The now eight most Frequently Asked Questions about being an Expatriate Aid Worker (FAQs about EAWs)

If I “am” anything professionally, I am an “Expatriate Aid Worker” (EAW). I live abroad, generally in places for which Lonely Planet has but a few lines and a disclaimer not to go there. I work in a tiny, little way towards alleviating poverty and suffering, two manifestations of injustice. I don’t consider myself to be better than anyone else in the world. I am not a volunteer, and the challenge is as much a factor of motivation as the idealism. Success of an EAW’s work is always debatable, just like the success of an investment banker. But if I did not believe that I contribute in a tiny, little way to  improving the lives of at least some people, I could not put up with many of the less comfortable aspects of the life of an EAW, including malaria, TB, being geographically apart from friends and family, heavy workload, and occasional shelling and small arms fire.

Like all my EAW colleagues and friends, my social reference has become increasingly the EAW world, in which talking about the latest trip to Congo or Haiti feels totally natural. Natural because those in this world have also recently been somewhere similar.
However, fortunately, there are still normal people in my virtual environment, people for which “Abéché” or “Mazar-i-Sharif” may as well be on another planet. For some in that category, the attention span for stories from Dungu or Kenema is around 15 minutes, because it seems so different, and there is no way to relate to it. For others, it is fascinating, wild, mysterious. A path not taken, but wished for… (Oh yes, you would wish to have no house, no car, no wife, no children, at age 39?)
Since these normal people are asking often similar things, I thought I could write up the seven (now eight) most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) I have received about being an EAW. If you have more, please ask, and I will add the answers.
Q 1: Isn’t this dangerous? Are you dodging bullets when going to work in the morning?
A: In most places it is not that dangerous. Where active fighting is going on, people generally flee. Apart from the evacuation of wounded – often done by National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies and/or the ICRC – there is no particular need to be on the direct frontlines. In conflict environments, EAWs are often based in the next “safer town” into which Internally Displaced Persons (within their own country) or refugees (those who crossed an international border) are fleeing.
Now, that does not mean that EAWs do not venture out with knowledgeable local staff to the direct conflict zones, to evaluate the situation and bring assistance if needed. And conflict travels, even into your base that was not (originally) in middle of a fighting, as happened to me in Monrovia in 2003. Security management is one of the prime responsibilities for any middle manager or senior manager in the aid world. One must always gauge whether the risk of going out is worth what one can potentially achieve for people in need. As one becomes a more senior EAW, one is often based far away from the actual conflict zone, in a capital like Islamabad or Kinshasa, where a relatively normal life can be had, while the worry for your staff remains, of course.
Much of EAW work is in reconstruction and recovery after a conflict, earthquake, or flooding. Then, security risks have often moved towards common crime. And what do you think is the prime source of death for EAWs? Car accidents. So drive carefully with those heavy Land Cruisers.
Some EAWs also do pure development work, for example they try to help improve the health system of a country like Mozambique, and they may never actually feel unsafe beyond the danger of crime, which exists anywhere in the world.
Q 2: What do you eat? Isn’t food scarce in these places?
A: Yes, we EAWs eat, and often the food is decent. Sad to say, but even in famine zones, food is available, for a price. The price is too high for many people to afford it, because of drought, conflict, or a combination of both. This is precisely why we are there. It needs to change. However, we can’t change it if we starve ourselves.
To be sure, often you do have to make some compromises if you have special dietary requirements. Outside Asia, it’s pretty hard to be a vegetarian EAW, for example. I am not a vegetarian, but ironically I found that famine-affected Somalis were particularly into meat. When on field trips in Chad, it happened that I would have to buy some bread in one village and a goat in the next village, and by the time we reached our overnight destination, where we would sleep under a mosquito dome, we would have a decent mix of things to eat together.
Q 3: Where do you get water?
A: There are no stupid questions. But this one comes close. Where there is permanently no water, there are no human beings. Most poor people have to drink water, which is not fit for consumption. If potable water is not on tap, EAWs may carry bottled water, use purification pills, or simply boil it. And yes, they may very well be on a trip to improve the water supply.
Q 4: Who does your laundry?
A: Surprisingly, the absolute most FAQ I had in the past 11 years. So here is the hard truth. Please address all hate mails directly to me, because for some people this is decadence. I will bear the brunt of my profession.
