultural factors and another portion to the fact that, well, Filipino workers feel like they are making significant impact with their work, a clear sign of overall job satisfaction.

So, let us turn to that question.




Like what you do?

Another, more straightforward question related to job satisfaction is “Do you like what you do [as an aid or development professional]?  On the left below are the Filipino results indicating again an overwhelming majority -90%-signaling that they like what they do “a great deal.”  On the right are the 2014 results indicating a much less robust 57% saying they like their job to “a great extent.”

Screenshot 2017-04-13 12.57.23










So, why do Filipino aid workers appear to like their jobs more and feel that they are making a bigger impact with their work than do (mostly) expat aid workers?  Future research efforts are needed to (1) confirm the above and (2) to probe deeper into the ‘why’ as to these differences.

Why are you where you are?
A third question which provided an addition contrast had to do with why the respondent was in the aid sector to begin with.  Here are the results, again with the recent data from the Philippines on the left and 2014 survey on the right. As I mentioned above, the question and response option wordings were slightly different in the two surveys, but both offered a “help the less fortunate” option.  Of the three comparisons I make in this post, this one is more ‘apples and oranges’ than the other two in that there is a big difference between “other” and “None of the above.”  That said, the data offer big differences.

Screenshot 2017-04-13 13.03.54

Among the Filipino aid and development workers a clear majority -57%- indicated they entered the sector because they wanted to “help the less fortunate.”  The 2014 data show only about a third -32%- indicating the same motivation.

More to come
Describing results is always easy compared to explaining what patterns and differences appear.  As a mentioned above, some variation may be attributable to cultural differences, but I think there are other factors at pay. As is the nature of exploratory research such of this my hope is that these preliminary data can help us move forward in better understanding both local and expat aid and development workers.

Soon to come more thoughts on the ‘dual compensation’ issue.

As always, if you have comments or feedback reach me here and 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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Preliminary results from survey of aid and development workers in the Philippines

Preliminary results from survey of aid and development workers in the Philippines

The gap
Among the questions addressed in our survey is the much discussed pay gap between local -in this case Filipino- aid workers and their expat counterparts. Other researchers have begun to drill down into this question, and the work teams based at Massey University/University of New Zealand (MU/UNZ) provide very useful data and insights specifically on the question “Are Development Discrepancies Undermining Performance?”images

In a recent research note based on data generated by the MU/UNZ Project Add-up, Carr and McWha-Hermann said, “Expatriates are often quick to dismiss dual salary systems as a non-issue. But local workers told us a different story. They said disparities created significant feelings of workplace injustice. They felt less valued than their expatriate colleagues.”

Our current research in the Philippines is beginning to provide support for this statement.  As you can see below, most -77%- agreed that “Filipino aid workers generally get paid less than expat (non-Filipino) aid workers doing the same or similar jobs in the Philippines.”

Screenshot 2017-04-06 15.48.57So far most of the comments about working with expat aid workers is that it is a “…very positive experience.” That said, there are some respondents  who appear to feel acutely the differences between how locals and expats are treated regarding pay and other benefits.

One respondent was very pointed,

“Mostly, expats get paid like 10x higher than the local workers and enjoy all the benefits like free board and lodging, higher per diem when doing field work, and they can demand good and high class hotels for accommodation, but for the local they need to justify all this to enjoy these benefits. In terms of risk and security, during field work if it like dangerous, it is okay for expats not to go to the area, but for locals it a must to deliver your expected result even you are doing same job. Expats can hire good vehicle or they are provided of good transportation when sometimes locals should take the local transportation.”

The relationship
How do Filipino aid workers feel about working with expats?  Over 84% indicated that “I generally have a positive working experience with foreign colleagues.

They are generally happy dealing with non-Filipinos because, in the words of one respondent,

“Working with non Filipino colleagues is a great experience in my life because we share our ideas freely and we gain more knowledge from them and they are kind to us.”

I am troubled by the last phrase “… they are kind to us.”  Another said,

“Its a great previllege working on them … such an honor.”

Again, I am troubled by the language being used here and sense a pattern indicating a distinctly asymmetrical power dynamic. This survey question “Which comment best describes the way your foreign colleagues interact with you? gets to my point, perhaps.Screenshot 2017-04-06 14.48.12

As you can see to the right, well over a third so far feel that [foreign colleagues] think they are superior to local aid workers.

