In 2019, I was assigned by an international non-government organization (NGO) to its Ethiopia country office. During my posting, I worked extensively under the guidance of a local colleague, whom I will call by the pseudonym Younus, on a program that was soon to be concluded. After years of operation, the likelihood for the renewal of the program funding was low, which meant that Younus’ contract would soon terminate, and that he would have to look for other employment opportunities. To me, Younus possessed the qualifications for an expatriate program director position in Kenya at the same NGO that we were working for. Holding a graduate degree on nutrition and agriculture from Addis Ababa University, he had been in the aid sector for more than a decade. He had worked for multiple well-known international organizations, namely CARE, Save the Children, and World Food Programme, as well as UNHCR, managing and implementing a number of large-profile humanitarian and development aid programs. With a professional English proficiency and extensive knowledge of Kiswahili and Amharic, he was well-qualified for the expatriate position. Naturally, I suggested that he might be interested in exploring similar career options, to which he responded (Younus (pseudonym) 2019):
Oh no... they [the organization] would not hire someone like me. Maybe some guy from Europe, or America, with a good education and have seen the world. Someone like the deputy country director, he is an expert. He is more qualified.
The deputy country director—whom I will refer by the pseudonym Andrew—was a white, British, heterosexual man in his mid-thirties who oversaw all programs operated by our NGO in Ethiopia, and hence a supervisor of Younus. Although still a seasoned aid professional, it was Andrew’s first time in Ethiopia. He was years younger than Younus—who was approaching his late fifties—and acquired the deputy country director position 5 years after he first entered the humanitarian aid sector. In one way or another, Younus felt that his decade-long experience was not sufficient to qualify himself as an expert in comparison to Andrew, a white colleague “from Europe” with notably less field experience in Africa. His Ethiopian graduate degree seemed also to be not enough—as he indirectly implied that it was not a “good education” compared to one acquired in the West. Although he did not explicitly mention his race, Younus’ response exhibited a certain internalization of racial perceptions that devalued his work and experience as a black, African man.
Historically, the influx of international humanitarian organizations into the global South filled the institutional vacuums in newly independent and post-conflict developing states with Western professionals possessing expertise in various aspects of developmental governance. For years—and continuously in the present day—“African, Asian, and Latin American bureaucrats, practitioners, and even some activists come to be taught about their countries’ problems by people from the North (White 2002).” Accompanied with this dynamics was a perpetuation of the discourse that emphasized international humanitarian help—a dominating idiom implying that the international (and mainly the West) knows better in how to materialize good governance and sustainable development than the communities that have found themselves in crises that they did not necessarily cause.
The 2010 Haiti earthquake in Port-au-Prince is a sobering example. The international—and in particular American—humanitarian response was significant, although it came at the cost of constant and extensive international broadcasting of the repleted state that the earthquake has left for the local communities, particularly in the global West. Images of destroyed homes, hopeless locals, and seas of rubble, although efficient in garnering public attention and sympathy, also inherently signaled black Haitians as subjects pertinently dependent on Western charity (Balaji 2011). Haiti, already framed as a “lawless nation that could not function without assistance” before the earthquake, would become even more dysfunctional in face of a catastrophic natural disaster (Balaji 2011). As international humanitarian agencies—often reliant on Western governmental funding—legitimize their presence and need to intervene in communities of crises through mediated representations of fateful destitution in the global South, the development of a narrative that undermines the capability of locals to survive and recover from difficulties is almost inevitable (Mohanty 1991). However, this particular kind of narrative does not only influence how beneficiaries of aid and government administrations are perceived internationally. Local staff members working within the exact international humanitarian agencies that aspire to relieve the crises are also significantly affected, as they can be perceived as less competent, insufficiently professional, and more prone to corruption by their expatriate counterparts in their employing organizations (Benton 2016b).
