Should aid workers lead comfortable lives?

In May last year a friend lent me their jeep while they went home to Australia for a holiday. Large and white, it was a development archetype – one of the famed vehicles that signal the arrival of aid workers everywhere on Earth. It was also a god-send. At the time I was in the process of organising permissions for my PhD research, which meant shuttling from office to office and from one end of town to the other. I had been travelling by bus, taxi and on foot, which was rapidly wearing me out. Upon the arrival of the jeep, slow, stop-start commutes were replaced by air-conditioned travel into town in under 10 minutes. Hillside suburbs were now easily accessible and, all of a sudden, I could get several things done in a morning.

And yet, at the same time the jeep created barriers. Instead of saying good morning to the street sellers who I walked past on the way to the bus stop, I now trundled past them encased in a vehicle they could never afford. I’m not going to pretend that before the jeep I was living as the locals do. I wasn’t. But, for all the comfort it brought, my newfound private motor vehicle did, at the very least, contribute to the gulf that existed between my life and theirs.

Nowadays, I’m back on the bus, with all the additional tiredness that this brings to my life, but I was reminded of my jeep driving days when reading of the recent furore associated with Oxfam closing the pool in its guesthouse in Nairobi. The guest house is run on a for-profit basis by Oxfam (who then use the profits to fund aid work) and its clientele is predominantly aid workers. The pool wasn’t custom fitted by Oxfam – it came with the guest house property. On one hand Nairobi is hot and dry, and having a pool to soak in must make aid workers’ lives somewhat more pleasant. On the other hand Nairobi is hot and dry, so hot and so dry that it has been in the middle of a drought. The water used to fill the pool has no material impact on the drought itself but it was thought that aid workers soaking while the rest of the country baked would be a bad look, and so the pool was closed.

And in their different ways, my jeep and Oxfam’s pool tap into an aspect of aid work that is rarely talked about but also the subject of profound discomfort amongst many aid workers: the difference in living standards between aid workers (at least most of the time) and the people who they work with.

In Honiara the differences are readily apparent: while much of the city lives crowded into informal settlements, most aid agency staff enjoy comfortable residences nestled the various hillside suburbs nestled behind the town (for the record this PhD student hasn’t quite made it into the hills but can be found in a very comfortable room, just a short dash from the cooling Pacific ocean).

There are three reasons why I think we find aid opulence discomforting.

The first is financial: every dollar that is spent on residences for aid agency staff could, in theory, be spent on vaccinations, or roads, or nurses, or teachers or other actual end products.

The second reason is to do with information: isolated in enclaves it can be hard for aid workers to stay in touch with the real needs of the people they work with.

The third is to do with local perceptions: aid discourse may be all about partnership and this may be genuinely intended by aid agencies, but when aid staff lead isolated and lives of astounding affluence (by local standards) this would seem likely to undermine ideals of equal partnership, at least in the minds of aid recipients.

Above and beyond this, I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable, simply because it feels wrong to be experiencing comfort in the midst of such profound lack.

These are all good reasons for concern. But on the other hand, there are also very good explanations for why the discrepancies exist.

There’s safety for a start: Honiara’s not particularly dangerous, but home invasions occur and expats have been murdered over the years. And other aid destinations (think the large cities of Africa or Latin America or Port Moresby) are often very dangerous. Safety necessitates enclave living.

There’s also exhaustion. People living in the comfortable, orderly, temperate cities of the average donor country may scoff at this. But the fact of the matter is that aid work is often hard work. And living in most developing countries can be profoundly exhausting. Although, as I learnt, creature comforts can ease this to some extent. And, given how hard most aid workers work, it seems unfair, not to mention ultimately inefficient, to expect aid workers to spend their entire careers in a state of uncomfortable exhaustion.

Finally, urban areas in most developing countries are often cleaved by deep economic inequality. There often isn’t much in the way of middle class living for aid workers to be inserted into. Meaning, that affording aid workers some degree of comfort and safety often requires going all the way to affluence.

This doesn’t excuse every excess that occurs in the world of aid. Some consultants are paid far too much for example. Or, in the case of Honiara, a reasonable number of short term aid workers end up in the city’s most expensive hotel, when they could be accommodated just fine in other nearby hotels for quite a lot less.

Nor do my justifications in the second half of this article mean that the sources of discomfort that I raised aren’t real. They are. But I guess that this is – for the most part – an inescapable aspect of the deeply unequal world that we live in: the fact that even attempts at doing good often bring with them huge inequalities of their own.

[Update: Marianne Bevan has an excellent and very eloquent post on this topic at her blog, elevenhoursabroad. Very highly recommended; read it here.]

Terence Wood is a PhD student at ANU. Prior to commencing study he worked for the New Zealand government aid programme.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • Many years down the road now (2021) it never ceases to amaze me how many non-aid-workers (even if there is such a typical thing as an ‘aid worker’) have an opinion about aid work.
    Firstly, without a Toyota Landcruiser, a Nissan Patrol, or a Mitsubishi Pajero and the like a) many destinations could not be reached, b) aid work employees would die at increasing numbers in traffic accidents, increasing death and disability insurance liability multifold, c) maintenance and repair costs to keep anything of less quality on the road would skyrocket and d) the numbers of passengers, cargo and equipment that could otherwise be carried would have to be left behind.
    Secondly, being mostly duty and VAT exempt and in the quantity of (basic non-comfort) field-specs ordered directly from Toyota global, at some point a Landcruiser cost an IO or NGO no more than 17.500 USD ex-works. When sold 3-5 years later at auction they would often bring in between 25.000 and 30.000 USD, actually making fleet operation a fundraising activity.
    Thirdly, as a university-educated logistician I chose aid as my calling. My wife and kids didn’t. Therefore to have me in the field I am no mother Theresa, I don’t walk around in flipflops and plain rice and matoke every day would soon put me out of business, so yes, to continue to pay the mortgage and insurances on my house and other assets and interests in The Netherlands, to sustain a life of comfort for me and my family while I put in 60+ hours per week, to not have my family robbed, kidnapped, raped, killed in the streets of a city like Nairobi while they get on with their life as I get on with my work … my annual payroll, housing, security, international schooling, R&R travel and other support costs to a professional organisation can be anywhere between 100.000 and 200.000 USD. However, I would manage up to 100 vehicles, trucks and drivers, oversee warehousing and distribution of millions of USDs of supplies for tens of thousands of beneficiaries, manage multiple office and operations service support contracts of tens of thousands of USDs, train and coach staff and partners in the field in efficient logistics principles, etc., etc.
    I’m sorry to say but I am not able to do that for free. Irrespective of all the suffering and meagre future perspectives of the fellow human beings I will try to help alleviate the suffering of during my working life, at some point I will retire in The Netherlands at a standard of living that is commensurate with being a Dutch citizen.