We have no specific data as to the research question cited above (“Are Development Discrepancies Undermining Performance?”), but my sociological instincts lead me to suspect at least a slight impact on performance.

As more data come in there will be more posts and comments. The survey will remain live for the next few weeks giving the chance for more Filipino aid and development workers to have their voices heard.  In the meantime my collaborator, Filipino aid worker Arbie Baguios, and I will continue reviewing the data looking for patterns and notable quantitative results.

An additional thought on the gap 
The question, “Is the wage gap between expats and locals a function of the market – or plain old discrimination? is certainly worth asking, but the answer will, I hazard, more complicated than a yes or no.  All organizations -both inside the aid sector and well beyond- struggle to determine what is fair in terms of compensation packages and then finding a way to balance doing what is fair and doing what is practical, and that may mean cutting overhead by minimizing ‘local’ wages based on the blind logic of the market.  The driving logic may be that the money saved, after all, can be used to provide more aid.  And, yes, some might argue, this is ‘plain old discrimination.’

So, to conclude on an anti-neoliberal note, a truly just world will never happen as long as we allow an acephalous, amoral (and, hence, immoral?) system to determine how most decisions are made.

Comments or feedback?  Reach me here and 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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Inviting an Evil Genius to my class

“They say knowledge is power, and incidentally the more I learn about society the more cynical I become.”
~Intro to Sociology student

“To think deeply in our culture is to grow angry and to anger others.”
~Jules Henry, American anthropologist


Using Skype to educate students about refugees
One of my joys as a university professor is teaching Introduction to Sociology to mostly first year students.  I talk about my research and writing when appropriate, and this term I have had my students read some posts on this blog, one or two having to do directly with the current refugee crisis.

Soc -J

Student talking with J (holding a copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit).

Just before spring break we were covering a text chapter on ‘global stratification’ and were asking questions about the staggeringly skewed distribution of wealth in the United States and around the world.  As I prepared for our class discussion a thought occurred to me, ‘why not invite an Evil Genius to my class?’  A few Skype messages flew back and forth between here and Jordan, where J is deployed, and it was arranged.

Below are the questions I sent to J, the man behind the Evil Genius brand, to help him prepare for our Skype conversation with my class.  I also emailed these question to my students and told them that they would be invited to ask J questions, as well.

• Where are you and what is your main job?
• How have Jordan and other regional nations responded to the influx of refugees?
• How many refugees are there from the 6 year Syrian conflict?
• What does a refugee camp look like in terms of size, amenities, etc?  How do people get food, water, medical attention?  Are there schools for the children?  What measures are taken to ensure security in general and more specifically related to GBV?
• What are the refugee’s hopes for repatriation, for going back home?
• What is the general response to our new (US) President and his views on cutting back on foreign aid?  How will any changes in State Department policies impact what you are able to do?
• From your position as an aid worker in Jordan, what does the future look like in terms of meeting humanitarian needs, both in the Middle East, and more generally around the world?
• What can a well-intentioned university student do to help?

During our 40 minute Skype session most of these questions were addressed.  As part of a writing assignment, I had my students respond to this prompt:

Monday we had a Skype guest from Jordan, [named] J.  He talked about the refugee situation there and about his organization’s efforts and challenges.  What did you learn from J and how did your experience in this class so far help you understand what was being talked about?

Refugee as ascribed status
Earlier in the semester we talked about the concept of ‘status’ making the differentiation between ‘ascribed’ statues such as age, race/ethnicity, and gender that you are born with and those that are achieved though life accomplishments such as college graduate or athlete.  In our discussion we noted that this dichotomy bares scrutiny, especially when looking at younger people.  For example, is social class ascribed or achieved?  You are certainly born into one class position -ascribed- but can later in life ‘achieve’ a higher (or lower!) social class standing.

So, where is ‘refugee’ status in this particular taxonomy?  Here is some of what my students had to say [used with permission].

This first one represents many and shows how much they learned from the short conversation.  J had made the point that providing meaningful activities helped lower overall stress levels and hence was a way to indirectly lower GBV.