Mark Schuller extensively examines this dimension under the Haitian context through the accounts of thirty Haitian NGO employees, stressing that the reason behind expatriate professionals’ condescension towards the competency of local staff members is ultimately a result of cultural imperialism within the humanitarian structure. Interviewees of Schuller’s research indicate that Western (and often white) expatriate professionals still reinforce ideas, interventions, and structures that are fundamentally foreign to Haitian localities. Many aid agencies responding to the Haitian earthquake promoted “particularly green foreigners above Haitians who, themselves, had intimate knowledge of the needs of their communities (Schuller 2016)Footnote 4.”
Bandyopadhyay and Patil further emphasizes how the humanitarian narrative, in which “whiteness is associated with progress, power, and higher status,” and “those in the global South... have lower capacity for development,” overly celebrates the altruistic emotional morale of international, expatriate humanitarian workers at the cost of devaluing the expertise of their local counterparts (Bandyopadhyay and Patil 2017). Peter Redfield also accounts the observation of an Italian nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), reflecting upon her own status as a white, Western aid worker: “There’s a status of color in much of Africa, your authority and knowledge are rarely questioned when you are white (Redfield 2012).”
Humanitarian aid and development organizations are aware of the importance of their local staff members. After all, they know the roads, the community customs, the language (particularly in communities where neither French nor English are spoken), and the broader domestic political landscapes that organizations need to navigate through. Local knowledge, in turn, have become extensively highlighted by the operational narratives of most programs in crises environments (Harrison 2013). However, this narrative may perpetuate the existing local-expat hierarchical divide, as it further outlines the reason for local staff to continue serving in support-type positions, focusing on the coordination and implementation of program decisions made by expatriate leadership. In many ways, local professionals are valued for the field-level knowledge that they possess, but it does not necessarily translate to them being trusted with making administrative decisions based on their local knowledge to anchor the future trajectories of their organizations.
Humanitarian aid agencies cannot possibly operate without local knowledge and expertise—even though racialized perceptions of competency and expertise continue to undermine the presence of local humanitarian professionals. As agencies justify their presence in communities of crises through “repeated assertions of radicalized difference” between the international and the local, a covert discourse emerges to reinforce the idea that local expertise would only thrive with the leadership of expatriate thematic knowledge (Heron 2007). Professional categorizations “expatriate” and “local” are colorblind because they possess both separate and unequal statuses even when nowhere on paper—in contacts, regulations, policies—explicitly indicates as such. Yet at the same time, such separation and non-equivalence can be identified in structural and societal elements. The contemporary humanitarian discourse of international help overly emphasizes thematic, expatriate knowledge to specific, local expertise. As a result, local professionals receive comparatively less compensation, benefits, and protection and are almost perpetually bound to positions in the lower sections of the organizational hierarchy.
The growing advancement of communication technologies, particularly with the development of the Internet, has made information-sharing between field offices in the global South and agency headquarters situated in Western developed states much more affordable. Lisa, the director of a global forum researching aid worker security, recalls that many aid programs in the late 1990s and early 2000s significantly depended on local decision-making due to the high cost of international communication services (Interview by author, Lisa (pseudonym), 2020):
When I worked in an earlier aid program in Afghanistan—I think it was the late ninetieths—the only way for us to reach the UK headquarters of our organization was through phone dial. We had this one black satellite telephone which was so expensive to use for international calls, and we were advised to only turn to it when there is an absolute emergency, like if the country falls into a large-scale civil war over night. So naturally we were encouraged to relegate decision-making responsibilities to our national staff and find local solutions. But now as everything can be communicated via an email, the tasks of decision-making have since moved up in most organizations’ hierarchies.