  • These are quite interesting arguments that your are bringing up. However, in as much as you speak more of expats and categorizes them in the manner Marcus does, have you put much thought in the experiences of the indigenous people who are employed by implementing agencies for various duties. How are their lives supposed to be, what are their thoughts about the lifestyles of the people working in NGOs? Someone once said ‘in as much as we are trying to bring the local communities out of poverty, we are left progressively poorer as employees.’ Let’s tackle that one.

  • Great thoughts. Your motivations to write this piece are noble and your arguments touch only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps you were being careful in your writing, understandably. I have been working in Pakistan for the betterment of the communities for the 11 years of my career and i have seen some very disturbing aspects of how efficiency of Overseas Development Assistance is compromised. Just a recent example. I recently closed a project that focused on child marriages. Of the total cost of the project (that was 5.2 million Euros) more than 45% went on admin costs; 10 times more money was spent on the cost of traveling and staying in Lavish 5 star hotels as compared to the meager cost of the project activity. Although this information could be digested / defended by the school of thought that opposes the jist of your arguments if it were not for the final painful observation which is : Of the 5.2 million Euros for the project LESSER than 1% of the money went to the targeted beneficiaries. I always feel crushed at this knowledge. I have seen people making enough DSA’s (from traveling nationally and internationally) that amount to 2-3 months of their salaries. Hence the term “Development Tourism”. I can go on and on about my experiences, and yes I totally agree with what you say, and i support your observations passionately. And above all, thank you for choosing such thought provoking title for your piece.

  • Thanks Terence for this thought provoking article. Having been in this sector for some years, ranging in and out of NGOs, consultancies, research, and for-profit project management with central government agencies, I have a few comments that fit into two broad themes, that others have touched upon:

    1. “AID WORKER” IS TOO BROAD A TERM TO UNDERSTAND HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS. The term “aid worker” seems to conflate what is actually a more complex labour market. I have noticed that the expatriates engaged in the aid sector can be crudely sub-categorised five ways…A: “the techie”, who has no interest in development issues in general, and is employed for their technical skills, e.g. tax policy, IT, roads engineering. “The techie” is solely focused on the material benefits to be had; B: “the contractor”, who knows the game well, understands the many information and power asymmetries in the market, and plays it to their advantage, and feigns an interest in “development” so as to maintain the revenue pipeline. Like “the techie”, “the contractor” is focused on self-interest, but by necessity is involved in a grubbier, less honest trade; C: the “hard-headed development specialist”, who is both cynical and knowledgeable enough to know the system’s failings, but not so cynical that they don’t keep trying to make it better. The “DS”, who is really a public policy wonk, will work partly for self-interest, partly out of intellectual curiosity, partly from a sense of service to others, and sometimes for free; D: “the missionary”, who in the purest form are innocent, gullible, and intellectually flaky, but will work for nothing if they think they are doing the right thing; and E: “the bureaucrat”. A necessary evil. In reality most people in the sector are a combination of at least 2 of the above. But if you want to work with a government or people to deliver, for example, fresh water and sanitation, you will do better with more type A, B, and C, than D. The latter are cheap, but highly variable in both input, output, and outcome. Type E write briefs for their superiors, who write briefs for their superiors, who write briefs for their superiors, etcetera, etcetera.

    2. THE SYSTEM IS DEEPLY OPAQUE AND GAMED BY INSIDERS. The foreign aid market is notoriously asymmetric and opaque. This explains why such distorted remuneration outcomes are reached for jobs, that when the tasks are unpicked, would fetch often 50%+ less in an efficient and transparent labour market. e.g. see this populist news article …yes it’s not very nuanced, but there are jobs mentioned there that would pay less than NZ$100,000 before tax in Wellington. Clearly arbitrage is at play and being exploited ruthlessly at the taxpayer’s expense.

    Anyone who knows how these services are procured can tell you how easily they are gamed by insiders. Of course, because of the opacity who is going to critique such a system? Not me (not in public and in such raw terms, at least). I have to make a living too!

    • Thanks Marcus,

      That is a very astute comment. And I take your point that aid workers are far from a homogeneous group — while “techies” may live very opulent lives the same is rarely true of “missionaries”.

      Your taxonomy of aid worker types works pretty well for me too, particularly as you allow for people to fall into more than one category at the same time.

      However, I wouldn’t diss “missionaries” quite so much. Sometimes their enthusiasm and ideals meet a very important niche, and when they have the right skills, their asking price makes them much more cost-effective than old hands. And cynics aren’t always right; nor are the naive and idealistic always wrong.

      As for bureaucrats: as a former member of this tribe I’m glad to hear that you think my time spent toiling in Wellington was necessary as well as evil. More seriously, I think you miscategorise the work of govt aid agency staff who actually need (and usually possess) extensive skills to allow them to manage the disjunct between the complex realities of aid work in developing countries and the equally complex realities of the political and spheres back home. Sure some aid agency staffers are poor at their job (as in every profession) but the good, committed ones (the majority I think) produce what is on balance positive impacts by being the uncomfortable link between aid recipients, and the capricious world back home of politicians and an only very marginally interested tax-paying, voting public.

      As for the article in the Telegraph: I wonder if they ever focus similar ire on the salaries of corporate consultants? Because I would say that this particular market failure is not at all unique to the world of aid. I agree with your economic diagnosis though. Although I would also add that risk aversion plays an important role here. The typical aid agency staffer has more money than time and so will, I think, be willing to pay over the odds for someone they know will at least produce reasonable work, won’t stuff things up, knows what’s needed, and won’t require a whole heap of time to manage.

      Personally, I think the idea of contracting out work rather than having your own staff do it is, with the exception of very specialised services, a free market fairy tale. And that we’d get better aid work done if aid agencies had fewer contractors and more of their own permanent staff. Permanent staff are, on the whole, better because they are more deeply entwined in a multi-shot game, and are incentivised by group norms not just pay checks.

