Who works for INGOs?

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Before I went to Timor-Leste in 2008 I had a lot of preconceived ideas about international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). Truth be told, I didn't know very much about the INGO world at all. But gradually, as I started to see the work being done in Timor-Leste and meet the people doing it, I did away with a lot of my initial cynical thoughts, although some remained. But when I think back to how little I understood the INGO world, it makes me wonder about how the general public sees the people who work for organisations like Plan, Save and World Vision, to name but three.

I'm by no means an expert on the ins and outs of INGOs, but I'm learning. What I want to talk about here is money, specifically INGO salaries (plus benefits!). From my observations, I think there's often a feeling that people who work for INGOs should live stripped-down, simple lives, well within their means. The nature of INGO work is in helping those less fortunate than ourselves and so with this comes the perception that INGO staffers should handle themselves in a certain way.

For example, some people may frown on an INGO worker who works for an organisation that alleviates poverty Tweeting about a great meal they were eating. With starving people all around the world, how could such a person have the audacity to flaunt the fact that they are eating well!? There's a belief that INGO staffers shouldn't have nice things, or if they do, they should at least keep quiet about it.

People who work for INGOs are just regular people. They like to sleep in a comfy bed at night and they often enjoy nice food and, heaven forbid, shopping. Why should they be criticised for doing normal things? If we all subscribed to this logic, aid workers would forever be living in mud huts and taking cold showers.

The fact is that people are entitled to do what they want with the money they earn. Aid work pays well and there's no point in trying to pussyfoot around this fact. This isn't to say that INGOs and the people who work for them are above criticism. They're not, at all, and like anyone else, they sometimes get things wrong, very wrong. But people aren't black and white and it's important to remember that.

I'm forever seeing gaps between INGOs and the general public. I don't think INGOs have done a good enough job of explaining how they work, especially when it comes to getting things wrong. To me this is part of the problem of how people perceive INGOs and their staff. They expect them to fit a certain stereotype and to always be out there, succeeding, saving lives.

But the information is out there now, on countless aid blogs, about the realities of the work these organisations do. Aid workers are no longer angelic creatures who can't put a foot wrong — they're regular folks, just like you and I.

Ashlee Betteridge recently penned an interesting article about communicating the challenges of development. Here are some highlights:

A complex Catch 22 situation exists in communicating the work of aid agencies and NGOs. Organisations face the question of whether they should clearly acknowledge the challenges in delivering aid and programs in developing countries, or solely present a positive, optimistic view of the transformative powers of development.

Campaigns by NGOs in particular often focus on how easy it is for individual donors to participate in the change process, emphasising small donations that can make a big difference. Internet communications have been harnessed by organisations such as Kiva, where individuals can provide a microcredit loan to a specific person or group. These approaches make a lot of sense from fundraising and mobilisation perspectives – people want to feel like they are doing good when they donate. By shifting the proximity of this do-gooding to a person-to-person relationship, it makes donation appear direct and transparent.

Anyone working in development policy or practice knows that the whole process is a lot more complicated – but telling people that development is hard might deter them from donating. Thus, acknowledgement of development challenges typically comes from references to the scale of problems, like statistics of the number of hungry or the number of children out of school. This approach once again mobilises support without making mention of the inherent challenges in addressing these issues.

Obviously balances need to be struck. ‘Poverty porn’ is a no-go and portraying aid workers as martyrs is tacky as well, particularly in this age of recipient-led development. However, sharing more of the real stories of aid delivery with the public — a process with as much blood, sweat, tears and joy as any sweeping Hollywood epic, animated or not — could be a beneficial communications approach.

Now that we're coming to understand that aid workers are human after all it's perhaps time to ditch a whole bunch of misconceptions, but to do that, INGOs have to get better at engaging with an audience that will not stop asking questions.

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One thought on “Who works for INGOs?

  1. Matt,

    I don't think people are being critical of NGO workers because they earn a lot of money saving the poor. The problem is one of fund allocation. People give because they are made to believe that their money is going to lift out of misery that little girls with the sad eyes on the poster, not for INGO workers to enjoy nice meal and comfy bed (not how much importance is given to the % going in to administrative cost, always as little as possible to convince donors that the money goes to the recipient)

    Of course the problem is a bit more complex and two-folds.

    First, if NGO would change the way they advertise their work people would be less suspicious and cynical.

    Second, if NGO would explain that you need qualified people to do the job, you need a good admin if only to save on cost, that qualifications need to be recognised and therefore justify salary, then people would be more understanding. This is another reason to be suspicious of "volunteers" who haven't got a clue about what they are doing and cost more in time and money than professionals.

    Instead we get the girl with the sad eyes…

    Now there is another side of "better paid" NGO workers you need to look into. That of the locals working for NGO where they get much better salaries than local working for government offices. NGO are well known to attract and drain skilled worker from where they are need (the field and the communities) towards the capital where they will get better salaries writing report under the supervision of expats.

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