The Unearned Advantage of Expats

Toyotas of a large aid organization
Toyotas of a large aid organization

On a blazing summer day, a locally hired driver in a post-war country was changing the tire in a Toyota Landcruiser of a large aid organization. We were going, together with an expat finance officer, to visit some village projects. Struggling with the wheel, the driver cursed under his breath, then turned to me. “So, I needed two university diplomas, one in economy and another one in finance, to drive around expats who have half my education but five times my salary?” – his disturbing question lingered in the hot air. I didn’t know how to respond. I was 30 and this was my first field job in a post-war situation. An expat job.  

Since then, I have worked in many international positions in “countries in transition”. In most cases, the posts of drivers, cooks, cleaners, assistants, secretaries, accountants, logisticians, interpreters and junior project staff were manned by the locals. In places with double-digit unemployment, few of them ever said they were overqualified for these jobs. Expats employing them seldom asked. The internationals came to implement solutions to local problems. They often saw national staff as part of the landscape, not of the solutions. 

There are many complex issues, such as the international-local pay gap, that require a broad debate and systemic, institutional answers. Still, expats can do a lot to create more equal conditions between their international and local employees. And much of it has to do with responsible leadership that puts people first. 

Also read: A.I.M. for Responsible Leadership – Aspire, Inspire, Make it Happen

Be aware of – and challenge – your own implicit bias

Refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. Photo credit: iStock
Refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. Photo credit: iStock

As expats coming to the “developing” world, we are often on a mission: to bring essential services to the poor; quality education to the destitute; democratic values to societies under autocratic rule. These very noble goals can come with a superiority trap: I am an international expert (add: white and from the ‘developed’ West), thus I know better what should be done. Then, if things do not go according to plan (which happens a lot in this field of work), we tend to seek someone to blame, and often scapegoat the locals. We hear – and repeat – anecdotes about the locals being slow, incapable or outright stupid, unable to learn and improve. 

Also read: The Makes or Breaks of Partnerships

We need to become more introspective about our own prejudices and ready to challenge them. Learning about stereotyping – and about the value of diversity – is a good first step to understanding and reducing our own conscious and implicit bias.

Equipped with this knowledge, expats have a responsibility to continuously take an active role in replacing biased thinking with more objective and inclusive attitudes. 

Expats have a responsibility to continuously take an active role in replacing biased thinking with more objective and inclusive attitudes.  Click To Tweet

Be open-minded, learn from the locals

Listen to local voices to devise solutions - social welfare South Caucasus team
Listen to local voices to devise solutions – social welfare South Caucasus team

We have all been fed with messages about “disadvantaged” communities waiting for internationals to bring solutions to their problems. When I was a young expat boss in the South Caucasus, I used to pass quick judgments about how things were done there, often with an argument “this is not how we do it in Europe”. Then I learned the local language and started hearing things that I would otherwise not hear – such as my national staff discussing two decades of hardship they lived through, and what they were doing to survive. 

I gradually understood that as an expat who did not share their experiences, I had little authority to judge their coping mechanisms. I was just a visitor. My local colleagues had much stronger ties to their own country; they had their families there, they were committed to local places. They had the contextual and cultural knowledge I was lacking.

When we opened our minds to learning from the knowledge and resilience of our national colleagues, we design better, more locally relevant programs. We have a responsibility to continuously get better at listening to local voices to devise solutions that are needed, fit in the context and enjoy homegrown ownership.     

As expats, we have a responsibility to continuously get better at listening to local voices to devise solutions that are needed, fit in the context and enjoy homegrown ownership.     Click To Tweet

Respect diverse skills and capacities of local professionals

Repacking aid supplies
Repacking aid supplies

I wrote in another post about an expat boss who tasked the national PhD-holding staff with repackaging aid supplies from large containers into small cardboard boxes. When international experts came for a debriefing and asked the locals what they had learned through the aid operation, they said, one by one, “I have greatly improved my packing skills”.

Also read: The “Bad Boss” School of Leadership

Like most expats in aid and development, I have seen local drivers with university diplomas, engineers working in distribution, graduates of law or foreign affairs faculties dealing with logistics and administration. In countries with few employment opportunities, especially for women, the locals often applied for any post in international organizations, regardless of their own professional profile. Expats who hired them often focused more on the applicants’ English knowledge than on other skills and capacities. Until recently, this status quo was rarely questioned. 