      I don’t blame aid agencies for this though. The problem is a by-product of the depressingly simplistic way that civil servants and aid agencies are talked about in the public sphere’s of donor countries. I.e. bureaucrats are bad, overheads must be as low as possible, markets are wonderful. So long as the Telegraph keeps peddling this sort of guff, it basically only has itself to blame for overpaid aid contractors.

      • Terence, I too, was once engaged directly by the evil One for some years. Even now I live by the good grace of the evil One.
        But for the sake of utility, i’ll try and stay on-topic.
        Firstly, I believe, and the evidence supports the contention that high-performing individuals and organisations have a ‘sense of mission’. Low performing individuals and organisations do not. When seeking to achieve a team objective, give me a “techie” that believes in what they are doing any day, over one who believes mostly in growing their bank account and investment portfolio.
        Now, following my earlier posted examples, I think that the development quality of aid TA, and the appropriateness of remuneration, would be better served by TA design and procurement following these principles:
        1. TA design should first ask, “is this really what will get us where we need to go, and will it deliver the best development bang for our buck?” Especially considering that most public sector institutional challenges are a matter of sovereign will, not the sheer ignorance of developing country civil servants.
        2. TA procurement should seek value-for-money by focusing on the task, and getting the required skills set and experience for the best available price, regardless of nationality or citizenship.
        3. TA design and procurement should reject the pressure of the spending imperative. e.g. “We’ve got A$3 million to spend on fiscal governance in the Department of Finance before the end of this financial year. Let’s get some bodies in there whilst we work out what to do, or until my posting ends, and then it’s someone else’s problem”.
        I propose that following these principles would lead to:
        A: more hybrid forms of engagement…volunteeers, PACTAM, straight HR recruitment from better value labour markets than Australia, locally-engaged expatriates who don’t require all the bells and whistles, working more with churches / NGOs, etc.
        B: reduced average and median remuneration of aid-funded positions.
        C: the dilution of the false dichotomy of international / local designations (AKA “we pay according to your passport”).
        D: longer-term human engagement between the individuals involved, and less of the short-term expatriate citadel culture.
        E: less A$300k+ aid jobs that exist to tick a box and provide fodder for a media release or Ministerial brief, and not actually change anything in respect of the human development equation.
        I would reject your comparison of similarity between the avarice of private sector corporate remuneration, and soft fraud within the public sector, through the lens of concern for the integrity of the body politic. 50 CEOs getting paid more than A$2 million a year will not fracture the Australian nation-state. However systemic informal defrauding of the public estate and its Treasury presents an existential threat to the nation-state’s viability. I’m partly influenced in this regard by the writing of the Polish sociologist Stanislav Andreski, and in particular his book, “Parasitism and Subversion”, published in 1966, and partly by how I would feel personally if I was an ordinary citizen and I was paying for a state that exists to serve small groups of insiders, and not the interests of the many.
        As usual, I think we would agree on most of the core issues, but we probably diverge when it comes to the proper role for the state. I think you have a preference for state agency, whereas I prefer the pluralist agency of non-state actors as the engine room of human development, and I prefer my state to be “steering, not rowing”. However, I acknowledge that this is contextual, and I would be happier to dish up my sovereignty to the New Zealand state before I do so to the Solomon Islands state. Both positions require a little faith and can never be entirely based on logic and empiricism alone.
        P.S. I’m told I should add another category to my taxonomy: “the lifestyler”.

        • Ah yes – the lifestyler. That was always what I wanted to achieve from surfing. Not so sure about aid work.

          I think I agree with most of what you write.

          Although I’m not sure about B (that the small savings involved would produce net benefits).

          Also I think that the dichotomy in point C is not really a false one. You will always need expat staff — like it or not they often possess capacity lacking in developing countries. And they can actually benefit from being outsiders too — free from the norms and informal institutions that may complicate the position of locals. Also, the incentives that expats operate under (at least in the case of permanent staff) are quite often more easy to align in the direction of good outcomes than are the incentives faced by local staff. And if you are going to have expat staff you are eventually going to have to pay them vis a vis the labour markets in their home country. And if you pay local staff the same rates you will severely distort local labour markets. Maybe some narrowing of the gap, but it will always be there.

          On point E do many aid staff really get paid more than 300k a year? Really? We hear about the outliers because they make the media, but I think the median wage is much much lower.

          Re the proper role of the state in developing. Like you I think it varies depending on state capacity. And in the Solomons case I agree with you about the need for a mix.



  • I’m going to go against the flow here. In 6 years I’ve worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Solomon Islands and lived on and off in Fiji. One of my pet hates is the “Cult of the Self flagellating NGO” I work in rough locations and to be honest, I expect to be paid accordingly to compensate for austere/insecure living conditions, poor RnR and incredibly poor job security and work/life balance. Furthermore, I’ve seen my fair share of shallow ingratiation and now see it as the first step towards disillusionment simply because it serves as a band aid the patently obvious. By all means embrace the local culture, but don’t think you’re in with the locals because the unspoken truth is, you’re just the latest in a revolving door of well meaning foreigners.

    Sustainable living conditions is key IMHO. I’m beginning to see strong indications that the deliverance of aid and capacity development within beneficiaries communities would be more effective if INGO’s could retain specialist staff to provide consistency . Thats not the case as the staff turn over I see is directly attributable to poor renumeration and living conditions combined with a captured staff culture that embraces The Cult at a country management level. The current model is great if you want to turn over 80% of your international staff within 2 years, but that turn over comes at a cost to programme capacity and continuity.

    Something to think about.

    • Very nicely put Lotti. And I think you are basically correct WRT typical NGO staff. Although I think their situation is perhaps different from that of consultants and aid agency staff who tend to live in considerably more opulent surrounds and who do arguably live too well.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • In my 25 year experience as both an aid worker’s spouse and educator who has worked both in the classroom and in policy development and planning, I came to the conclusion that conditions for aid workers could be summed up as “deprived luxury”. There was no place that I lived OS that compared to the wonderful freedom and comforts we have at home here in our average house in an average Australian suburb.

