Making Pay Fair in the Humanitarian and Development Sector

Ishbel McWha-Hermann

by Ishbel McWha-Hermann

Ishbel McWha-Hermann is an Early Career Fellow in International Human Resource Management at the University of Edinburgh Business School

Fairness is something all of us working in this sector think about and deal with on an everyday basis. We work to help our communities confront the inherent inequities they face. What we sometimes don’t think about are the inequities that can exist within our own organisations.

Fairness is something all of us working in this sector think about and deal with on an everyday basis. We work to help our communities confront the inherent inequities they face from access to services and resources, to basic healthcare. What we sometimes don’t think about are the inequities that can exist within our own organisations.

Pay and benefits can be one such source of inequity. We tend to think about how reward can be used to attract and retain good quality expatriates, and at the same time think about how to reward local host country national staff to be competitive within the local economy. A dual salary system, where local and expatriate colleagues are remunerated on two different scales, tends to be the norm as a result. Our research has found that these scales can be very different, depending on country context. On average we found that expatriates in similar roles to local colleagues earn four times the local salary (despite similar qualifications and experience), and in some instances expatriate rates are as much as 10 times the local salary.

How much we earn is often tied up with feelings of worth. We tend to compare ourselves with others in order to figure out our value to our organisation, but also how much we are worth more generally. Within a context where expatriates earn four times more than local colleagues, locals can be looking for evidence that expatriates are ‘worth’ the extra salary – either through contributing higher levels of skills, or putting in more effort. Where this isn’t apparent, it can lead to feelings of demotivation, dissatisfaction, and thinking about leaving the organisation.

A system whereby expatriate staff are paid considerably more than local colleagues has the potential to symbolise the relative worth of these groups of colleagues. This can result in feelings of unfairness. Unfairness, research (and commonsense) tells us can break down collegial relationships, undermine teamwork, impede capacity development, and ultimately slow down the progress of project and organisational goals.

These are all outcomes organisations want to avoid in order to function efficiently, and also build local capacity and skills. This capacity development angle is particularly important in our sector, given that much of our work aims to reduce poverty by building local capacity. It is crucial that we talk about the rewards systems in our organisations without inadvertently undermining the very work we’re trying so hard to achieve, and with the goal in mind of promoting fairness as well as living wages. Conversations about pay are difficult to have but as human resources (HR) professionals, we have a responsibility to ask difficult questions and look for potential alternatives to existing systems.

Some NGOs have already started trialing different reward systems and we want to document and understand what they are doing, and to share learning from these experiences. At the end of the day your organisation will have a wider sense of the remuneration options open to it, and eventually what these might mean for your own NGO, in your particular context, plans and programmes.

The CHS Alliance, University of Edinburgh, Massey University and Birches Group have started a collaborative project on fair pay – Project FAIR. If you are interested in learning more about viable, fair and sustainable alternatives to the dual salary system, and in sharing your own experiences, join our first webinar on 15 Dec. You can email Ishbel McWha-Hermann and Maduri Moutou for more information on the project.