Are local and international aid worker disparities worsening under COVID-19?

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A local health worker with a Rohingya refugee at a clinic in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo by: Peter Biro / European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

BERLIN — As it became apparent how dangerous the COVID-19 pandemic would be, not just to the Rohingya refugees crowded into the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, but also to the humanitarians working there, Naomi requested her organization, an international NGO working among crisis-affected communities, fly her home. They did, covering the cost of her last-minute flight to the United States in late March.

Her Bangladeshi colleagues did not receive the same treatment. If they had homes away from Cox’s Bazar, they were free to shelter there, but they would have to make their own arrangements and travel at their own expense. If they remained in their positions and fell ill, they were instructed to call a government hotline to find out what health care was available to them.

Naomi, whose name has been changed for security purposes, who has been working with the organization for about a year, said she was always aware of the employment designations that exist within the humanitarian sector, particularly the distinction drawn between the employees who arrive mostly from Western countries, often for time-limited assignments and are called “expats” or “international” staff, and their “local” counterparts, drawn from the country where the response is taking place.

But it took the COVID-19 pandemic to reveal to her just how sharply drawn the distinctions between the two groups were within her organization.

“This is people’s health at stake,” Naomi said. “People’s actual well-being, safety, and security. Why are there things I get just because I have a Western passport, but the person who sits next to me doesn’t have access to?”

“When an unprecedented kind of global impact is being felt … there will be things that happen that clarify priorities. That clarify exactly who is, frankly, most protected.”

— Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology, Elon University

Her experience fits within a broader critique of humanitarian and development agencies for perpetuating neocolonialism through internal policies by tacitly — or explicitly — valuing international staffers over their local counterparts.

These concerns have nudged the sector toward more equitable remuneration and more systemic efforts to shift away from expat hires or align more closely with local NGOs. But COVID-19 appears to have exposed inequalities that still exist.

“When an unprecedented kind of global impact is being felt in various degrees all over the world, there will be things that happen that clarify priorities,” said Tom Arcaro, a professor of sociology at Elon University, who studies the humanitarian sector. “That clarify exactly who is, frankly, most protected.”

Not everyone is equal

The severity of the risk posed by the novel coronavirus left many agencies scrambling to put measures in place, both to secure their programs, but also to protect their staff. The NGO officials who spoke to Devex said they tried to introduce policies that emphasized equality, not distinctions.

“Whatever decisions we are trying to make, it goes back to our own values as an organization,” said Melly Preira, the HR director of Jesuit Refugee Service, which operates in 56 countries. “We were asking, ‘How can we do this while minimizing the risk of creating an additional stressor to the teams?’”

JRS has different staff designations — international, third-party national, and local — but Preira said that every person, regardless of classification, received assistance to travel to their home community to ride out the pandemic, if they wanted, with assurances that their jobs would be protected as long as possible.

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All staff have been trained and equipped to work from home, if needed, while also receiving access to psychosocial support services and to guidance on self-care activities that might help relieve their anxiety.

“When we talk about supporting employees’ well-being, it’s everyone,” she said.

Despite some organizations’ best efforts, differences in outcome have proven inescapable, either because of a person’s individual needs or the passport they hold.

Norman Sitali, the operations manager for Médecins Sans Frontières, said that when a member of staff falls ill, the emergency medical relief group’s policy is to seek out the best possible care, regardless of status.

In rare instances where care is not available in the country where the person is stationed, MSF will arrange for treatment in a country where it is. That possibility might not be available to some staff members though, depending on where they are from and what travel permissions they can access.

“That is a dilemma that is going to affect a lot of INGOs that are working in insecure contexts where resources are limited,” Sitali said.

In some instances, lessons internalized well before this pandemic are causing people to take risks their international colleagues might not. Arcaro, who is in touch with Bangladeshi humanitarians working in the Rohingya response said they were assured by their organizations that there would be no consequences if they decided to suspend their activities. Many decided to stay on, he said, motivated both by the impulse to help that brought them to humanitarian work, but also because they “do, in fact, fear for their job if they don’t work.”

Other people, lacking space or electricity, may simply not have the capacity to work from home, no matter what resources their organizations provide. These challenges reflect broader inequalities that extend beyond the aid and development sectors. Still, that does not mean those agencies can just dismiss them, said Arbie Baguios, the founder of Aid Re-Imagined, an initiative to encourage a reconsideration of how aid is delivered.

“I think the aid sector finds itself within complex circumstances that has led to inequalities between national and international staff and that it has to change,” he said. “And it will change, particularly if there is a strong will.”

Staff hierarchy

There is skepticism, though, about just how widespread that will to change is.

Stephanie Kimou was not surprised to hear stories of agencies seeming to prioritize the safety of international staff members at the outset of the pandemic, given that models of aid and humanitarian work are often rooted in looking to outsiders for solutions and assistance.

“Of course there is going to be a hierarchy of staff that has expats at the top.”

— Stephanie Kimou, founder, Population Works Africa

“There is an assumption that what is needed here cannot be found from the people who are here,” she said. It is natural, then, to expect internal policies to prioritize and protect those seen as bringing the solutions.

“Of course there is going to be a hierarchy of staff that has expats at the top,” said Kimou, whose organization, Population Works Africa, aims to decolonize the development sector.

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She warns that a failure by agencies to acknowledge and address these distinctions can undermine their own work, as communities recognize the disparities and distrust their intentions. It can also marginalize workers within organizations. Based on his research, Arcaro said there is an “awareness of differential treatment and resentment toward it.” That even includes the structural differences that reflect less any specific organizational intention and more systemic inequalities.

Baguios, who has been employed in both an international and local capacity, said, “people talk about it, of course they’re aware,” but he cautioned against stripping anyone of their agency or their professionalism. “It’s not like national and local staff are operating not knowing the differences,” he said, but they still choose the work for personal and social reasons.

The goal should be to meet their commitment with a renewed charge to bring greater equality to the sector, he said. And the disparities highlighted by the pandemic could serve as a guide for what has worked and what still needs to change.

That means quick efforts to correct some of the obvious imbalances, like Naomi experienced, but also longer-term efforts to localize their organizations, including putting more national staffers in senior positions and shifting where decisions are made.

Believing that “people are better served by people close to them,” Save the Children embarked on localizing their operations several years ago, said David Barth, vice president of international programs. “We started a mission-wide, agency-wide effort to really shift the centers of power from northern capitals to country offices,” Barth said.

There have been rewards in the form of greater internal equality and strengthened partnerships with local NGOs, he said, but also particular benefits in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Though Save the Children has had to reimagine its programs to meet various distancing guidelines, organizational leaders will be on site as those restrictions begin to lift, which might make it easier for it to pivot. It could also have a better sense of how to navigate the new, community-specific realities that the pandemic is introducing.

Ultimately, Baguios said, the pandemic might be significant in pushing the decolonization of the development and aid industry forward.

“Of course we should be critical of the status quo,” he said. “But things are changing and it’s not all negative.”

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About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.