The power and status hierarchy between expat and local humanitarian professionals is also addressed by Iman (pseudonym), a national program officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria. Expressing her concern regarding the decision-making process within her organization in light of the ongoing novel-coronavirus pandemic, she spoke in a hushed tone – even from her own home through a recent phone call with me (Interview by author, Iman (pseudonym), 2020):
All international organizations would develop a country plan to mitigate with new pandemic challenges. However, for us—at least in OCHA’s Damascus capital office—the country plan was developed in a closed-door meeting consisted of only expats. I was a bit shocked; I mean, at least they [the expat management] could have called some of the senior local staff to participate. After all, we have been around much longer than they have. But no, we were not even asked for comments or suggestions. What do they know about our country—where we are born and raised, in a conflict that we live through—that we do not know? Especially when most of them have only arrived several months ago?
It is not uncommon that expatriate professionals arrive in a new country program without familiarity of local geographical, social, and political dimensions. It is likely that most expats would have arrived in “the field” with no local knowledge at least once throughout their professional career. Some expatriate humanitarian professionals disclose this reality through their memoirs recounting their field experience. In Emergency Sex, Heidi Postlewait contended that she arrived in her posting as a secretary for the UN Mission in Cambodia while she “didn’t even know where Cambodia was (Cain et al. 2007).” Leanne Olson, through A Cruel Paradise, admitted that she “didn’t have a clue about Bosnia” when arriving for her Doctors Without Borders position (Olson 1999). In turn, the extent which the expatriate professionals understand local situations depend on how much they reference the knowledge of local staff in the short term and how well they assimilate to local life to perform their own observations in the long term.
This can be further illustrated by Ruth, a Ugandan doctor working for MSF, who disclosed to Peter Redfield that the organization’s expatriate administrative staff, and “particularly the French”, seemed to be notably incompetent, almost as if they were hired from “just off the streets in Paris (Redfield 2012).” Expatriate MSF staff in Uganda, during Ruth’s assignment, were also highly suspicious of local staff, often accusing them “when money had gone missing from a safe,” while arrogantly ignoring local advice on the designs and organizations of important building layouts (Redfield 2012). Silke Roth also noted that many local professionals would have to “train new international team members on a regular basis” while they themselves rarely have access to opportunities of being promoted to leadership positions that expatriate staff often occupy (Roth 2015). In fact, Ong and Combinido indicate that even though local professionals are equipped with the mental aptitude in navigating through new and unknown circumstances and living conditions, they still have “limited professional mobility within the global organization (Ong and Combinido 2018).”
The effects of local-expatriate staff categorizations also become particularly acute in the discussion on the agencies’ duty of care for their staff. While expatriate humanitarian professionals are often seen residing in walled compounds and following strict security procedures in crises environments, the majority of aid worker casualtiies often consisted of local professionals who do not necessarily receive equal amounts of protection. Yet at the same time, they “experience increased attack rates and fatality rates per capital relative to international staff, reflecting increased localization of aid in high-risk areas (Stoddard et al. 2019).” For example, Sally Mohsen, a local professional who had worked for Save the Children in Egypt during the Arab Spring, recounted how the agency’s local staff members were exposed to significant security threats due to the fact that they were not able to travel with the NGO-owned vehicles and asked to take public transportation instead. The logistics policy at the time was justified on the basis of funds limitations, but when being interviewed by Elettra Pauletto, Mohsen detailed that if “one of the international staff would travel they (the organization) would definitely assign a car (Pauletto 2018).” In fact, a majority of aid agency security policies are developed to address risks faced by expatriate professionals, as it is often assumed that local professionals are able to manage their own security (Stoddard et al. 2009). This overbearing expectation for local professionals, who themselves can be direct and indirect victims of the crisis environment, results in their disproportionally high security risk exposure.
