Doomsday for the INGO expatriate staff?

The emerging global trend is for organisations to invest in Global Leadership Development (GLD). The latter recognises an increasingly global marketplace that demands global leadership skills of most leaders. It is common for expatriates (expats) to occupy the first and second tier of leadership at the International Non Governmental Organisation (INGO).  Expats are INGO staff that have withdrawn from residence in their native countries to serve the poor, the majority of them, based in the South.

Unfortunately, doomsday is dawning on the INGO expat and their relevance to INGO operations in the South. Aid Industry analysts forecast the end of an era for INGO expat staff working in the South. Expat staff are increasingly considered an economic burden to the INGO, unnecessary cost to the Southern aid industry configuration, and in some instances a sign of old-school development. This minimalist approach, perhaps triggered by guilt of a historical lavish expat lifestyle in the South, tends to overlook the value-proposition expats bring to the INGO.

Aid industry actors need to pause for a moment and ponder on the shift towards ‘de-exptasing’ of Southern INGO operations. Under pressure to: cut cost, justify why it should have the kind of complex operation it has in the South, hand over work to its civil society peer in the South, the INGO has chosen the quick-fix i.e. ‘de-expatise’ and deliver immediate cost saving. Indeed, remove two expat staff from the ranks of an INGO operating in the South, and you will achieve immediate and tangible cash savings. Unfortunately, in the rush to save money, the aid industry and INGO, in particular, are not investing enough in mitigating the gap created by the removal of the expat value proposition.

In choosing to ‘de-expatise’, the aid industry is mixing a number of things, and in the process, risking throwing the baby away with the bath water. The focus should be on how to maintain the value-proposition of the current expat staff, but at a much-reduced cost, and not ‘de-expatising’. We all know that historically, some expats have lived a lavish lifestyle at their Southern bases. This, under the guise, that expats sacrifice a comfortable lifestyle in their Northern based homes for a dangerous one at the Southern stations. The latter has led many INGO observers to the conclusion that whatever value-proposition the expat staff brings to development, gets lost in the over-exuberant deployment at their INGO Southern bases. It is high time the INGO worked to correct this image. The INGO should focus on having the current expat staff work SMART and effectively, and there are ways of doing that.

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I am pushing back on the trend to ‘de-expatise’ because I know that leadership in any industry takes generations to develop and nurture. I am yet to see enough investment by the INGO in GLD especially of its Southern native cadres. The INGO lacks enough Southern staff, with the skills and leadership pedigree to match that of the professional expat from the North. I have to conclude that the INGO is ‘de-expatising’ fast, but without doing enough to replace the lost skills.

Let us explore below the particular value-proposition the expat staff brings to the development table and whether that can instead be delivered by the Southern native staff.

What value-proposition does the expat staff bring to the development table?

  • Specialised skills in development programming
  • Multi-country expertise and the cross-fertilisation that ensues
  • Buy-in/Comfort from donors esp. those from the expats’ home country – the cultural pull is significant and can be a critical factor in sustaining country-specific donor funds for the INGO
  • The mobile ‘language/culture’ factory the expat takes with them whenever they go, is influential in building donor-networks (i.e. if you talk, write, and think like I do, I’m likely to agree than disagree with you)
  • Global diversity at the Southern-based office
  • A much more robust individual work ethic (a cultural dynamic that is learnt for a fast-moving, time, and results driven society back in the North)
  • Integrity  (less corrupt)

If the INGO woke up one day completely ‘de-expatised’, can its Southern native staff deliver the above value-proposition?