But in years of my field work, I have met many eager, passionate, capable people who were keen to contribute to their own countries. When I matched tasks to their skills and knowledge, I saw their confidence and professional engagement grow, and my programs became better.

Expats have a responsibility to acknowledge, and engage appropriately, the changing, increasingly strong existing capacities of local professionals.

Expats have a responsibility to acknowledge, and engage appropriately, the changing, increasingly strong existing capacities of local professionals. Click To Tweet

Invest in building capacity of your national staff

Invest in building capacity of local staff - master class on social protection, Kazakhstan
Invest in building capacity of local staff – master class on social protection, Kazakhstan

I often heard – and used – the leitmotif of international assistance: our (expats’) aim is to work ourselves out of the job. To create a situation where there is no more poverty; where quality education is equally accessible for all; where democratic values prevail.

This could only be achieved with local people who were empowered and able to carry out change. And yet, I saw in many places that national staff did not have access to the same training opportunities that were available for expats. Very few international aid and development programs I worked in included a dedicated budget for local employees’ professional development.  

But as I started investing in training and mentoring my national staff, I saw how they felt increasingly respected, motivated and empowered to take on difficult issues. Many of these people still offer their experience and knowledge to communities across their countries, way beyond my projects’ scope and lifetime. Some won prestigious scholarships. Others became senior leaders or consultants. 

Expats have a responsibility to make capacity building for their national staff a priority and an integral part of their programs.

Expats have a responsibility to make capacity building for their national staff a priority and an integral part of their programs. Click To Tweet

Be a role model of ethics and integrity

Expat leaders need to to model integrity and make ethically sound decisions
Expat leaders need to to model integrity and make ethically sound decisions

In decades of my field experience, I have seen more than I wanted to. A large group of expat aid workers in a post-war city getting dead drunk on the most expensive alcohols available in the only restaurant left standing, and then demanding a vaguely worded invoice for a “working group dinner” so they could claim all costs back from their agency. An international development expert boasting about “saving on cleaning and cooking costs” when his local girlfriend moved in – and quick to damp her the moment she became pregnant. An expat boss who went to great lengths to fire a local employee when she discovered – and tried to stop – his plans to give hundreds of thousands of aid funds to a phony company of his beer buddy. 

These experiences made me think what it would be like if the roles were reversed: if it was my country that needed support, and expats coming to help behaved in a way that was morally questionable and humiliating for the locals. And I know now that if we want people to subscribe to moral values behind aid and development efforts, we need to live these values.

Expats have a responsibility to model integrity and make ethically sound decisions that respect the dignity of those they have come to help.

Expats have a responsibility to model integrity and make ethically sound decisions that respect the dignity of those they have come to help. Click To Tweet

Never abuse your position of power over local staff

Expat leaders should never abuse their position of unearned advantage over local employees. 
Photo credit: Getty Images
Expat leaders should never abuse their position of unearned advantage over local employees.
Photo credit: Getty Images

In another post, I wrote about an expat boss bullying their staff into submission, or one who sent their employees – some of them young mothers – on a war-zone monitoring mission. These and similar situation had a common denominator: a white expat boss (usually a man) abusing his position of unearned advantage over local employees (mostly women). Needless to say, the national employees, afraid of losing their jobs, seldom protested. 

One of our readers commented: “Being a middle-aged, white male from the US insulated me from many of these issues. Merely having these characteristics, none of which were of my own making, gave me the power to stand up and challenge authority, and reduced the fear of unemployment if I did.”

Expats have a responsibility to make their local employees feel equally needed and safe as they feel themselves.  

Expats have a responsibility to make their local employees feel equally needed and safe as they feel themselves.   Click To Tweet

In the aid and development business, we aim to make the world a better place. We keep asking: “do we really make any difference”? As expats, we need to start by making sure that our own house is in order, that we are conscious about our influence on the lives of people we directly touch. We need to be more empathetic towards our national staff. We need to stop assuming someone’s professionalism based on their nationality. 

It’s high time to have a frank and constructive discussion about the responsibilities of expats – not as superiors and impostors, but as enablers of change that is locally driven and owned.

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