    The negotiations with contractors trying to screw the most value for the dollar from you, the uncertainty, often until the last minute, as to whether you would actually win the job and frequent delays in salary payments place great strain on relationships. I recall packing up our entire household – WE did the packing – only to get a phone call where my husband was told that the contract negotiated and signed off on was no longer valid because the contractor decided at the last minute that payment would only be two thirds the amount agreed.

    It would be interesting to survey aid workers on the topic of the breakdown of family relationships. If an aid worker takes on short term jobs, families lose their loved one and main support and provider for extended periods. When families do accompany the aid worker there are many distractions for the aid worker, many problems face the whole family, especially in terms of education for children and finding support systems that one can trust. In the end, as the children grow up, the husband is more likely to travel alone. Two households then become an added cost burden. It is at this point too, that marital relations often break down.

    The expat population is transient, one soon learns that this mean expat friendships are also transient, and finding acceptance with locals is a constant challenge. You talk about locals resenting the way expats live. Well, I recall on one long-term stint, we chose a very ordinary middle sized car as a practical way to get around a crowded city only to find it was frowned upon by my husband’s local colleagues who bore no conscience in turning up in their chauffeur-driven latest model Mercedes. “Why doesn’t your husband buy a decent car” one local official whispered in my ear. The biggest standard of living disparity in my view was between locals. Expat conditions were poor compared to the obscene luxury of the wealthy.

    Before people make broad-brush judgements about how much expats are paid and the “luxury” life they lead, they should look first at where most of the aid money goes. I think you will find it is into the pockets of government officials and their cronies who run the contracting businesses. These people can make the lives of expatriates a nightmare, no matter how dedicated an aid worker may be. Could it be for this reason that it is so difficult to find “stronger evidence that most consultants had a positive sustainable impact”, as Garth Luke states? I think so. I always felt that if the wealth of the rich were fairly distributed via a decent tax system as it is in Australia, then it is unlikely foreign aid would be needed in third world countries.

    The question of salary and working conditions of expatriate aid workers is simply a convenient political distraction which takes away from the real, most apparent problem of aid – that the huge amounts money Australia spends on aid, simply does not get to to local people who need it most.

    That is the biggest challenge and governments choose to ignore it for face-saving reasons and to keep political peace with our neighbours.

    • Thanks Lyn,

      I don’t think I agree with everything you say but I think you’re definitely right that:

      1. Most aid workers’ lives are not easy when compared to their suburban contemporaries back home.
      2. The cost of keeping aid workers well is actually tiny compared to overall aid flows and certainly cannot be claimed to have a significant negative impact on overall aid effectiveness.


  • Thank you for this moderate and well-reasoned article. You moved me outside my left-leaning anti-ex-pat position. Points noted. Good luck with it all.

  • Thank you for raising interesting topic. In fact, third world country people often raise question, why is development aid make smaller impact on people living in measurable condition but has greater economic and social impact on aid worker.

    There is always an argument that aid worker have short term job and needs to pay higher salary to get best out of it. A simple aid worker who has earned bit and pieces to live suddenly starts thinking about safety while traveling in country and needs a star hotel to accommodate, mineral water instead of spring water, feels uncomfortable walking along path where slum leave and covers nose while they see men and women in smelly dirty cloth. If people do not have commitment to work with these group why do people become an aid worker? just to live a comfortable life with little or no commitment to make people’s life different.

    However, when it comes to distributing benefits to community people there are policies and argument made for how do we effectively reach them and distribute fund, why is there less debate on how much fund on aid should go to management and aid worker.

    Despite aid agency having agenda on management fees and structure, indirectly huge amount of aid is transferred to the country of origin.

    There is always a suspicion and an argument that why are there less factories and economic activities going on to raise and elevate poverty in a very rural area to uplift the economic status of poor and marginalized people? employment is determining factor for exposure and change people’s life, though in some cases it might not be true but in larger picture it is in fact a powerful factor for change.

    I do not just argue that aid worker should be paid less but my argument is that how much and to what extent should the aid worker be paid should be discussed by aid agency.

    • Thank you Saraswati. It’s very interesting to hear your perspective. I definitely agree with your final point: even if we don’t ultimately conclude that aid workers should be paid less, aid agencies do definitely need to be at the very least thinking about and discussing this issue in an ongoing way.

  • This may sound counter-intuitive in an environment that quite rightly does focus on outcomes, but when it comes to wages for aid workers I feel some attention needs to be given to the contract negotiations.

    It has already been well argued that in order to attract good quality foreign workers high salaries need to be paid. Going abroad can be an exciting, interesting and attractive offer for a couple of years (how many people save up to go on gap years?), but as a long term career it has some serious downsides listed already by Andrew.

    What niggles me is when people (who do not work in development) make the first argument Terence pointed to: we do not give our money for you to go and live a cushy life. I can understand the desire for tax payers to get their money’s worth, but I always react with: I’m sorry, do you want this job done? If so, are you prepared to do it yourself? And if not, are you prepared to pay someone a fair wage to do it?

    Aid workers are undertaking a service on behalf of their home nation in much the same way teachers, doctors, policemen, politicians do. We purchase goods from companies who pay their managers, accountants, financial analysts, salesmen and lawyers far more. I object to the expectation made by everyone else that I should gain job satisfaction because I work in development and therefore can be expected to take a financial hit, live in a mudhut and contract scurvy. Why should that be me, just because I am the one actually trying to do the work?

    From my (limited) experience development work can at times be far less satisfying than other jobs because you are conscious of how painfully slow progress is, how inefficient the system in which you are confined within is, and how unnecessary bureaucratic wranglings and limited political will to effect change is costing people their lives.

    There is also something a little perverse, although I cannot quite articulate an argument around it, about going to live in the exact conditions you are trying to help people escape.

    I currently work in a government department where my salary is supplemented about 3 fold by a charity back home. I would not go as far as to say I am 4 times as efficient / competent as my counterparts. But I would say I am more efficient and competent. I have been to one of the best universities in the West, they are the product of of local universities. This may sound incredibly arrogant, but if the local educational outcomes were as good as my home country (a) there would be no point in having me here and (b) the country would probably be doing a hell of a lot better.