Local humanitarian professionals, while taking on a significant bulk of operational tasks of aid programs, are also much less compensated compared to their international counterparts (Stoddard et al. 2006). In addition, they also receive less training, livelihood benefits, security provisions, and psycho-social support compared to their expatriate colleagues (Carr et al. 2010). Iman, in her accounts of working in OCHA Syria, has also disclosed to me that as a local staff, she is not provided with the opportunity to take advantage of the Rest and Relaxation (R&R) plan offered to her expatriate colleagues that allotted special vacation dates and subsidized air travel costs. In addition, besides being delegated noticeably similar (and often times higher) amounts of tasks than her expatriate colleagues, her salary is half of what expatriate staff with similar work experiences receive. For Iman, this material reality evidences the non-equivalence of status between expatriate (in her case, an all-white leadership team) and local humanitarian workers (Interview by author, Iman (pseudonym), 2020):
What many expatriate managements cannot fully comprehend is the fact that like all other local staff, I live the Syrian conflict twice: once as a humanitarian worker, and another as a Syrian national. Because of the instability, almost nowhere is safe, and yet everything is expensive. My family depend on me; if the conflict escalates, the expats get to go home to somewhere safe, but I have no other choice but to live through it.
Especially in an environment where waves of emergencies are seemingly endless, working overtime is common. In this context, unforeseen demands related to conflict and crisis response requiring immediate attention are easier to meet for those without daily family responsibilities. Expatriate professionals, who often arrive without family companions to serve in short-term postings, are more equipped to work overtime and complete more tasks in a fixed period of time should they choose to. However, this would frequently mean that expatriate management and leaderships who choose to work during “after hours” may expect similar working ethics as local staff, who are less compensated, less protected while having to shoulder their daily family responsibilities and navigate through everyday crisis challenges (Acker 2006).
Expatriate professionals, often arriving from a more developed part of the world (mostly North America or Europe), stand in a mobile, contingent contrast to the predictable, constant local professionals. They possess a notably privileged type of voluntary mobility; the migratory experiences of expatriate professionals for their respective aid works are rarely characterized by economic or political hardship. In turn, the much-celebrated, transcendent humanitarian worldview of selfless giving is more difficult for local professionals to take on, as they are both financially and socially disadvantaged to do so. For expatriate professionals, “the field” can be as specific as one community in crisis, or as ambiguous as any parts of the developing world, and that working in “the field” is an experience that can often be beneficial for the advancement of their career. For local professionals, on the other hand, “the field” is where they are born and raised, where their family reside, and where they live through the exact crises that they work to respond. As they struggle to conform to this humanitarian ideal, mitigating with the structural barriers within their profession and the social ties of their communities in crises, they may appear to be less-so committed, and hence less-so professional, than their expatriate counterparts. This in turn will affect their upward mobility within the organizational hierarchies within the professional aid sector.
Park, in his examination of the plight for professional recognition of volunteer health workers in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, details how trained local nurses volunteered to work in Ebola treatment units operated by programs led by international aid agencies and the national government in hope to demonstrate their expertise and obtain permanent employment in the national health system. Instead, many were abruptly disengaged at the end of the epidemic without any emotional nor professional recognition (Park 2017). This phenomenon also occurs in the peacekeeping sector—as Coleman also stresses that many UN Volunteers, while often highly qualified individuals who perform “the same or similar types of functions as regular (international) staff” and “see their assignment as a possible path to a future United Nations staff career,” continue to receive formal warnings advising against such considerations (Coleman 2020).
The conflation of both fragmented human resource needs in face of unpredictable emergencies and inconsistent (and increasingly limited) funding available from donors, work contracts for local professionals are almost always short term (approximately 3 to 18 months) with uncertain likelihood for renewal (Korff et al. 2015). Local professionals, after dedicating significant resources and time to accumulate relevant certification and experience, nonetheless have to frequently apply for new assignments and be prepared for periods of unemployment and uncertainty in future prospects (Dickman et al. 2010). The increasingly pronounced career insecurity within the aid sector pressure local humanitarian professionals to conform to increasingly demanding work conditions without fair reciprocation from their employing international agencies in the forms of protection, recognition and compensation. Elisa Pascucci identifies this particular career instability as a form of “labor precarity” experienced by local aid workers that “reproduce a porous and contested ‘local vs. international divide” (Pascucci 2019). The differential labor divide between local and expat aid workers is founded upon deep-rooted structures of colonial and hierarchical stratification that raises “ethico-political concerns about the presumptions of abstract universality inherent to humanitarianism (Pascucci 2019).”