Jordan Deployment 2017 121

Photo credit: J

I was really interested in what he had to say about what he does and about the refugee crisis. The first thing he said that really shocked me was when he said that his organization didn’t have nearly enough resources that they needed to be able to help the refugee situation. They are doing everything they can but they are very low on resources.  I had known about the refugee situation but didn’t know the facts that J went into detail about. He talked specifics about what his organization does to help and he talked about what the refugee camps look like. As he was describing them I was very interested to get a visual, so I Googled the camps that he told us about and was astonished by the pictures that came up. Their living arrangements are not the best, but they work. They are very small white shelters that house many people. They also try to keep the refugees busy. They have a soccer league that has about 60 teams. J also talked about that when people come to the camps, they really don’t see an end. They plan to spend the rest of their time at the camp until they might be able to go home. But the odds of that happened or them being able to go somewhere else are slim to none.”

This next one sums up the the reality check this session gave my students.

Jordan Deployment 2017 119

Photo credit: J

“He also described how large the camps were and the poor conditions that each family or group of people had to live in. He said something along the lines of “I guess its better than being shot at”. Our class definitely gave me a better ground to understand what he was talking about. We spent a good amount of time on ascribed statuses and this relates directly to the refugees. They did not choose this for themselves but were unfortunately born into this situation.”

Aid workers tend to see both the worst and the best of humanity, oftentimes in the same day or even hour.  When J related anecdotes about the resilience of some refugees they were struck.

J’s Skype call in class taught me a lot about aid workers and the current struggle they have daily. I learned from J that at the end of the day, humans have resilience to get through each day. I learned that there isn’t nearly enough resources available for those who need it, so to continue to work at a lost cause is heroic. I learned that refugees being refugees are their ascribed as well as master status. Knowing this, I felt more sorry for the cause and feel worse than I already do. Obviously they cannot help being a refugee, but living below the poverty line is insane and knowing what that budget looks like only breaks my heart for them.”

These next two sum up why I invited an Evil Genius to class.

“The Skype call from J really opened my eyes to the problems and challenges that aid workers around the world face everyday. When we discuss the issues they have in a classroom setting it is all words and paper, you cannot fully grasp the gravity of the situation they are in until you see/hear it from someone on the front lines. My experience in this class learning about the unwritten social guidelines and tolerance limits that form in every social setting helped me understand why emergent mafias and gangs fill the refugee camps. It helped me understand how the cultural differences between the Syrians and Jordanians can cause conflict between them, as a taboo for one culture maybe a norm for the other. Overall, I gained much more insight through his call and the problems he faces everyday by knowing and understanding sociologically the issues present and being able to relate to the methods uses to solve them.

Jordan Deployment 2017 118

Photo credit: J

“I have always been a little naïve when it came to the whole refugee topic. I knew that it was a problem, but I never really knew how much of a problem and how much people were really trying to help. I think that listening and talking to J really opened my eyes to the bigger problem around me and going on throughout the rest of the world. Something that I learned was about gender based violence and I thought that was extremely interesting. Another thing that I learned that I would have never even thought of was that while most of the refugees would probably one day hope to ultimately make it to America, right now that is not their main concern. They just want to remain safe and to get away from the violence. They want their friends and families to be safe. I just thought that the main goal for refugees was America. I think that being in this class helped to really broaden my scope of the world. There are so many people who are going through and living in a nightmare. We have to realize that there really are such different things going on in different places other than America. Not just the problem with refugees, but all over the world.”  

And, finally, this one concludes with a wise, sober,…and sad observation.

“As J described what was and what is happening to refugees it opened my eyes to just how big of a problem it really was in the world. The phrase that has stuck with me the most would be, “Its like they’re putting a band-aide on cancer.”- (Professor Arcaro). The fact that they are only able to do so much and that they can’t fix the main problem is just a sad situation and even hurts me on the inside. As I was thinking back on how this correlates to past class discussions it made me think about how social deviance will always be there forcing society to adapt to certain situations. That it is humanity’s fault that there are refugees in the first place.” [emphasis added]

Aid workers as heroes
As we said ‘thank you’ to J at the end of the conversation the class gave him a round of applause and afterwards some of them spoke about how much they admired J for what he was doing.  One student wrote,

“I am truly inspired by J and his efforts. He has dedicated his life to saving people he has no personal connections or ties to. I thought about this while listening to him in class and I was reminded of something we briefly learned in the beginning of this course: there is no such thing as doing something from the bottom of your heart. As humans, we are constantly keeping tabs on favors that we do for people, and that they do for us. I am not accusing J of acting on selfish motives in any sense- in fact, I am attempting to disprove the theory dispelling kindness. I believe that J is a testament that genuinely kind people do exist, who act selflessly without expecting anything in return.” 