Increasingly, the Southern native staff bring unique skills and value-proposition to the development table. However, those working in the aid industry also know that it is not so much the technical skills that Southern native staff lack, but soft-skills required to navigate the aid industry architecture. An industry whose management answers to the Northern aid architecture culture. For example, you are likely to find exquisite technical skills in a nutrition project funded by USAID in a country like Tanzania, but you may not be able to get a Chief of Party with skills to engage a ‘very American’ local aid office. I do not want to blame this lack of so-called ’soft’ skills to a closed northern aid architecture. However, it is true that Southern native staff have not and may not in the near future, bring that Northern culture dynamic to their day-to-day work. Whether you like it or not, the latter, opens up opportunity for the expat staff to fill the gap. I also think that the education system of most Southern based states does not do much to expose students to the much needed multi-country dynamic and thinking, but let us discuss this another day.

One of the biggest vulnerabilities of Southern native staff is the struggle to get the culture dynamic/comfort right, when engaging stakeholders especially from the rich North aid architecture. I think the reverse is also true i.e. stakeholders from the Northern aid architecture must also have challenges engaging Southern based peers and must at times wish they were Southern natives themselves. The language factor, communication ease, excellent reading of the game and expectations, etc. bring such comfort to those that engage on familiar/home territory. I suppose this is something about people and culture that development has to accommodate.

Matters become more complicated when it comes to the de-facto aid industry lingua-franca, ‘development-English’, and its mastery or lack of, by the Southern native staff. This is not the time to try espousing political correctness. A well written English proposal will contribute greatly to a Dfid office cause, than one that is full of grammatical mistakes. The same applies if I were talking to a musoga from Uganda – as a person that hails from the basoga tribe in Uganda, I would understand faster if I was spoken to in Lusoga than in English or French. Sub-consciously, I may even offer a softer landing during business discussion to those that engage in Lusoga. If I were to write a proposal for Dfid Tanzania, I would rather have a qualified native English speaker do the job for me.

I suppose we need to conduct more research into why expat staff bring to work a robust work ethic, which is results driven, and on a scale of 1-10 (10 being high), a score of 8+ on the Integrity/less-corrupt scale. This may be down to the training in their home countries, better pay compared to Southern native staff, high expectation of them by the industry, etc. The truth is that expats have shown that they rank high on the these two factors when compared to their Southern native peers. A comment below from my blog last week says it all:

”Interesting piece Apollo! No doubt the future of the present INGO is at a crossroads not only due to financial viability but also the operational context in the South. In terms of the context the expat question is on top of the agenda with a significant abundance of local talent that was not readily available a decade ago. However, the operational context in the South also has a significant factor that ought to be explored vis-a-vis the phase out of the expat INGO staff – the accountability mechanisms that exist in most of the developing countries both at state level and within the civil society sector – will this accountability have increased / strengthened enough over the next decade to justify a total phase-out of the expat? As we both know, in the humanitarian and development sector, there is an inherent power imbalance between the agencies (both INGO and Local NGOs) and the people we serve / work with and exporting skills to these agencies and linking them to donor funding without ensuring accountability will be quite unproductive given the rampant lack of accountability (nepotism, financial fraud, selective targeting, etc.).” Aswani Adam

It appears like, and I am not surprised at that, the expat brings special value-proposition to the aid industry, especially, to the work of the INGO in the South. It is also true that the status-quo that siphons big money from the aid industry to sustain the expat in the South is no longer viable. The INGO should explore means to continue engaging the expat in its Southern operations, but in a much more SMART and effective manner. I would like to suggest a number of options below:

  • Work from Northern countries (out of their homes) and support Southern based staff over Skype, podcasts, and other communication means.
  • Hire expats that are already for reasons other than INGO business, based in Southern countries, and avoid the temptation to put them on the full expat pay package
  • Work with organisations like INTRAC, MANGO, etc to develop long-term capacities of Southern native staff.
  • Explore means to deliver in the South some of the value-proposition elements the expat offers, but cannot provide from afar – i.e. integrity/less-corrupt. Information is power and at times we do not use it enough, as a tool to fight corruption. With mobile phone ownership fast growing in the South, INGO’s should consider providing more digital information and opposite feedback loops on projects to beneficiaries and use them as a check and balance on the corrupt
  • Pools of expertise based in Northern countries tapped into by Southern based peers – the centralising effect seems to be emerging once again

In the long-term however, even with the current expat working from afar, if Southern INGO operations are to become more effective, there has to be sustained investment in GLD. The aid industry has an obligation to develop Southern native leaders. The INGO is a more effective proposition if it taps into both a pool of expertise based in the North and at the same time, excellent native leadership in the South. This will take much planning and a robust resourcing plan.