    It is also worth pointing to the fact that much of the money circulates back into the economy. I live in a country that is trying to promote tourism because they recognise having rich foreigners come in and spend money in shops, restaurants, hotels etc. benefits the economy at large. Of course the primary benefactor of my salary is me, and conceivably by pushing up demand for goods I might be raising the price level, but there is a multiplier effect at work and my maid, the security guards at my compound, the wait staff at the restaurants I eat at, the guys that fill my car at the petrol station do also all benefit.

    So, although I remain sensitive to and aware of it, I am fairly comfortable with the gap between me and my local counterparts. I do not feel that riding a bike to work or switching to a poorer diet would help me perform my job better, but it may make me reconsider whether I want to go back to the City. I truly applaud the PCVs who can hack the local life, but it is not for me. I already have to live without (super) high speed internet, Thai restaurants, satellite sports channels and theatre. Please don’t tell me I am being unreasonable by employing a maid two days a week.

  • Hi Terence. The essence of what I’m on about might well be enunciated in your statements. Whether it’s a chicken and egg situation about which comes first, the fact is that pollies in so called developed countries are able to excuse any accountability for overseas aid projects by merely stating the bottom line and hoping to bask in the reflected glory.

    Most people in Australia for example, have absolutely no idea what happens to our aid money in practice. Why? Well that leads me onto your point about there being not a lot of evidence. Exactly right. Where do we really go to see any real evidence of any long term results from aid being spent? Billions spent in PNG over the last decades but no real improvement in the lives of the rural population and the urban poor.

    Before I get howled down for saying that we shouldn’t spend it, that’s not what I’m on about. What we must see is accountability for results. How, you may well ask? Well it’s simple really. No project should be commissioned without an agreed benchmark being established prior to the project commencing. There should then be transparent reporting and auditing of the results achieved. Surely that’s only common sense?

    The fact that aid monies end up in the pocket of dictators and corrupt officials is well documented. PNG’s Deputy Commissioner of Police is on record for publically stating that at least half his nation’s budget is lost to corruption. Is it any wonder nothing seems to change in today’s PNG? Even the previous PNG PM Somare is on record for acknowledging that the PNG public service is notorious for demanding a six pack before actioning a simple request. It’s common knowledge that many public servants almost never turn up for work yet still collect their pay. Their appointments are reputedly not made on merit but on family or cultural ties.

    Am I guilty of overstating my points? All I’m doing is stating what is common knowledge in today’s PNG and consistently reported in the local media.

    What’s the answer? I have previously written a submission to AusAID (that is posted on the Web) making some practical suggestions on how a valid aid scheme might work. That presumably disappeared into the Black Hole that all suggestions to government seem destined to end up in.

    There is one more aspect that’s terribly important. Any aid worker who really wants to make a difference must be prepared to learn the local language and customs. This doesn’t happen overnight. Australia previously had a facility for providing some initial training at the International Training Institute in Mosman, Sydney. That establishment is now history and the building falling apart.

    If an aid project officer from Australia stays in better accommodation than the people he/she is working with, that might well be accepted if the worker is able to effectively communicate directly with those they are attempting to assist. There is no bigger issue in my view than this.

    Many short term aid workers are disconnected from those they are ostensibly trying to assist by an impenetrable barrier of a true lack of understanding each other’s language and culture. This barrier only breaks down when aid workers get out of their barb wire surrounded compounds and security guarded forts and sit down in the dust with the people we are really trying to help.

    If anyone wants an example of how this actually works, try contacting Lydia Kailap and her husband in PNG’s Port Moresby who run a self-funded school for the capital’s poor and homeless. I’m sure you’ll get some good, practical advice.

  • Thanks Paul, Andrew, Deg and Beth for your comments and sorry for my delayed reply.

    Just a couple of points to note.

    Paul – most survey data that I’m aware of suggests that publics in developed countries believe that their governments should and do give more aid than they actually do. So I’m not sure if our aid budgets can really be accurately viewed as a product of politicians pandering to public sentiment.

    Also, the claim that aid helps politicians in recipient countries enrich themselves and also that it puts off any potential day of reckoning when citizens of these countries might hold politicians to account has a grain of truth to it. Certainly, in the past (and even in the present in the case of some donors) aid that has been primarily given for geostrategic rather than humanitarian reasons has ended up lining the pockets of tyrants and dictators. But this is much less prevalent (at least for the better donors) these days as conditionality and other control mechanisms are applied to try and ensure aid spending helps the needy. Similarly, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that modern era aid leads to more rather than less corruption in developing countries.

    In short, the world of aid has changed somewhat for the better in the last two decades and while your concerns are valid, I think it would be easy to overstate them.

    Beth and Andrew,

    For the most part I think Andrew is right. Aid work is hard and comes with its particular set of stresses and if it is really poorly paid people with the best skills for the job (particularly when they reach the age of kids and a mortgage) won’t do it. On the other hand, while this goes some way to excusing the lifestyles of aid workers I do also think Beth has a point and that, at some point, this line of thinking becomes a convenient excuse for salaries and luxuries that can’t be justified. How often this point is passed, I’m not sure.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Thank you for this piece. These are issues that I am presently struggling with. Security concerns are used to justify accommodation within gated communities but the accommodation I have been provided with is in some ways better than I could afford in my home country (including access to a pool).

    There are two major issues for me, the first being the disparities between local staff salaries and those of international staff. Such a complex issue when local staff are already being paid well relative to the local context and there is some argument behind paying salaries high enough to attract highly skilled international staff. However, given the mission of INGOs in relieving poverty and inequality it is difficult to stomach a system that pays people doing the same or very similar jobs at a different level.

    The second difficulty is the separation from the local community. I have purchased a push bike to get round town (which has the added exercise benefits) as a small way in which to reduce that separation. I know there will always be a gap between international staff and the local community but living in such disparate conditions increases this tenfold.

    I think one other issue that hasn’t been mentioned is the funding model. I am working on an incredibly well funded project so staying in top hotels, hiring cars needlessly etc. are not only possible but are encouraged by a funding model which would require us to return any unused funds and reduce our likelihood of securing similar levels of funding in the future.

    I agree with Terrance’s arguments but I think there is also an element of ‘group think’. Yes, the work can be tough, and there is a need to attract ‘good’ people but by continuing with the mantra of ‘because I’m worth it’ there seems to be little reflection. In my current organisation there has only recently been a plan to move towards having a national as country director. We each like to be valued and most of us like life’s luxuries so it is understandable that those on good salaries and benefits will argue that they are necessary, but I don’t think that means that they always are. I wonder if the donors need to scrutinize to a greater degree where the finances are being spent and push for increased nationalisation within delivery partners(?)