Most EAWs live in houses (either in shared houses or, if they are in a “family duty station”, in their own houses with their spouses and sometimes children), where most employ someone to do cleaning, laundry, and sometimes cooking. That may occasionally mean that your socks come back half the size they were before, or never come back at all. But no, relatively few EAWs buy their toilet paper themselves.
There are two ways to look at it:
1) EAWs invade formerly colonized still poor countries and continue a lifestyle where they are the masters and the locals serve them.
2) EAWs work, depending on the urgency of the situation, between 10-16 hours a day, 5-7 days a week. (Average probably somewhere in the middle.) They are faced with a lot of work stress and frustrations. They travel frequently around the country or the region. Given the circumstances, not having to tend to the daily logistics of life is a huge relief. Plus, it provides employment, generally combined with health care otherwise difficult to get. The salaries are poor by Swiss standards, but way above average for a developing or conflict-affected country. If treated like any human being has the right to be treated, house staff is generally very happy to bring revenue to their often large family.
Q 5: What do you do for leisure?
A: This is a popular question among recruiters, because the danger of burn out is very real in the EAW work and life style. I have seen a few people going over their limits and needing medical and/or psychological treatment. Security permitting (which is the case in most instances, see above), EAWs would do one of the following to get distracted from the eternal internal and external problems they face (80% of the job of an EAW at any level is related to solving problems):
1) Going to restaurants or bars, meeting other EAWs (including VIPs with whom you have failed all week to get an appointment through their Dutch personal assistant);
2) Organizing a party at your house, or (preferably) going to someone else’s house to do the same. Amazing what a few crates of beer (if culturally acceptable), a good external hard drive full of 80ies and 90ies music, two decent loudspeakers, can do to make you forget quite a lot of shit, even if all around you is sand or mud;
3) Watching a movie. That power point presentation in that important workshop was so sharp that the same projector can be used to project a movie, provided you have a white wall or a white bed sheet, and, again, two good loud speakers. I will never forget how we showed the extended full version of “Apocalypse Now” in the desert of Eastern Chad under the open stars on a Friday night. Out of the initial 25 people or so, to be honest, only 10 did not leave before the 3.5 hours were over. But the survivors wanted to see the bonus material until well after midnight. In Afghanistan, I once invited all staff to my home and gave them a choice of movies. They only wanted war movies, so I clarified that war reminds me too much of work, so we agreed on a thriller as a compromise;
4) In some towns or capitals, there are often cultural centers, museums, historical sights (no one knows about), or even beaches.
Q 6: Is it possible to have a relationship?
A: Most EAWs are neither Mother Theresa nor Warren Buffett. They are something in between. They haven’t left other needs behind at home in the store room. Pretty human. Relationships are part of it. Fortunately, in the places I’ve worked, the times where male EAWs would hook up with prostitutes seems over. In many organizations, it is even outright forbidden to exchange money for sex considering the circumstances of those countries and the values at the heart of development work. Some EAWs obviously fall in love at some point with a local man or woman. Most often, however, the relationships are between EAWs. Imagine two relatively idealistic people posted to a foreign country, living under less than ideal conditions and experiencing a lot of stress. The likelihood that you meet another EAW with something to talk about and with similar values is actually quite high.
So yes, it is possible to have a relationship, particularly if both have climbed up the EAW career ladder as far as to be able to live in a capital city for 1-4 years at a time. For most EAW couples, the moment of truth comes when the assignment of one or the other is over. Then it is either the end of what is commonly called a “mission relationship”, or something more. Whereas at home, the end of a contract would not generally mean the end of a relationship, in the EAW world it does, quite frequently so. To find a job for both in Jenin or in Niamey, which satisfies both people’s professional aspirations as well as all expectations on living conditions, can be quite challenging. Often what I observed is that one partner will accept a job, while the other will come along and look for a job while there.
Having real, meaningful relationships in disaster zones is difficult, even more difficult than relationships already are. It is much easier in a Capital and very easy if both can find a job in Headquarters.
Having said this, I have met couples, who are today in their 50s, who have moved around the world for 20 years, often with children, and still seem to be doing  very well. Sometimes I envy them. Having a meaningful job abroad and a family at the same time seems too good to be true.
Q 7: Additional question from reader: Are you getting paid for this?
As with the other questions, the rift between someone with a “normal life” and someone with an EAW lifestyle is so great, that the answer is obvious to all of us working in the field, whereas some people outside the aid world may associate an EAW worker either with a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Nicaragua, or a decadent civil servant in Bangkok confusing her or his bank account with her/his value as a person.