The most diligent few local professionals do manage to breakthrough into international postings or opportunities to pursue higher education in the developed world by excelling significantly at what they do. Their extraordinary achievements would be branded as “success stories” that justified the compromising work-compensation arrangements local staff often receive. The stories of the exceptional and lucky few serve as reminders for the majority of local staff who do not have international experience or higher education from recognized institutions in the global West to be content with their support and implementation roles, ultimately “reinforcing the idea that a job in a global agency is a ‘blessing’ (Ong and Combinido 2018).” Yet at the same time, most expatriate professionals from countries in the global West, like Leanne Olson and Heidi Postlewait, though undoubtedly experts with thematic competency, still manage to retain significant global mobility in the humanitarian sector without necessarily having specific local expertise.
Without what Autesserre terms as the “knowledge hierarchy” that places thematic competency over local expertise, the idea of deploying expatriate professionals to a country that they have never lived in or even heard of would seem absurd. In reality, one NGO recruiter explained to Autesserre that familiarity with local dynamics is “neither a prerequisite nor a necessity” for expatriate professionals in crisis intervention and relief at large (Autesserre 2014). In her most recent book, The Frontlines of Peace, Autesserre further elaborates this issue in the specific context of peacebuilding, noting that often times, “as far as promotions go, most peacebuilding agencies reward the number of missions completed in different countries rather than the amount of time spent in a particular area.” In addition, she also observes that many “interveners discredit foreigners who stay too long in a specific place... as having ‘gone native’—implying that they are too immersed in the local culture, and too close to host populations, to effectively carry out their mission (Autesserre 2021).” This mindset has long encouraged the unwarranted discrediting of local expertise and increasing preference for top-down, thematic knowledge—preferred for their generalizability and simplicity in crisis environments that are, in contrast, unique and complex. This exemplifies Barnett’s observation that “devastation invites re-formers to imagine new arrangements that can peel away the causes of suffering and create the spiritual and material foundations for a better world (Barnett 2011).” In turn, international humanitarianism is not necessarily aiming to rebuild communities in crises as they were, but instead to paint new and supposedly improved pictures on the blank slates created by devastation.
The local aid worker imagery are perceived to possess contrasting and conflating qualities in different contexts and occasions (Ward 2020). At the international level, in front of public stakeholders, donors, and everyone external to the humanitarian workspace, local aid workers are highly valuable and essential professionals that make humanitarian operations possible. Within the organizational hierarchies, local aid workers are relegated to the roles of support, assistance, and service. There is hence a hybridity within the discourse: the “local” is both the victims of war, the embodiment of underdevelopment, yet the most knowledgeable in facilitating change “on the ground.” Ilan Kapoor well-nuances this hybridity through reasoning with Homi K. Bhabha, suggesting that it highlights the conflating, unstable nature of colonial and imperial discourses that possess polarizing yet co-existing enunciations—hence, “in the very practice of domination the language of the master becomes the hybrid (Kapoor 2002; Bhabha 1994).” Although local aid workers’ existence is recognized to be necessary, their inclusion in the higher stratifications of international humanitarian leadership is nonetheless constantly resisted. In many ways, Barnett is reasonable to suggest that humanitarian governance today “has a chummy relationship with the very empires that it supposedly resists (Barnett 2011).”
Therefore, their competency and knowledge are not the sole factors that determine the ability for local professionals to participate in organization-wide decision-making processes. Their “localness,” characterized by their black, brown, and non-white skins, can be the ultimate determinants to local experts’ professionalism being recognized and respected, as their racial profiles have long been formed in strong association with certain origins of under-development. While expatriate professionals may be BIPOC, local professionals are always BIPOC: the expat-local divide is intrinsically founded upon historically formulated perceptions of race and color, blinded by the exact discourses of “help” and “liberation” extolled by contemporary liberal humanitarianism.