    • Thats all very well and fine for programmes in developing countries, but in conflict/post conflict areas the living conditions are crucial make or break factor with regards to staff retention. Try spending all day, every day in a combined office/guesthouse and not get pissed off with no running water in the middle of the winter?

      As for using ‘security concerns’ to justify accommodation requirements, its cheaper to pay for a secured, comfortable housing than to constantly replace staff, address cumulative stress issues and in the worse case scenarios, insurance or litigation payouts due to staff injuries or bereavements. Therefor, it’s not a ‘security concern’ (a grey area that programme staff often like to rebel against) but a Duty of Care obligation.

      As for the Oxfam pool, why doesn’t that surprise me? Their pool in Islamabad remained un-filled too

  • The original post and the many comments have raised several interesting and complex issues. Before responding to some of them, it may be worth revealing that my comments are based on 35 years in development, covering periods as a staff member of both the ADB and WB, an employee in a commercial consulting firm in a developing country, a resident consultant on a long term advisory program in a small island and, more recently, a freelance consultant.

    What level of salary and conditions are appropriate? I think we need to remember that market mechanisms operate in the development aid sector as they do elsewhere. So, while some professionals may be happy to take on contracts in developing countries at less than comparable salaries than they could earn in their home country, placing a high value on the satisfaction they get from doing such work to replace the cash deficit, many will not, particularly if they have families. And the conditions provided, such and housing and transport, are an equally important part of the decision a potential contractor takes. While the excitement of living in a new culture and environment is real (and has a value) in the early years, the many disadvantages which are often present – damage to partners’ career development, limited health and education facilities, adverse security conditions, widespread petty corruption, unreliable utilities and consumer services, etc – also have a value. The longer the professional’s career in developing countries extends, the more weight is given to these issues, i.e., a young couple may take on such an appointment for a limited number of years but will be less likely to stay in the field unless the total compensation is adequate. Yet, from a development perspective, greater experience embodied in the expatriate professional is normally a desirable trait for a funding agency.

    “Boomerang aid”. A long career in development has left me convinced that the greatest need by developing countries is not a transfer of money or other financial resources. Rather the principal need is for knowledge and skills – across a wide range of areas: technical, policy, governance etc. So, to the extent that funding agencies recognise this and focus on advisory services, “boomerang aid” will exist: the principal costs will be for the advisors and what will be left behind (hopefully) will be the necessary knowledge and skills, not money.

    Relative salaries and local resentment. I believe this to be largely a non-issue, as good working relationships are about mutual respect not relative salaries. Expatriates who make no attempt to understand local cultures and make friends with those with whom they work or who adopt a superior attitude are unlikely to generate the respect necessary to be effective in their roles. At the same time, their local colleagues will be well aware that the expatriate has been hired to bring to their country knowledge or skills which are not available within the local community. If, indeed, the expatriate and the local employee are doing equivalent work and taking similar responsibility (which would justify similar remuneration), the question should be asked why the expatriate has been employed when local resources are available.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Your comment “what will be left behind (hopefully) will be the necessary knowledge and skills, not money” goes straight to the heart of the question of overseas aid.

      The correlation between the cost of providing overseas aid and the benefits accruing therefrom should be the nub of the debate. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

      Providing significant overseas aid budgets seem to have become an end in itself and not a means to achieve an end. Successive Australian governments appear to have been very conscious of their ability to devote significant amounts of taxpayer funds each year without any subsequent evaluation of the results achieved. Each financial year, hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into an amorphous and open ended bucket which apparently suffices to stifle any further debate on what Australia is doing to help other less fortunate countries.

      If the average Australian is either apparently unconcerned or disinterested enough to be able to discern any problem in this equation, one might think those countries that are supposed to be benefiting from these large amounts of money might want to know the details of what results are actually being achieved. The silence on this issue alone is deafening apart from a few who cast some vague aspersions about so called ‘boomerang aid’ as if the value of the aid money should in fact just be merely just handed over as a once off payment to the recipient country each year without any further accountable result or feedback loop.

      The launching of high profile aid projects is one beloved by both the donors and recipients. Much publicised media events on the ‘splash’ of the metaphoric ship’s launch and any associated and garnered prestige are to be milked to their limit. Yet when it comes time to consider ongoing maintenance, fuel and the crewing of the ship, no one at the launch apparently wants to know.

      So what is the obvious end result? Neither the donor country nor the receiving country apparently wants to challenge the process. Inevitably that creates a ‘black hole’ that each successive year of overseas aid budgets are dumped into where everything goes in but nothing apparently discernible comes out?

      That brings me back to my first point. The real question that should be asked is; ‘What tangible and permanent results are left behind after aid money is spent?’

      The second obvious point must then surely be; ‘How can you effectively manage something not being realistically measured?’

      For some reason, everyone associated with the so called ‘aid programs’ seem to be eggbound on these two crucial issues. Perhaps the real issue is that most governments seem to be unable to comprehend which end of the microscope you are supposed to look through.

  • Foreign Aid – Why have it?

    Hi Terence, your post raises some interesting discussion points. As one who in my younger days spent some time at the grass roots (or kunai) level in PNG, my experiences of those times may well be dated. However for a number of years when I was younger, I mostly lived in a house built of local materials. I did have a stout pair of boots and a bike and I did eat canned bully beef and fish more often than those in neighbouring villages but not a lot else was different. Together we achieved a lot.
    Yet a basic human tenant of behaviour has not changed, so perhaps I could offer my twopenneth worth.

    Firstly, the question of whether there should be overseas aid is really axiomatic. Most people feel a genuine need to help those who are less fortunate than themselves. In Australia, many people recently gave generously of their time and resources after a number of natural disasters. This generosity was not meant to create any long term obligation or reciprocity but merely to genuinely help those who have suffered loss. That same inherent desire to help others translates into efforts to help those in other nations in circumstances clearly less fortunate than ourselves.

    Politicians in so called western countries try to capitalise on this basic human trait and promise large amounts of overseas aid funding to garner public support. A cynic might reflect however that it’s not their money after all and it doesn’t affect their salaries.

