Rumble: As an Aid Worker, Am I Paid Too Much?

In the introduction to The Road to the Horizon, you can read how I became a humanitarian aid worker. Pretty much by coincidence (if there is such thing in life), driven by an urge to travel, work with radio (or telecommunications in general) and to work with and for people.
Humanitarian work was an excellent opportunity to combine all of those plus-es.. In the beginning, I took the humanitarian aspect as ‘a nice bonus’: while doing the things I loved, I could contribute to the well-being of others.

In the beginning, working as a free lancer, for IFRC, I got to do the real stuff: fly out with a kit to remote locations and install stuff, train people, and feel the direct impact of what I did. The communications and IT equipment I installed contributed to a safer environment for them, allowed them to coordinate their work more efficiently, and get the aid moving faster. I was not paid much. Something like USD1,000 per month plus some local expenses, housing and transport.
Via a temporary job in UNHCR, I got to work for the UN organisation I work in now. Though, when giving up my corporate job in Belgium, I swore never to do a management job again, I gradually went up the ladder again, and before I knew it, I was supervising a team again. First it was small, so I got to do a lot of the physical work myself, but gradually, through the years in Africa, Kosovo and Central Asia, the team grew and I did less of the work myself, concentrating more in the management of a team. I did not have too much of a direct impact anymore in the aid provided, but the people I managed still did. Good enough. In my years managing the Dubai office, it was pretty much the same, though in the end, the team was so large, it required most of my time in the office, and less field work. But I still felt the impact from my personal contribution to the aid provided. As I went up the management ladder reasonably fast, the financial compensation I received went up equally.
While I did not become a humanitarian aid worker, because of the humanitarian work, after years dealing with the misery of others (and sure, I have always been an idealist), I started to find the humanitarian aspect of our work more and more important…

So now, I am working in the headquarters. Now a real challenge starts. I should be a bit careful what I say now. It is in no way meant as criticism of the organisation I work for – I still think we are one of the leanest and the meanest of all humanitarian organisations. But it is a conscience problem I have at the moment:
Here I am, working in Rome. As you have seen in previous posts, it is not a real hardship duty station (compared to those colleagues working in the remote places like I described in these posts) AT ALL. It is a comfortable life. As comfortable as working for a corporation or a multinational commercial company. The work I do now is so far away from the real field aid work. It is difficult to feel the real impact. “Will an emergency operation really go better if I would stop doing what I do?” No it won’t. “Will aid stop being delivered if I stop my job tomorrow?” No it won’t… I am doing work that facilitates the work of a group of people, who facilitate work for those doing the real aid work in the field. That is at least two levels away from my work.

On top of that, working in a headquarters is different. I used to work in offices of 20 to 50 people. We have something like 800 working here. There is something to be said about the challenges trying to make a difference within this big mass of people. A big mass of people, all working far away from the aid-reality. A big mass of people automatically includes work being done slower. Big machines turn slower. And it is so easy to hide within a mass of people, and not perform at your utmost best. One bad performer in an office of 20 or 50 people stands out. One lazy guy in a mass of 800 does not. So we have a big mass, far away from the real work we are meant to be doing. We are providing aid, while sitting in a comfortable, air conditioned office, in Rome… Solving the problems of world hunger…

OK.. I can still keep my own conscience clean by saying “hey, I worked so long in the field, and am reputed for the work I did in the field that destiny brought me here to bring that experience, that ‘spang’ to the ‘masses’ here in a headquarters.” But it certainly is a challenge to make this difference, tell you that.

All of that, is still OK to tackle. But then I look at my pay cheque. And think how many children we could feed with that money. My pay cheque allows me to lead a very comfortable life. But is it still in balance with the real work I do, with the real impact I have on the aid we deliver? Is it still in balance of what an aid worker should earn? Should wages of aid workers not be more basic, emphasizing raised (aid) funds to go to the (aid) operations themselves? You see my conscience struggle?

