Recently I read an article on the Guardian’s Development Professional’s Network entitled, ‘How can we fight inequality if we live as privileged expats?’ The gist of the article is that aid workers cannot promote equality when their lives in the places they work are hugely privileged compared to those of the people they work with. Now, usually I don’t really feel moved to make a comment on articles from this network, despite there being many well written, funny and cringeworthy-truthful accounts written there, but this one just… got to me. Not because I disagreed with its content; far from it, I think there is some element of truth in it. Instead it was its failure to present any solution or alternative. It merely seemed like a diatribe against the pampered humanitarian worker. As someone who has spent the last two months freezing in earthquake damaged hotel rooms and washing her knickers in ice water, I struggled to see my pampered existence in the same terms as laid out by this article. For me, the article summed up a bad habit that should be added to ‘stuff expat aid workers like’; complaining – usually about how tough their myriad of philosophical dilemmas are – without suggesting any practical steps to overcome address them.
I think what jarred with me about the article is its black-and-whiteness. The world it presents of humanitarianism is one that I have encountered in some circumstances, but certainly not in all. Yes, there are some agencies that allow their international staff outrageous ‘compensation’ packages for working in a country other than that of their home, however, there are plenty of circumstances where life is tough for humanitarians and they don’t have the creature comforts so ubiquitously inferred by this article. I think of friends of mine who have worked in South Sudan or in Ethiopia for extended periods of time; the ‘perks’ so lavishly described in the article are simply not available there – except maybe the Land Cruiser, but I would like to see them travelling through rocky desert in a Vauxhall Astra – even if the organisation had the funding (unlikely given these emergencies’ neglected status) to provide them for staff. Colleagues there were living in tents, washing in a bucket, eating what was available, rather than 5* hotels, power showers and foie gras.
If I think of my own experiences, my home, ‘household staff’, transport, and additional perks have been everywhere on the scale from tent-none-none and nothing to nice apartment-a (one) cleaner-a very comfortable SUV (handy, because I spent most of my 3 hour daily commute working in it) and a literally outrageous per diem, which I had no idea what to do with. The point is, there is not a ‘standard’ lifestyle for aid workers, and certainly not every deployment is a cushy as Secret Aid Worker makes out.
Yes, it is true that international staff enjoy privileges above affected populations and, perhaps more avoidably, local colleagues. Some of the comments for the article seek to find an explanation: that there is the need to ensure staff health (medivac-ing anyone usually costs a bloody fortune), welfare and security so that humanitarians can perform their roles effectively; that humanitarians like other economic migrants are – at least for some part – in the roles they are because they are professional and seek good pay and conditions; that regardless of the industry, there will be those that ‘play the system’ for all the perks that they can get. The second problem with this article is that it makes no attempt to outline solutions to these issues.
Our world is essentially unequal. Humanitarianism knows that, and hence theoretically at least bases all of its response on an assessment of need rather than your political, economic, religious or ethnic status and the equality that infers on you outside the emergency. To me, this article is raising the wider issue of ‘will it ever be the case that there will be equality in the world?’ I am not well enough versed on the political/ economic/ philosophical elements of that huge question to offer a solution here; however, I do believe that humanitarianism can do its bit to make the world a little bit fairer. Fair means ensuring that colleagues employed in cleaning roles for offices or staff houses are paid a fair wage, treated with courtesy and respect for doing their jobs. Fair means extending a comparable package of benefits (including medical cover) to local based staff as well as internationals. Fair means ensuring that wages within large international NGOs are globally set and adjusted for local economic conditions so that you know a colleague doing the same job as you in Country X, or even in the office 200km from yours is receiving the same reimbursement as you and the quality of your work is expected to be the same. Some of the comments note that funding is swallowed up in providing this fancy lifestyle to international workers, but if we want NGOs to have fair working environments, inevitably, some funding will need to be channelled into providing what could be termed ‘essential’ benefits for staff (e.g. medical insurance which is so often lacking for local based staff). Perhaps if we can’t be equal, we can be responsible and we can be fair.