    How politicians in the so called developing world see the opportunities provided by foreign aid money from elsewhere is questionable in many cases. The experience in many ‘developing’ countries seems to be that if their nation is seen as poor then it will attract more overseas aid.
    If overseas aid is available to pay for services usually provided by the government, then those same politicians from developing countries can get on with acquiring their own fortunes at the expense of those in their country less fortunate than themselves. In these cases, overseas aid can be therefore seen as essential to try to provide the desperately needed services that in reality, should be provided by the country’s own resources. These resources are instead, reputedly being accumulated in foreign bank accounts and property.

    So maybe the real question that should be asked is not why have foreign aid but how should it be managed?

    Therein I suspect, lies the nub of the problem. There has been constant criticism about Australia’s so called ‘boomerang aid’ programs that never seem to achieve much except line the pockets of consultants and aid workers.

    The solution is unfortunately in the eye of the beholder. Everyone seems to have a different idea and this unfortunately clouds the real issue.

    I believe the benchmark for successful foreign aid programs aught to be a pre set achievement outcome for each program that must be transparently signed off and reported on and independently audited.

    Can everyone see why this isn’t acceptable to government?

  • What a fantastic, well-balanced post. It describes the uncomfortable feelings I’ve had about ‘moving up’ in salary and perks, and the one-upmanship of “which expat aid workers lives in the most badass rough conditions”.

    >>>>And there is a risk that if they are paid a lot more, aid might end up distorting local job markets, meaning that the most talented local staff strive to be aid agency employees rather than working for their own governments or private sectors, which do desperately need their skills.

    I think that’s already the situation in Zambia, and probably other countries too 🙂

  • Thank you Jonathan. It’s interesting: in terms of welfare implications Dinuk and Paul’s post on the growth impacts of women in parliament is much more significant than this post here. And yet it’s my post that has attracted more attention.

    The reason for this I think is probably, as you suggest, a mixture of guilt and the fact that the story is a personal one that most development folks can related to. While it is the big things and big trends that really matter for development, at the end of the day we are all individuals caught up for the most part in our own lives and dilemmas (or, at least, I know I am), and I guess that’s why it has resonated.

  • A fantastic post Terence.

    It’s interesting that the topic of aid worker entitlements consistently gets a unique level of development community engagement. Duncan Green’s piece on the Nairobi pool furore has certainly gotten it’s fair share of comments. One of Chris Blattman’s most commented on posts was also of the same ilk, instead asking the question of whether development agencies should fly business class. I must say your post did provide a much more balanced critique than his!

    I wonder, is it an underlying sense of guilt (or entitlement) that people so willingly throw themselves into public discussion about this issue, or is it rather that it is one of the only topics in this sector that development workers (traditionally from the developed world) can most easily relate to?

  • Thank you Seini – excellent comment (and sorry for the delay moderating it, it came through after I’d gone to bed last night.)

    The point you make is important. It stands to reason that if locally engaged staff feel inequitably treated their performance may suffer (never mind the inherent unfairness of the situation).

    One solution would seem to be to pay local staff higher rates. Here’s the complicating fact: they already, usually, live comfortable lives by local standards, their pay typically putting them amongst the middle classes of their home countries. And there is a risk that if they are paid a lot more, aid might end up distorting local job markets, meaning that the most talented local staff strive to be aid agency employees rather than working for their own governments or private sectors, which do desperately need their skills.

    At least, that is the counter argument to what you are suggesting. Although I confess it rings somewhat hollow in my own ears when I make it. And I’m sure there may well be, in many cases, room for improvement in local pay.

    Thanks again.


    Oh – and while I remember. The salaries of the staff of multilaterals is currently causing a scandal of sorts:

  • Thanks Terrence for starting this flow of reflections. The aid worker-aid recipient living standard divide is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, and for which I’ve concluded that there are no easy solutions. People seem to draw the “too much” line at different levels: for some, a jeep may be too much in the way of luxury, while for others such a vehicle may be justifiable, but a luxury hotel with a pool is definitely too much.

    But perhaps there are some objective indicators of where ‘too much’ might lie. For instance, some psychology researchers have looked into what makes work environments in developing country contexts most effective, and have concluded that pay differentials, when they become sufficiently large, certainly don’t help.

    Across a six-country, 202 organisation sample, they found that expatriate workers’ salaries were, on average, four times the level of salaries for local workers in the same organisation. In the two Pacific countries they looked at, the expat : local salary ratio was 9 : 1 (!).

    Being psychologists, they weren’t just interested in these numbers, though – they also asked people how they felt about them. Here’s what they found: “Local participants reported that the pay disparities they experienced lead to significant feelings of injustice at work. They told us that the disparities left them feeling significantly de-motivated in their everyday work. At the same time however, and equally worryingly, international participants were largely unaware of the feelings of injustice caused by their significantly higher pay (and benefits), and did not recognise that these disparities were leading to reduced motivation in their local colleagues.”
    (see: )

    For me this finding raises a lot of questions about how we could do things better. And perhaps it adds an additional clause to your article title…”Should(n’t) aid workers lead comfortable lives – even if they’re not expats?”

  • Thank you Rhianon.

    You wrote: “So the question is, for me, not so much “should” skilled international aid workers live comfortable lives, but will we be able to get them to come if they don’t?? It would take a massive cultural shift.”

    It would also take an economic shift of sorts, I think. Right now I think it’s reasonable enough for aid workers to worry about their mortgages and kids’ schooling and the like, which means they aren’t going to work low paid jobs forever. At least not while our economies back home leaves us worrying about these sorts of things.

  • I think that arguments about what “should” be fade a bit in the face of what “can” be. I have done stints as a volunteer (AVI) and am now in Fiji as a paid worker on a good local wage in an aid funded NGO. It was annoying that it was more lucrative for me to be a volunteer… but what is more annoying is that we currently have vacant positions for roles that would have a fantastic impact on local quality of community services, but we can’t fill them because we pay a middle-upper class local wage – and we simply can’t get people from developed countries to consider it. Great useful jobs, enough money for a very comfortable life here – but when converted to Australian or New Zealand dollars, people don’t want to take the money.
    So the question is, for me, not so much “should” skilled international aid workers live comfortable lives, but will we be able to get them to come if they don’t?? It would take a massive cultural shift.

