Jordanian voices on relationship between ‘international’ and ‘national’ staff, Part III

Posted on: May 21, 2018 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Jordanian Aid Workers

“The difference between the salary scales for Jordanians and expats is MASSIVE, not to mention the benefits. Expats get -in addition to their basic salaries, which is at least double if not triple what a national would receive- living expenses, transportation compensation -even though most of them live within walking distance of the organization and it’s the nationals who live far from the office- they also have their rent partly covered by the organization, and their utilities and bills paid. There definitely needs to be more of a fair treatment, specially if both employees hold the same position and the same tasks.”

-female Jordanian aid worker speaking about compensation disparities

Jordanian voices on relationship between ‘international’ and ‘national’ staff, Part III


In my previous two posts  (Part I and Part II) I have presented Jordanian voices on the relationship between ‘international’ and ‘national’ staff, and below extend this discussion reporting on a perennially hot topic in any industry, namely compensation packages and the ‘fairness’ thereof.

To start this post I’ll make three observations.

First, when people say its not about the money, they’re lying.  But they are also telling the truth in the sense that money is a marker for perceived value, and, unfortunately, I’ll argue that many of us fall into the trap of the failed logic that says money = worth. We all know that is not true, but baked into our cultures and thus our psyches is the idea that more is better, and that someone who gets paid more is more valued.

Secondly, and related to the first observation, is insight from ethological and evolutionary psychology research arguing our brains are wired to recognize and to react to unfairness.  Frans de Waal’s short video linked here tells the story.  Seeking fairness is literally woven into our psyche.

Thirdly, in a world dominated by capitalism and neoliberalism, compensation packages are going to be determined for the most part by two factors.  (1) Everything -including labor – is going to be compensated and valued as determined by the intersection of the supply curve and the demand curve. (2) Trumping the supply/demand factor is -and my choice of words was obviously intentional and a comment on the current US leadership- the greed and power factor where the ultra rich and powerful make the rules, including the ones on compensation.  The distribution of wealth in the US is not ‘fair’ just as globally wealth distribution is not ‘fair.’  Not by a long shot.

That playing field is tilted is not in question.

The question is we need to face is how do we respond to this reality with compassion, understanding, and a desire to proactively address disparities -whenever possible- that are overtly egregious and can be addressed by purposeful and thoughtful policy changes.  Dealing with the relationship issues between international and nation staff can be difficult, especially when talking about money.

That said, there are some very good insights from within the sector that can help guide us forward.  For starters, I recommend a close reading of this essay by my colleague J. One suggestion he makes is happening in the sector now, though not as quickly as it could, namely create more pathways so that “…national staff become international staff; locals themselves become expats.”

A partial history of the compensation disparity issue
A year ago when I was commenting on data from my survey of Filipino aid workers I included a good deal of research and comment about the compensation disparity issue.  In one post I sketched out part of the history underlying this disparity.

In short, there are two competing models when compensating staff in transnational/mixed national contexts. The so-called Noblemaire principle states that the organization (e.g., UNHCR) should pay everyone -be they national staff or internationals- the same based on the benchmark nation’s compensation structure. The Flemming principle side of the argument is just the opposite, directing organizations to compensate competitive with the local or national standards, as in the “conditions of employment are based on best prevailing local conditions.”

As the decades have passed, most large organizations have opted for a hybrid of these two models, most tilting distinctly in the direction of the Flemming principle, thus nodding to the pressure from donor entities to keep overhead costs down, in this case compensation packages.

As Kurt Vonnegut told us long ago, and so it goes.

Jordanian views on compensation disparities
The question asked was, “Which statement below best describes your opinion concerning pay and benefit differences between Jordanian humanitarian aid workers and that of international humanitarian aid workers doing the same or similar jobs in Jordan?”  Based on anecdotal information I learned from one on one interviews and from my Filipino research, the results were not surprising.  Most Jordanians -a full 75%- believed that international workers were getting paid more for doing the same job.  There was a gender difference in these numbers with 82% of the females checking that response and ‘only’ 62% of the males indicating same. As a note of comparison, in the data from the same question asked of Filipino aid workers, just slightly more -77%- believed internationals were paid more than locals for doing the same job.

Of all the questions on the survey, this one generated the most comments, many having the predictable theme ‘it’s not fair.’  The comment section on the survey directed them, “If you believe that international colleagues are compensated more that locals do you feel that difference is justified?”

Here are just a few responses.

“Of course it’s not justified. I’ve met local humanitarian workers who have excellent experience (equals or even exceeds that of international colleagues) yet they’re limited with the pay and benefits they receive. The benefits that the international humanitarian workers get are unjustified, at the end they’re supposed to be working to aid those whom are less fortunate, isn’t a big salary supposed to be enough? Why do they get transportation compensation? International health insurance instead of local? Housing? Per-diems? Great pension plans? Local people are living in the same country and are going through the same living circumstances (in terms of rent, housing, food, etc.) but they do get half of the basic salary and 0 benefits despite their experience or their knowledge. Worst part is that international colleagues constantly comment on the salaries of the locals and say that salaries are “higher” than the average salaries of Jordanian companies, as if locals should be grateful and appreciative because they got the opportunity to get paid this much, as if locals don’t deserve such salaries but international “expertise” does!”

“No, I don’t think it’s justified. I think it’s unfair. If a Jordanian is doing his job as good or even better than an expact, they should be making as much or more.”

“The diffirence is certainly not justified. The fact that international staff need to get per diems for every day they spend in Jordan, get free houses, get their children to be sent to best schools in Jordan for free means that the international staff has all their expenses in Jordan covered and then they have their extremely high salaries at the end of the month to save or spend on luxuries Jordanian staff cannot afford. This reinforces the idea that international staff are doing Jordanians a favor in being in Jordan and doing their jobs. Of course, held up to scrutiny, thier competencies or the lack of it thereof don’t matter much in this scheme.”

“Jordan is not a war zone, and life standards are good, so the expats are not actually putting their life under risk or compromising their life standards. Therefore, the additional benefits are not justified at all.”

To state the obvious, the data support the observation that Jordanians perceive a a compensation inequality between nationals and internationals and most feel that this disparity is unfair.

The data in this section of the survey paints a negative picture of the relationship between ‘expats’ and ‘locals’ that I suspect may not be the case in many organizational settings, though the voices reported must be heard.  What I see from my academic seat is a slow move toward wanting a more Noblemaire-like compensation structure where expats and nationals get compensated the same, but that movement is slowed by the blind rationale driving all organizations, namely minimizing the bottom line at all costs.

As always, please email me if you have an comments or questions.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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