I did not take the time to go into the issue of why aid workers do what they do and how most of them -J most definitely included- do not see themselves as ‘heroes’ but rather as ordinary people with a professional career doing the best job they can with the tools at hand.

My take home on this
We all have much to learn, still, about how the global sociocultural/political/economic system works. Did a Skype conversation with an “Evil Genius” do anything to move the awareness needle in a positive direction for my students?  I hope so.  As a parting comment J answered the question, “What can a well-intentioned university student do to help? with three short suggestions.

  • Send money to organizations that can make effective use of additional resources.
  • Become/remain politically active and vote for candidates who address global issues positively.
  • Consider coming into the humanitarian aid and development sector eventually.

I have faith that many in the class will follow his advice.  I hope so.

Post script

At my request J offered some reaction to what the students had written and to our class Skype conversation.  Here isFullSizeRender 34 what he said,

It was/is good to read student’s reactions. I can tell that many of them are challenged to think more deeply about some of the issues around refugees than before, and that is a good thing!

My time speaking with the class was mostly focused on the issues that many professional humanitarians face in the course of work. My book – MMMM – that they’re reading focuses on the toll that humanitarian work takes in the lives of humanitarians. Very different things. I guess if I could be granted a wish in this case, it would be that at least a few students actually put the two together – a deeper understanding of the issues, along with a more realistic sense of what it is like to be a humanitarian than is commonly protrayed in popular culture – and then may embark on humanitarianism as a rewarding career!

As always, you are welcome to contact me if you have 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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Putting out fires with gasoline

“Humanitarian aid work is more and more like firefighters. We are not the ones in charge of pursuing those causing the fire to stop them, we just jump from one emergency to the other, and that will not change things for good.”

-40yr old female expat aid worker


Putting out fires with gasoline
Just a short rant as I deal with my demented news feed.

The need for a coordinated, well resourced aid sector is, arguably, more acute just now than at any other time in history. The latest news from the UN  reports 20 million people- mostly children- are in danger of famine and starvation right now.

To be clear this is a human made disaster. War and famine ‘feed’ each other in a demented death spiral, continually, not just yet again.

These humanitarian crises are human made but, as the female expat aid worker notes above, those in the sector are just going from house to house trying to put out fires.  Could it be that they are -in part- using gasoline-laced water to out out these fires and that
gasoimagesline is the same that is powering the lifestyles and livelihoods of the neoliberal economy driven global north?

A call to action?
Going back through the data from our survey I came across this:

“Aid work, human rights instruments etc I think are most important for setting normative global cultural imperatives. “  – 40 yr old female, HQ based

I have argued in previous posts that if indeed [sociologist Emile] Durkheim was right in asserting that there is such as thing as a collective consciousness then aid and development workers are the conscience of our collective consciousness.  As such they should not just react to those in need but as well proactively work toward “…setting normative global cultural imperatives.”

Yes, summits are good.  Taking principled stands, such as with MSF’s withdrawal from participation in the WHS, is also good.   Establishing and urging the adherence to a sector-wide core standard is very good, but still surely reactive.

What more can be done to have aid worker voices more demonstratively part of the conversation about how we organize and live our lives?  Focused with the right kind of organizational lens the collective insights of sector workers could move the needle forward.  It may be worth a try, but I suspect there are few if any social engineers visionary or powerfully positioned enough to construct such a lens.

imagesA reason to professionalize the sector
There are many good reasons to continue moving forward in ‘professionalizing’ the sector, and the one I am suggesting here is to have aid worker voices heard at the highest levels.  I know that this is tilting at windmills, but if humanity has hope it lies not with politicians or CEO’s but with those who know the most about our needs individually and as members of this unevenly globalized world.  We need to follow our conscience.

May we all continue the struggle to ensure pathways to dignity for all, including ourselves.

To rant back click 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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Voices to come: still listening, commenting, and partnering

Voices to come:  still listening, commenting, and partnering

Though Aid Worker Voices was published last September, my work in listening to aid and development workers did not end with that benchmark.  Quite the opposite, in the last six months I have been in close contact with many interesting souls working in the sector both here in my home country and around the world.

Of immediate note are two major projects currently in the works.