  • Thanks Mark and thank you Weh.

    Weh – I think yours is a very helpful distinction. Separating the ethical discomfort stemming from global inequality (which, as you point out, should effect all of us in the developed world) from questions of efficiency (what level of comfort is most likely to lead to effective aid) would appear to be a very important aspect of thinking through this dilemma carefully. Thinking that way certainly helps me untangle the ethical knot a bit further. Thank you for making the point.

  • This is an interesting talking point, but ultimately I think comparisons between aid workers and local people is a never-ending spiral. I can’t really think of any situation that a foreign aid worker will be in where his life will approximate that of the average local person. This is not to say we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable, aware, or ashamed of it – we absolutely should. But that’s a global problem that everybody should be aware of, not just aid workers.

    What is perhaps more pertinent is focussing on thinking about the conditions that aid workers should be in to make them more effective (something that you’ve considered throughout this piece). By boxing aid workers into high class hotels, or compounds with high walls, or by putting a gap in pay between foreign aid workers and their local counterparts, how effective are these aid workers in being in touch enough with the local situation to make a difference. As you wrote Terence, “isolated in enclaves it can be hard for aid workers to stay in touch with the real needs of the people they work with”.\

    On the other hand, ignoring the needs of aid workers can make them more stressed, more burnt out and ultimately less effective in achieving what they are trying to achieve. Ultimately, it should be about finding a nice balance point between the two. Therefore, in answering the central question of this article, the main factor should be answering a question about effectiveness, not about whether it is “fair” or not. On a global scale, “fair” is not even remotely relevant.

  • This is a nice conversation.

    There should be no issue with aid workers being well-paid. It is often a donor intent that a large portion of the grant money boomerang back into bank accounts on their own soil. Workers can’t affect that, so let it be.

    Living well should also not be an issue. It is a natural human aspiration to live as well as one can. Aid environments are inherently stressful, so there is no point in creating even more inner conflict through self-deprivation.

    There is also the issue of self-importance. Do you think your work is important and that you are a valuable asset to the community that you serve? If you do, then you should act every day to protect yourself as an asset and create a sustainable presence. For a lot of people, that means acquisition of safe travel, housing, food, and drinking water. Any thing less is irresponsible and negligent. If you do not think that your impact is equal to all of that, then maybe you are wasting your time at your site.

    Finally the issue of self-identity. Foreign aid workers can never fully identify with the local population. Local people know you are different, and no matter how much you make yourself suffer, they know you have different horizons than they do. You have a way out. Where ever you are, very soon you will be leaving, so there is little point in faking some kind of superficial solidarity. I think it is better to be genuine about who you are and what your needs are. You can make a stronger connection with people by being honest with yourself.

    If your objective is a deep cultural experience and the sickness and poverty that goes with that, think about joining the United States Peace Corps. But if you are being paid, everything about your presence should be top notch professional.

    So go ahead and take a dip in the Oxfam pool. It it’s available, and if you like it, use it. Be safe, and be well.

  • All this leads, for me, to two key conclusions.

    First, we need to be sensitive to the issue Terence has raised and manage it for the best outcomes for all. Second, (and this partly contradicts the first) it is almost impossible to generalise as contexts are so very different. For example, riding a bike to work in Jakarta would be one of the most dangerous and impractical solutions imaginable to getting around!!

    • Thanks Robert. I agree – as with almost everything in aid context is key.

      Even here in Honiara I wouldn’t be that keen on negotiating a busy day on Mendana avenue on a bike. Although once you got your weaving wired you would end up travelling much faster than the grid-locked cars. Albeit at some risk to yourself.

  • Thank you Garth, Claire and Robert for your comments.

    Garth – just to reiterate: I’m not an aid worker and I travel by bus. The bike idea is interesting, could I suggest you broach it with your colleagues. I can think of potential reasons why it might be problematic but it is your colleagues who you ultimately need to convince. And who might also be able to convince you that in some circumstances bikes might not be that advantageous.

    Also, you wrote: “On the broader issue, perhaps spending on foreign aid workers wouldn’t be so problematic if the share of total aid funding going to them was much less than the amount getting to local people and if there was stronger evidence that most consultants had a positive sustainable impact.”

    When I used to work at NZAID overheads were less than 10% of total aid spend. This included staff costs and some of the consultant costs. Even if you added in the additional consultant costs, at least in the NZ aid programme, the cost of aid workers was still much less than the total amount of aid given to developing country partners.



  • I support Clare’s view that you have written an interesting and balanced article. Being mindful of the disparities and the impact on both work and on accompanying families is very important. Achieving the best balance can challenging with the added complexity of spouses and children to be considered in some cases.

    Some of the worst cases I have experienced in Indonesia have (I hope!) now disappeared. One that was prevalent in the 80s was for advisers travelling to the field with national colleagues staying in upmarket hotels, including the Hyatt, while their partners stayed in cheapest small hotels.

    Today, for longer-term consultants living in the larger cities in Indonesia, the disparities are steadily reducing as the local middle class expands and living conditions become more comparable. Which raises the broader question, ‘what are we doing there?’

    I write this from my comfortable hotel room in Ramallah …. Hmmm.

    Thank you again for an excellent article.

  • Thank you Terence Wood for your very balanced article. I have thought many times of writing something similar as I see ‘ that lucrative lifestyle’ sometimes taken for granted (and absolutely expected) by some Australian Aid workers here in Fiji.

    I have worked in the area of Aid and Development for almost 10 years, the 1st five of which I worked with AVI (as a PACTAM paid health adviser). Not at all a lucrative salary compared to most but it still allowed me to live a comfortable safe existence in Fiji, where I still reside and have a ‘middle class’ lifestyle by Fiji standards.

    Thanks again for your interesting insights and hopefully it will create at least some ‘reflection’ among the thousands of Aid workers around the world, as it did for me.


  • Terence,

    Maybe you and many other aid workers would benefit from a bike. They have these great electric assisted ones now that make hills easy, you can relate to the people around you and you can get about 40 of them for the cost of one Landcruiser.

    On the broader issue, perhaps spending on foreign aid workers wouldn’t be so problematic if the share of total aid funding going to them was much less than the amount getting to local people and if there was stronger evidence that most consultants had a positive sustainable impact.

Leave a Comment