Tweet explained

Posted on: April 18, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Filipino Aid Workers

[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 a 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 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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:


Comments are closed.