Screenshot 2017-03-06 16.41.51

Local aid workers
My blog post on Zambian aid workers caught the eye of Filipino aid worker Arbie Baguios, and I am working with him now to learn more about the views of aid and development workers in the Philippines.  With a population of over 100 million, there are many thousands of Filipinos doing aid and development work, some for domestic organizations such as the Philippine Disaster Relief Organization (PeDRO), others for transnational organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and many even working in the CSR branches of private businesses.

Arbie and I will work to find out what these many voices have to say about the sector as it exists in the Philippines and report and comment on what we learn in the coming weeks.

Screenshot 2017-03-09 15.00.30

LGBTQI+ aid workers
Veteran aid worker Ryan Arias Delafosse helped to spread the word about a survey that was the basis for the chapter on (and blog post about) LGBTQI+ women and men in the sector.  Though that research six months ago shed light on man
y questions, we both felt that more voices needed to heard on a range of additional, mostly HR related, issues.  The new survey we are working on will be a collaborative effort vetted by Ryan and other industry insiders. Our focus will be on both LGBTQI+ workers and non-LGBTQI+ friends, colleagues, family, and local staff as allies.

Some questions we are considering include

  • How do aid workers handle visa applications for their wives, husbands, and partners when planning for deployment to
    countries with anti-LGTBQI+ laws?
  • In what ways is day to day life impacted both at work and during non-work hours and what are the risks -and rewards- in both settings for LBGTQI+ workers?
  • How important are non-LGBTQI+ allies? Are they critical for both emotional and physical security/sanity in the field, at HQ, and in life in general?  How does one know if they are being an effective ally?  What are mistake allies make when trying too little or too hard?
  • What functions do social networking sites serve for LBGTQI+ workers?

Second, revised edition of Aid Worker Voices?
In conversations with both colleagues here on campus and in the sector the observation is made that books are very ‘old school’.  As a professor at Elon University I have gone paperless in my teaching in the last six months, and am currently using an online text for my Intro to Sociology class, supplemented by hyperlinked readings, videos, and web sites.  All of my courses have been blog-based for the last half decade.

Veteran aid blogger and fellow academic Tobias Denskus and I have talked about the trend toward more multi-media rich platforms for transmitting knowledge, and we both see this as a more or less permanent change in how we consume information -even research- both within our academic fields and in our daily lives.

Perhaps no great loss to humanity, there may never be a second or expanded version of Aid Worker Voices.  Perhaps the best that I can hope for is that the smart screen writer who finally turns Evil Genius’ riveting story of Mary-Anne’s experiences in Dolo Ado (Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfits) into a movie will use my insights on the moral career of aid workers as deep research.

I can hear the St. George’s clinking in Billy-Bob’s now…

Stay tuned, there’s more to come.  In the meantime I can be reached by clicking 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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Why are you here?

Why are you here?
No, seriously, why are you right now reading this blog post? Inherent of what is this behavior?  What can you gain by investing a few minutes reading this post?images

I suspect that you visit any number of similar social media sites on a fairly regular basis for…the same reasons as you are here, now.

But why?

Some answers
The list of aid worker oriented social media sites is long, and in a blog post many months ago (“Using the Interwebs: networking and blogging sites hosted by or geared to aid and development workers”) I listed many ‘popular’ sites and offered an answer to the question I posed above.  Here’s what I said back then,

“All [social media sites] serve to affirm, inform, amuse and facilitate networking of all manner and, in some cases, to amplify snarkiness in an echo-chamber fashion. I believe that the sector is well served by these means of communication; the impact is a net positive. As humans we all have a strong need to feel that we are not alone in our experiences, emotions, perceptions and struggles, and on the whole these sites serve in affirming that we are not alone.  A sector that knows itself better can function more efficiently, one might assert. That said, the various moments of ‘vetting’ can get quite snarky at times and can contribute to self defeating cynicism in some cases.”

Indeed, that is the very premise of this blog and the book that came out of earlier posts.  You are here because the short time spent on this page serves to connect you to and to deepen your understanding of your ‘tribe’ or at least to those for which you feel some affinity. Gaining knowledge about those in your real (or aspirational) network can facilitate relationships and bring us together.

Many sites serve as a sounding board for HR related issues (Fifty Shades of Aid), others link together those who share similar ascribed and achieved statuses (AidMamas, Womeninaid, GAYdworker) and some keep us up to date with issues within the sector (Aidnography, WhyDev among others). Finally, there are some that just stimulate our imaginations while offering insightful and often bitingly accurate perspectives on the sector.  We’re looking at you, Evil Genius.