Sure enough, by paying a competitive wage, the agency attracts high quality professionals. (“Pay peanuts and you only get monkeys”). I am proud to be good at what I am doing. And the work we do, often goes with personal sacrifices.. In my case, I live away from my family for most of the year. Not easy. In the work we do, we can be reassigned to a new emergency at a moment’s notice. Not always easy. And we can be repeatedly moved from one emergency to another. Sure. And in with large corporations, director positions like I have, probably are paid more. But still, I am not a corporate executive. I am an aid worker. Are we not going a bit over the top? Am I, as an aidworker not being paid too much? Are we, as aid workers not being paid too much?


Ryan Lackey 23 August, 2007 10:07  

I am more concerned with the level of staffing than the salary of directors. A lot of NGOs seem to have huge HQ staff levels, some of which happens due to volunteer or below-market staff, but it always seems to evolve into a large number of well paid staff. Additionally, the non-cash compensation (being based in expensive cities, housing, etc.) contributes to high overhead as well. And, aside from the financial overhead of high staffing levels (even if they're low paid, you then end up with higher paid managers to manage them, facilities, etc.), you get the organizational inertia, which if you have an important enough mission and a changing environment, is a bigger cost than the overhead itself.

Clearly there's some point in being near donors, and being able to provide accountability, hand-holding, etc. to those donors, but pushing more of the staffing out to commercial companies (for surge demand, or specialist skills), lower-cost places (i.e. increasing the level of management in the regional centers, with HQ mainly for external interface to donors), and standard efficiency/IT/etc. measures from the corporate world make sense.

I think this is a bigger issue with charity organizations NOT operating in conflict zones or developing places....the non-conflict United Way was one of the bigger fiascos, and groups like MSF have a pretty good reputation for efficiency

Peter 23 August, 2007 11:04  

Thanks for your reaction, Ryan.

You are right to point out that salaries (or 'the value of the package') is only one issue. Staffing levels, staff quality,.. is the other side...
(leaving alone the question which organisation is providing EFFECTIVE "aid making a change")


Anonymous,  23 August, 2007 11:13  

Maybe it's just one factor amongst many, but I feel it's worth mentioning. this compensation (and here I'm referring to the qualified workers) serves to:
1. Provide an adequate value/quantify the 'sacrifices'..

2. Allows a worker to focus on the work and not on 'making ends meet' whilst in the field. esp if the worker has a family under his/her belt.

3. Scenarios for the field workers that are obtaining strong compensation and may require to take breaks (for fear of burnout) - would it not be adequate these workers take breaks in desirable locations that could 'cost' a little more? Do they not deserve this choice?

A lot of these questions/observations come into play when compensation is being discussed - since we are humanitarian. We are human.. and these aid workers are also people..

Peter 23 August, 2007 12:09  

Hi E.,
(as per discussion over lunch :-) )...
I would agree with you on points 2 and 2, but point 3 stands only for those based in the field, especially in hardship duty stations. For those based in 1st world 'duty stations', though, it is different...

pumuckl 23 August, 2007 14:56  

it is a job, it is a business - pay less, and the organisation becomes less professional. does being an aid worker mean you have to suffer like the ones you are working for?

does it help any of the Hmong refugees if I sit with them, struggling for education and nutrition, or does it help if I look smart and go on government level advocating and negotiating for fairer chances?

I'm not saying the system is right and good. but i am not going to feel bad for earning money and realising the chances that I get in life.

I would never work for a development agency, though.

Anonymous,  26 August, 2007 16:49  

Hi Peter, Thanks for the article. I guess being an aid worker would require a certain degree of humanism and idealism to go along with professionalism as well as strong support from your inner circle, being yourself, family, parents - whichever that are applicable in your case.

Within your search for the answer, in corporate world we have a saying that it is not the money that makes a man, it is the man who makes money. In non-profit industry, it is your success, performance that make yourself, not the money.

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