Saturday, June 4, 2016

Salaries Gap Between Local and International Aid Workers

“…We are at the same level, but they get more. This is unfair.”
(Frans, Local aid worker in Jakarta)

In the humanitarian aid and development sector, it is a reality that local staff are paid less than their expatriate colleagues even when they have similar qualification and same positions. Anna Strempel, a master student of Monash University just recently conducted a research thesis in Indonesia aimed at investigating this phenomenon.

In her podcast (Carr and McWha-Hermann 2016), she investigates the real practices of humanitarian and development sector including the huge salaries (and facilities) gap between local and international aid workers, problems of the openness of project’s fund to the community/beneficiaries, problems in the capacity building approach, and also the impact of the merger of AusAID and DFAT under Abbot’s administration in 2013 and DFAT’s new strategic framework in 2014 to promote and protect Australia’s national interest (DFAT 2014). This short article will particularly discuss the gap between local and international aid workers’ salaries.

Dual salary system: creates frustration and interfere aid effectiveness

Carr and McWha-Hermann (2016) call this differential treatment: the dual salary system. According to their research on the effects of the wage gap between local and international staff, wage disparities are often a taboo topic to be discussed. In addition, the disparities also created significant feelings of workplace injustice, can damage relationships in the workplace and thereby interfere with aid effectiveness. 

This phenomenon happens everywhere. Jackson (2007: 115) investigates this issue in Honduras and finds that most Hondurans development workers feel ill-equipped to argue for higher salaries. On the other hand, they cannot enter international post easily because they only valued for their local expertise. Whydev.Org (2011) on their special interview with a local aid worker in Zimbabwe finds that there are also large gaps between the locals and the expatriate conditions of service, even for people with the same qualifications and this condition creates frustration to local staff.

A wicked problem: aid effectiveness and country ownership over development

In my own experience working in International development sector in Indonesia, I think the gap salary problem can be classified as a “wicked problem” as a result of the aims of international aid (to promote and protect donors’ national interests) and how international aid systems work including the criteria to winning the bids and how private sectors from the North (developed countries) dominate the international development projects in developing countries. These create questions on aid effectiveness and the ownership of the development programs. The lack of country ownership over international development programs and the reality of donor-driven agenda (International development dominated by donor country experts with minimal inputs from developing country stakeholders) become the most important critics to the Millennium Development Goals (Higgins 2013: 3).

International development stakeholders aware about this issue and have developed several declarations to tackle the problem. Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (OECD n.y: 3) declares that donors commit to respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it. In addition, the Jakarta Commitment – as a commitment between Government of Indonesia and its development partners –  points out that the importance of external assistance for Indonesia is not only a function of its volume, but rather of its quality and effectiveness (Bappenas 2008: 5).

So, how to solve the problem?

In my view, the problem is not on the salary gap and how local staff deserve for higher salary, but rather on our responsibility to use people’s tax money as wise as possible. In fact, as far as I know, local staff salaries in INGOs and profit companies who work for humanitarian and development sector are remained extensively higher than average people’s salaries in local NGOs/CBOs.
To achieve the aid effectiveness, what we need is to shift the paradigm of international aid by separating it with other sectors such as: trade (happening within DFAT) and private sectors (common practice that international aid managed by profit companies with more than 40% of the budget spent for salaries and other administrative expenditures). Humanitarian aid and development sector need people who want to work for others and not merely for their own benefits.
To solve the gap problem is not by increasing the local workers’ salaries but rather by cutting the number of international staff, stop giving extraordinary facilities to international staff such as luxurious houses or apartments and personal cars and drivers. Important question for us: is that really what international aid for? *****  


Bappenas (2008), Jakarta Commitment, available at: (accessed 21 April 2016).

Carr, S, C., and Ishbel, M. (2016), Mind the gap in local and international aid workers’ salaries, The Conversation, 18 April 2016, available at: (accessed 20 April 2016).

DFAT (2014), Australia’s new development policy and performance framework: a summary, available at: (accessed 21 April 2016).

Higgins, K. (2013), The power of global goals: reflection of the MDGs, NSI The North South Institute, Policy Brief Vol. September 2013, available at: (accessed 21 April 2016).

Jackson, J, T. (2007), The Globalizers: Development Workers in Action, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, available at: (Accessed 21 April 2016).

OECD (no year), The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action, available at: (accessed 21 April 2016).           

WhyDev.Org (2011), Earning a wage in development: An issue of corruption?, available at: (accessed 21 April 2016).