Can we ALL at the INGO avoid the temptation to do things because they are politically correct?



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10 replies

  1. These great ideas Appollo.

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  2. I totally agree with you Herbert, well to some extent. Experts are good, it’s generally not easy for their integrity to be compromised but have also seen instances where this has happened, not only in Kenya but other countries too – collusion with local govts to misappropriate funding. In this day and age, good local expertise – managers with good qualifications, leadership skills who can be trusted to lead, manage and control donor funding can be found. Personally I think the big issue is integrity both on the part of expats and local managers

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  3. Dear Apollo,
    Excellent piece. Indeed things have changed and something we may consider is recruiting talent from the South that has been exposed to the North e.g. third generation Ugandans Such people have been exposed to a different work ethic yet they may consider coming back home to serve their countries as nationals and not as expats.

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    • Apollo – thanks very much for reading the blog + your contribution. The kind of Southern human resource you suggest as a solution is indeed part of the solution.

      Can I also add that they don’t have to be expats, but paid very well. If not, it may be hard for them to abandon better pay in the North for less pay in the South. They should be paid at international market rate, less all the other ostentatious benefits expats enjoy!

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  4. My dear Apollo, thanks for bringing into play another angle of INGO business industry. I ready with interest especially now that we have a “new policy framework for USAID called USAID FORWARD”. In this document, you will find arguments to support the need to develop local skilled personnel who would ideally replace the north south expat. Besides, USAID hoped that local NGOs would have developed capacity to directly receive grants to replace INGOs. Let me limit my comment on local talent. Five years down the road under USAID FORWARD, haave local expats measured up to the task to gurantee that comfort that AID is effectively managed in their hands? Let me quote examples from USAID/Uganda. Recently, USAID terminated projects that were locally managed. The projects worth on average $25m had their agreements terminated due to consistent poor leadership, posting fake results and corruption in procurement related deals. This is huge lose to the benefitiaries, the contractors and the donor. Did USAID prematurely assume in their policy that local talent had accumulated enough capacity to manage grants of that size? when you look at the local managers CVs, they appear impressive, but how do they fail to deliver the projects?

    Apollo, whereas I agree donors should cut costs by reducing INGO expats, replacing them with local managers might not be the answer to AID effectiveness. Overall, you need AID to impact on targetted benefitiaries. Corruption levels in the southern govts have reached a level where only INGO expat can be trusted to lead, manage, and control donor funds. Nonetheless, other options can be explored. A middle point where south to south expats are developed. These might be cheaper and effective. USAID calls them Third Country Nationals (TCNs). You and I, working for INGO outside our home countries. How is it working? Do we have evidence that south to south is better? For example, hasn’t Mr Donald Kaberuka from Rwanda over the years effectively managed the ADB? I assume, he is retiring with great respect and honors. It is not always that north to south expat is the answer. I know some of these north south expats who failed to manage projects!

    Thank you Apollo for this great article.

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    • Dear Herbert – first of all thanks for taking your time to read the blog.

      You have good reason to sound cautious about the push to ‘de-expatise’, I’m equally concerned. Many industry watchers have a lot of evidence to show that Southern staff are still significantly corrupt – the uganda example that you share with us all in your comment above a very sad case and confirmation of the problem

      I still think that we should move fwd but cautiously – I.e. Develop local capacity to match the expat (you and me are good examples), explore means of employing current expats but use another and more cost effective model, avoid awarding grants to meet political targets like USAID Uganda did, explore means to monitor corruption including building this into grants as cost of business

      Thanks once again

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