How aid workers should dress: Do's and dont's

Humanitarian aid workers at a logistics center in Malawi. Photo by: Chris Daley / CC BY-ND

Aid workers are often overwhelmed during mission, from dealing with insecurity, navigating difficult terrain to deliver much-needed food and medicines, to completing piles of paperwork for project monitoring and evaluation.

They have something else to think about daily, too: What to wear during a mission.

Aid workers generally have freedom over how to dress. Some subscribe to comfort and functionality, while others place special emphasis on cultural norms — but almost everyone Devex spoke with about the topic stressed that aid workers, particularly those working outside their home country, need to dress “appropriately.”

What is proper wear in a tropical country where the temperature often reaches above 32 degrees Celsius? Could wearing a T-shirt bearing a pop culture icon be offensive? When is donning a country’s traditional dress considered acceptable and when is it considered impolite?

In Devex’s conversations with former and current humanitarian and development aid workers, what emerged was that there’s really no one rule on how to dress, especially as these professionals live and operate in such vastly different contexts — but some guidance from employers, a little research and contextual analysis and sensitivity could help.

Three aid workers shared their experiences with Devex, offering insights on how aid workers can better navigate this often trivialized but contentious issue.

Look around, seek advice

During her time as program adviser in Burundi for ZOA International — a relief and recovery organization based in the Netherlands — Gea Verhaar would close all her blouse buttons and ensure her skirts fell past her knees. She didn’t wear shorts or tank tops, and made sure her neckline was high and her shirts covered her belly button. On hot days, Verhaar would choose a loose cotton dress or wide cotton trousers and a blouse.

Her employer had already warned her about being culturally sensitive in her choice of clothing, but careful not to offend, she sought additional advice from colleagues.

Given her age, the 54-year-old lawyer told Devex it wasn’t a big of a problem for her.

But it may be different — or difficult — for younger women on mission, she said. Once, she witnessed locals gossiping about a young foreign-born woman who went to a local gym in tight fitting shorts. The woman realized her outfit didn’t fit the local culture, but had no other choice as her other gym clothes were in the laundry.

“Being offensive by the way you dress creates a bit of a barrier between you and the people you meet and deal with in your work. It does not create respect,” Verhaar said. “Why offend anyone? In my opinion, you are a guest in a foreign country, and offending local people should be the last thing you would want to do,” she said.

Verhaar wasn’t suggesting aid workers don local clothing, as that could put them more “out of place,” but they could be more sensitive to their surroundings, understanding that what’s acceptable in their own country isn’t necessarily the same in others.

“Just look around, wherever you are, and get informed by local colleagues as regards the dress code,” she said.

Sometimes there are expectations

William Finseth, who has his own consulting company providing advice to government ministries and private enterprises on economic development and trade, is a “big believer in comfort” — and someone whose opinion on dress code has changed drastically over the years.

During his volunteering days in Swaziland, Finseth’s “daily uniform” was a pair of flip flops, shorts and a T-shirt, sometimes bearing a picture of American actress Marilyn Monroe in a swimsuit. Finseth didn’t relent even after a colleague warned it might offend the local population, and not even after finding out shorts were customarily only worn by children there.

“It was so damn hot there was no way I was going to wear long pants,” he said, noting he would’ve worn similar clothing in other places such as Vietnam, where it’s too hot and humid to wear suit and tie.

But as Finseth would learn in his years of working in the industry and engaging with people from all walks of life, there are limits to this freedom.

In countries such as Egypt, for example, the business culture requires senior management in high-level positions to wear suits, despite the weather. And there are places where executives or professionals would wear their local traditional attire, but would still expect foreigners to dress formally.

Finseth once tried to coach a project manager in Cairo to cut his hair and shave his beard so he’d be taken seriously by the people he was working with.

“I was at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo when the guy [who was the project manager] was in the next office [and] I spoke in a loud voice to the Canadian Counsel commenting on the guy’s appearance,” he said. “I expressly stated the guy will get off on the wrong foot if he shows up looking like a hippie out of the 60s.”

The next day, the colleague showed up in the office clean shaven and with a trimmed beard. Finseth said the project was a “major success” not because of the changes the man made in his appearance, but it did help in getting the locals to listen and respect him.