I must add, to be obvious, that all those team house, karaoke bar, and water cooler discussions serve these functions as well.   The two outlets -social media and f2f- are not separate though in many cases social media sites tend to be more “me talk, you listen’ (Aidworkervoices is a good example of this).

Another answer: evolutionary psychology and aid workers
Visiting sector-focused social media sites serves also to feed our natural hunger for gossip.  The premise of the evolutionary imagespsychology of gossip is that in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) knowing the business of others was a social and hence survival advantage, helping us to differentiate between friends and foes, those we can trust and those we can’t.  Wanting to know about the lives of others in our social network is wired into our minds and behaviors.  Though gossip has a bad reputation, it is indeed part of who we are.

So, investing a few minutes in a site called “Aid Worker Voices” seems like a natural and reasonable investment in time.  In any case, I hope you have found some value in this post and in this blog in general.

And that’s all I have for a Sunday evening.  Send me a note if you have comment or thoughts.  I’ll feel affirmed if you do.



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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An observation from SupGaleano, a ‘local aid worker’

Some (further) thoughts on the big picture
Unpacking the ‘big German philosophical guns’ in a blog post entitled From impact to transformation: Do-Gooders, Multicolored Saviors and development as lifestyle my colleague from Sweden Tobias Denskus points out that, “You can have ‘impact’ without social transformation, you can contribute to positive change while underlying social structures remain intac and you can ‘reduce poverty’ while inequality is rising at the same time”.


In a post [warning:  long read] turned into a chapter for Aid Worker Voices I give a theory based and somewhat detailed look at the observation Dr. Denskus makes.   I conclude that moving the needle forward permanently with regard to povery-related social issues is at best extraordinarily difficult and is indeed perhaps not impossible.  Human agency – 0, the inexorable algorithm of capitalism – 1.

A charge from Marcos?
Twice I have had the privilege of visiting  the symbolic home of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation o378099_747879691123_499699228_nEZLN in Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico and I have long been a consumer and student of the EZLN’s rhetoric, most particularly that of Subcomandante Insurgent Galeano nee Marcos.  To say that the leadership of the EZLN has a deep understanding of capitalism and neoliberalism is aFullSizeRender 32n understatement.

Their struggle for the rights of indigenous people in Chiapas and around the world is, in my opinion, unmatched in terms of intellectual rigor, methodology, and sheer audacity.

Are the members of the EZLN ‘local aid and development workers’?  Having spoken and worked with them and seen how their community meetings function I have so say an unqualified ‘yes.’

Recently SupGaleano argued  “If there are those who think that everything is the same and that things can change through elections, marches, tweets, signatures on or whatever the hell you call it — well no, things aren’t going to change like that.  We have to find new ways.  For what? Well that ‘for what’ is what we have to answer and we must once again draw the face of the [capitalist] Hydra, because it has changed.”  (found in Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra: I: Contributions by the Sixth Commission of the Ezln)

The Hydra
His point -that globally the nature of capitalism and neoliberalism is ever adapting and changing and, most importantly, has many ‘heads’ with which to harm humankind- is simple, compelling, and important.  Of course there are other forces at work, but downplaying economic determinism is, I feel, not an option.  Want to understand well, anything about modern geopolitics?  Follow the money

One example of this ever-adapting hydra is the increasing reach and impact of corporate social responsibility initiatives and partnerships.  The CARE-Cargil model is here to stay and will have deeper and more profound impacts in the coming years.

It is a point thimagesat many of us know but easily forget or ignore. All of us find it hard to communicate that understanding especially now is a political landscape dominated by narrow minded and ‘thin’ populism.  The reality is that too few people have the luxury of looking at the big picture because they are too busy existing day to day on a conveyor belt driven by a hydra that feeds on insecurity, avarice, and fear.

One aid worker put it this way,

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”

Our charge
The question for all of us is how do we deepen our understanding of the existing neoliberal structures impacting humanity?  Yet, even if we can ‘redraw the Hydra’, what then?   From the SupGaleano perspective the answer is to re-stock our quiver with newer and better informed arrows, the assumption underlying this tactic is that the hydra can be defeated.

But can it?

I gave my answer to that above.  What’s yours?

Feedback, trolling, snark or fan letters can be sent to 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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