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Localization – ‘Us vs Them’

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© UN Women/Ibrahim Dirani

By Hasangani Edema

‘Localization’ further establishes the notion of us vs. them

I am one of a growing number of people in the humanitarian world who have had the experience of being both national (“local”) and international (“expat”). As a young, entry-level humanitarian, I worked as a local in my own country, Sri Lanka. Then, years later, I worked as international staff for a large INGO in Iraq. Although I served in the same role in both countries, my experiences in each setting were starkly distinct. As an international humanitarian in Erbil, Iraq I was privileged to live in one of the most expensive areas of the city, with vehicles at my disposal – both luxuries I did not have while working as a local in Sri Lanka.

Yet despite my material privileges I quickly learned that there were hidden drawbacks: Building trust with my local colleagues was a long and often difficult process, fraught with push backs and mistrust. The experience helped to underscore for me that the differences between working in the humanitarian space as an international and working as a local went beyond obvious material differences. In Iraq it became quickly clear: I was now a ‘them’ (an expat), when for three years I was an ‘us’ (a local).

My experience as international staff was also shaped by the facts of my race. The distinction of being a brown-skinned woman in a cultural setting that valued white skin also played a role in terms of the level of intelligence I was perceived to have. On many occasions, local colleagues made passing remarks such as ‘yes we have lots of people from there sweeping our roads and working as housemaids here’. So while I was a ‘them’ – an expat living with perceived privilege, I was somehow also categorized at a lower level. It was at this point I really understood that the trust and open communication I experienced as a local staff member was indeed a luxury.

The concept of localization is a reflection of how we, as aid workers/humanitarians, do not see each other and those at the receiving end of aid as equals. The need to define the process of recognizing, respecting and strengthening existing structures of civil societies or national governments further entrenches the notion of ‘us vs. them’ rather than minimizing it.

In this article, I argue that we need to rethink our current approaches and rhetoric around localization so as to change a problematic system rather than to further enable it.

Measuring capacity – who determines the standards?

In my experience in managing relationships with donors as well as local agencies, the idea or the concept of capacity strengthening tends to further establish this notion of ‘Us vs. Them’. The current trend involves identifying national or local agencies that can be partners in implementing programs on the ground. The stated intention is to strengthen them to take over programs, ensure the continuity of the same and be advocates for their own civil societies. But in practice, this intention is rarely followed through. Most often the smaller NGOs who are part of large consortia are essentially used by larger, more established INGOs, to meet a donor requirement to involve local partners or ‘build capacity’, to serve as insurance, or used as an access point to populations that might otherwise be inaccessible by INGOs and donors.

Localization stems from the failure to stop and recognize or understand the functioning of these existing structures as a precursor to starting work there. What constitutes professional conduct in ‘local’ working cultures often do not align with Western notions of professionalism. While Western notions of corruption are often broad and ridged to the point that they rule out local ways of working. These aspects of working and business relationship culture register in Western thinking as areas where there is a need for ‘capacity building’. Although not always, when Western donors and INGOs speak of the need for ‘capacity building’ they very often mean, ‘capacity to work the ways that they work.

It is a truth that, most often, local agencies have less bureaucratic structures, however, this is in turn seen as making way for corruption. I have seen countless times where finances were halted to the extent of hindering operational progress of so-called ‘partner agencies’, and thereby putting them at reputational risk. Thus the notion of capacity strengthening is seen as a way to adjust the smaller powerless agencies to the rules and ways of working of larger agencies which have their own concerns. This just reasserts this divide.

While this concept of capacity strengthening has become quite popular, it is not that local staff and organizations lack capacity. They often speak another language and come to the playing field with a different worldview, so their capacity looks very different when evaluated through Western standards. Language tends to be a key constraint in allowing or bridging the divide. Staff working on the ground in protracted situations tend to have amazing work ethics, yet the opportunity to climb up the corporate ladder within the aid work is limited because of their proficiency in English. English is most often used as a tool to justify hiring of international staff and further justified by the notion that donors tend to build a better rapport with those they relate to. However only a handful of Western or international staff are able to converse in the local language. So why does this preference apply to only one party but not to everyone? This aspect of gauging capacity from a Western stand point needs to change, as it intentionally reinforces the divide between ‘us vs. them’.

Different nationalities, different experiences

Additionally the age old divide of national and international staff still continues to this date. It’s time to end this divide, particularly the divide between Westerners and the majority of the world. In terms of objectivity and skills they bring to a setting or program, having experienced international aid workers has considerable value. While working as in international staff, I definitely reaped benefit in contextual exposure and learning that allowed for my professional development, while also bringing in skills and expertise that was of benefit to the programs.

