When some aid workers are more equal than others

Allegations
of institutional racism have been raised in an audit of HR practices in aid
agencies. Daloni Carlisle-Pesic reports on two eye-witness accounts of how
different treatments are meted out to UK and overseas staff recruited locally.

Helen
is an aid worker who has worked on both development and emergency relief
projects in Africa and eastern Europe.

"The
issue of how differently we treat "national staff"’ – those recruited
locally – from the expats is always something that has bothered me. I had never
put the label institutional racism on it and I struggle to think of it as such,
but I suppose it is an accurate description.

"I
have worked as an unpaid volunteer and on a salary. I have also worked with
"counterparts"’ – a person in a local organisation who is supposed to
be your partner.

"As
a volunteer, the people you are working with usually assume you are being paid
and you have to work quite hard to convince them otherwise. But even then, you
have access to the boss that they don’t and access to information that is a
closed book to the locals, and all because you are the foreigner.

"It
comes into sharper focus with paid aid work. In some cases, my living allowance
has been higher than my counterpart’s entire salary. That can be a really tough
one to face unless you are supporting a family back home where the cost of
living is way higher than in developing countries.

"It
is not just the money, though. Sometimes I have wondered why I am needed when
the local staff can obviously get on with the job without me. Yet international
organisations are reluctant to let the local staff take over. You hear it back
at HQ as a criticism of a country programme: ‘The locals have got the upper
hand. We need to get control back.’

"There
are sometimes good reasons for having a foreigner, even an incompetent one. You
have a distance from a regime that local people might not have. You may be
earning enough to prevent corruption being an issue. You also know how to talk
the language of your bureaucrats.

"Some
agencies are genuinely trying to tackle this issue by giving more training
opportunities to their local staff and employing them to work outside their own
country. It is something most of us in the humanitarian world welcome, even
though it does us out of jobs."

In
Kosovo we didn’t look after our own

Leaving
local staff behind when a conflict breaks out puts their lives and UK aid
workers’ credibility at risk

Kevin
is an experienced aid worker who has worked in emergency relief since the
mid-1990s.

"I
think the instance that sticks out most in mind was Kosovo in 1998-9. There
were several Nato threats to bomb and we, as international staff, were pulled
out at every turn. We began to feel as though we were doing the hokey kokey.

"Every
time we came back, we had to face the local staff we had left behind. And every
time, we had just that little bit less credibility.

"When
the crunch came in March 1999 and Nato really was about to bomb, all the
international staff climbed into their four-wheel drives and high-tailed it to
the nearest border. Most left their local staff behind.

"The
argument from the head office was this: ‘We don’t want to make refugees of
them. You simply solve one problem by creating another.’

"Well,
they didn’t have to tell their staff that to their faces. We had asked these
people to risk their lives for the agencies. Yes, some of them were motivated
by humanitarian principles and knew what they were getting themselves into, but
most were just desperate for a job. They didn’t realise quite how dangerous it
was to work for a foreign agency labelled as spies by the regime in Belgrade.

"So
there we were, safe in a neighbouring country or back at home watching the
news, and guess what? They ended up as refugees anyway. At least the lucky ones
did. Some were targeted by the paramilitary forces in Kosovo and, along with
their families, arrested or killed.

"Would
I call this institutional racism? I’m not sure I have the words to adequately
describe my feelings of anger, frustration and guilt, and the term
‘institutional racism’ sounds like something head office would use. All I know
is we didn’t look after our own."

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