Finseth is well aware of the potential consequences a cultural faux pas would have on relationships and future business opportunities. In the Middle East, for example, any offense or show of disrespect cannot be easily repaired with “acts of contrition and apology,” he said.

“The locals will continue to treat you with respect,” he said. “They will be polite and kind, but you will be completely cut out of the decisionmaking process and you will no longer have access to those in power.”

He believes leaders of international development organizations must provide staff guidance and set some ground rules for how employees should dress and behave, especially for newbies or those coming to a particular country for the first time. He himself has advised female staff to wear burqas in Afghanistan, sit at the back of the vehicle and leave all the talking to the driver when traveling in a dangerous area.

To him, the right clothing can sometimes spell the difference between life and death, or between staying safe and getting kidnapped. It is important to be knowledgeable of and show respect for cultural behaviors too, such as knowing which hand to use for eating when in an Islamic country, or snacking in private during Ramadan if you can’t follow the fasting period.

That may seem contradictory to Finseth’s earlier actions, when he defiantly wore his Marilyn Monroe shirt. He said his views have changed from when he started in development work, and when he set up his own consultancy, he saw the importance of staff understanding local cultural practices and what to avoid.

But he advised aid workers not to shy away from asking for some “comforts,” especially if the situation is not so rigid. He remembered how in Malawi, while working as a senior trade advisor to several high-level government officials, he felt compelled to wear formal attire in an office with no air conditioning while it was a sweltering 35 to 38 degrees Celsius outside. When the contract ended, a U.N. accountant asked him why he hadn’t asked for the air-conditioner the agency provided.

“I just about went nuts,” Finseth said. “He said, ‘you were entitled to one [air conditioner].’ I nearly jumped across the desk and strangled the guy right on the spot. [It was] a whole year of discomfort that could have been avoided.”

There’s no escaping criticism

On her first extended mission in Afghanistan in 2007, Jayne Cravens, an international consultant, researcher and trainer, was advising on communications for a U.N. program. She came across women aid workers who wore shirts that bared their arms, were too short and too low cut. One woman aid worker also refused to wear a headscarf “under any circumstances.”

She didn’t know how they were treated for their clothing choices, but Cravens said being conscious of what to wear is “true of anywhere” and that travelers — including aid workers — need to be aware of these differences.

“I am from Kentucky and I live in the Portland, Oregon, area [but] there are things I wear here that I don’t wear when I go back to Kentucky,” she said. “Here, the lumberjack look is absolutely normal, often even in the workplace. In my hometown in Kentucky, I’d get a lot of raised eyebrows if I wore flannel and jeans in some places — unless I was cutting some wood.”

In one of her international missions, local co-workers who didn’t get along with a female aid worker found a way to have her let go by complaining about her “culturally insensitive” attire at work.

“I think there was one local woman who didn’t like her, who felt like she was losing the power she had had, and so she rallied her co-workers to refuse to work with this aid worker,” Cravens said. “Their complaints about this aid worker were quite vague — ‘I don’t like her’ and ‘she thinks she’s so superior,’ etc. — but the concrete complaint they had was that, two days, she wore something sleeveless to work.”

Cravens has always practiced caution in how she dressed when out on mission. She only wore tight shirts and capri pants that showed her ankle tattoo at her guesthouse in countries such as Egypt and Afghanistan. When she wanted to try on a local dress — such as a shalwar kameez — she asked several colleagues first if it was acceptable for her to do so.

But no matter how cautious one can be, sometimes there’s no escaping criticism. While local colleagues approved of Cravens trying on the local garb, Western women who’ve seen her photos have criticized her “for cultural appropriation.”

For first-time aid workers or those on their first mission in a country, she advises asking colleagues on the appropriate wear, checking out photos online and seeking advice from other travelers on sites such as Thorn Tree, Lonely Planet’s popular travel forum. But, she warned two people could give contradicting pieces of advice, and men often give “useless” advice when it comes to dress codes, based on her experience. Their typical response: wear whatever you want.

“The men I’ve asked have never considered that women have to think about these things,” she said.

The definition of “appropriate” will change depending on where an aid worker is posted, but it seems staying open to suggestions of colleagues and practicing cultural respectfulness are two ways to avoid major clothing offenses in the field. Giving up on comfort when appropriate will likely be necessary to maintain relationships, as Finseth learned — and laundry day is no excuse to damage them, as Verhaar witnessed.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.