I have been lucky to have encountered colleagues and mentors on both sides of the divide who value people for who they are, not where they come from. These are possibly the handful of individuals within the system that defy the odds – not many are this lucky. This allowed me to better conduct myself as an international staff to some extent.

People should not be judged based on where they come from and be given due respect that they deserve as a professional and not just be reduced to a generalization that Western and/or local prejudices carry of that specific country.

Often promotions are given freely to Western staff based on good rapport with senior staff instead of qualified international or local staff, where qualifications and gender tend to matter. Additionally, it is often the work of local operational staff that is credited to international staff, which enables them to climb the proverbial corporate ladders of the aid world. For example, there are different performance benchmarks that international staff from Western countries and international staff from the rest of the world are held to. There have been instances of international staff from non-western countries being fired for ‘poor performance’ while international staff from Western countries at the same level of performance were retained. This gave the latter a leg up, who eventually went on to get promoted in the next organization that they joined. The only noticeable difference is that one is from the Global South while the other is from the North and this is one of many examples.

Another example tends to be the safety of staff and how different rules are applicable depending on whether one falls within the national or international staff category. That too differs if one is an international staff member with a Western passport. An environment that is considered ‘unsafe’ for a western person or international staff is considered to be ‘normal’ and ‘safe’ for a local because that’s their home and hence they should be used to it. Why does safety vary based on a person’s nationality, when it is continuously iterated that violence/guns knows no race or color. So isn’t that also true in our working environments? It is baffling how inherent racism is embedded into working structures and no one evaluates these to change them but keeps them running for convenience or because simply this is how things are done.

Donors are also complicit

Donors are the drivers of aid work, so it is concerning that these structures promote preferences based on race or color rather than on the need or programming that is required often times. In my own repeated experiences, these counterparts either preferred communicating with Western staff or simply had a gender or seniority preference. Initial discussions would always be preferred with Western staff in order to establish rapport. In my experience, the only time I was approached by a donor was for the purpose of a social meeting rather than to discuss programming requirements. These power structures further establish the toxic ways of working and ascertain the division of us vs. them.

The aid sector perpetuates global inequities

Access is key to aid work on both an individual level and in an organizational level. With the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, working remotely definitely defied the boundaries of hiring staff with a passport that provides relatively more access to countries than others. It is often very easy for anyone with a Western passport to travel to fragile or conflict-affected countries. However it is inevitably difficult for someone from the Global South to get through innumerable bureaucratic processes in obtaining visas and access. Due to this, many qualified personnel miss opportunities or are withdrawn simply because the process would take too long for him/her to be in the country. While an experienced aid worker with 5 to 7 years of experience may qualify for a position, a Western 22 year old with limited to no experience would be a more suitable candidate because of his/her command of the English language and privileged passport. These grievances will continue to further establish this notion of us vs. them.

How do we move beyond these divides?

Bridge the pay gap: Bridging the pay gap will only work if the sector identifies that there is a significant lag or absence of meaningful performance management of aid workers. As a national staff member, I was overworked, with no promotions or compensation benefits and my pay at the time was less than $300 USD – but when I crossed the threshold as an international staff, this increased in leaps and bounds, not to mention other benefits. I think it was definitely unfair for an organization to reap benefits out of someone, while providing inadequate compensation as per the countries’ salaries standards by the least. While I had great supervisors that spoke up and advocated on my behalf, the situation it seemed was never within their control given the pervasive donor-driven nature of the sector. This continues to be the grievance of so many younger aid staff that come from the majority of the world. Therefore, the pay gap should definitely be a key consideration in realizing and minimizing the gap between the division of Us vs. Them.

Local partners are not just a ticked box: The big brother mentality in handling local partners must go. Establishing clear guidance (and also donors providing clear outline in what they are expecting out of these partnerships) need to be provided. We must change the attitude and view that locals have no capacity. We must stop viewing them as ‘locals’ in the first place.

Reimagine the standards used to measure capacity and success and apply them consistently: Over the course of the years, aid workers have been compared to heroes or extraordinary human beings. While aid work directly impacts people and their wellbeing, it is very similar to other industries. Therefore it is important to enforce well established educational and language requirements that extends to the majority of the world and not just to those with Western backgrounds. The double standards need to go.

While localization is a great concept – it is simply another way to keep working the way we have always worked. Perhaps it’s time to pause and look at how we are enabling these structures of toxic racism and bring about a more equitable environment of work.