EAW salaries are somewhat of a taboo subject. So let’s talk about it. I always liked the transparency with which Oxfam is dealing with this. Look at any international job advert and you know what an Oxfam EAW gets.
A: Yes, the vast majority of EAW workers is getting paid, and not too poorly, but that is subject to debate.
The answer varies greatly according to the categories of EAWs. What is true for almost all is that, apart from a salary, there are additional benefits linked to living and working abroad. For example, most EAWs have their overseas housing costs and health insurance covered (incl. for their spouses and children, if it is a family duty station).
Depending on the organization one may work for, allowances for security or hardship, relocation (i.e. moving your private stuff), an allowance for posts hard to recruit, a rental subsidy (in the rare case housing is not included), and either a daily subsistence allowance (DSA) or something balancing out the difference in cost of living between countries; is also part of the deal.
In a sometimes hypocritical way, when this taboo question is asked during an EAW party, some EAWs will mention their USD 1,000/month salary, forgetting that they have few expenses due these add-ons. Some EAWs boast about how little they make; others boast about how much they make. The latter category makes me want to vomit more easily than the first category. However, the proclaimed idealists-only higher moral stance has also serious flaws.
So let’s not talk about salary but about “packages”. 

There is an unofficial hierarchy (from bottom up): 1. NGOs, 2. ICRC, 3. UN; 4. Donors

1. NGOs
1.1 NGOs with international volunteers
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are born out of a revolt in reaction to injustice. Revolts turn into organizations with different policies. For some, being a volunteer is an important part of their identity. For example, the French section of Doctors without Borders, or Voluntary Services Overseas, makes it very clear that they seek motivated idealists. EAWs in these organizations certainly do not make savings, but neither do they have to top up with their private funds what is often their often first international experience.
1.2 NGOs with international staff
That probably accounts for the majority of EAW people out there. Those are the MERLIN‘s, the Oxfam‘s (although they have many volunteers as well), the CARE’s, the Save the Children‘s, the IRC‘s, and thousands of others, you name them. Depending on the EAW’s country of origin of the staff (and, these days, the value of that respective home currency), the package will still generally be relatively OK, though definitely small considering the risks, living and working conditions, and the sometimes immense responsibilities some NGO EAWs have when they have to manage a large number of staff and funds entrusted to them.
2. ICRC
The reputed strictly neutral and independent humanitarian organization is still a dream for many an EAW. But not due to the money, due to the experience. The International Committee of the Red Cross offers a good package (growing with higher levels of responsibility and with performance), higher than almost all NGOs, but lower than the UN. The ICRC would like to keep its staff for as long as possible, which is a difficult task given that it is a purely humanitarian organization, where you get that once-per-year Email from HR announcing your next duty station, and – compared to organizations, which also do longer-term development work – relatively few family duty stations are available. Nowadays, the ICRC is quite successful in retaining staff. The sought mix of idealism and competence of its work force seems just about right to me. “It is also a satisfaction to belong to the Red Cross”, I remember an HR executive telling middle managers in a course, saying that upping the salaries would not give justice to the value of the Red Cross Movement, where most people from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world are indeed true volunteers.
3. UN
The United Nations (UN) comprises the UN secretariat and more than 20 specialized agencies or institutuions. While I was with the ICRC, I found the input-output ratio of many UN workers not in a good ratio, considering that the UN agencies (with variations) offer a better package than the ICRC. The salary scale is publicly accessible; the benefits are harder to find. Many NGO EAW are also disturbed by the discrepancy in R&R (Rest and Recreation) regimes. Those are arrangements, which also exist with NGOs and the ICRC, where one can leave its duty station for a week or so every 6-12 weeks (six being in very extreme situations only) without it being deducted from your leave balance. If you are working in what some describe as a shithole, and you see some people leaving every eight weeks, while you can only leave every twelve weeks, it goes against some fundamental sense of justice for some.
Today, I see this issue more nuanced. The UN is indispensable in the international system, and it’s the closest thing to a parliament of nations. The UN also, believe it or not, has troubles finding competent people and inciting them to stay. While I was amongst the big critics of the UN conditions when I was in Chad, for example, I found myself totally exhausted after nine months, whereas many of my UN colleagues stayed for two years. High turn-over also has a cost. My idealist criticism also further decreased when the American Peso (formally called US Dollar) diminished so much in value against the major currencies that the difference became less in terms of what economists call Purchase Power Parity.
4. Donors
For many an EAW, the big dream, the big price. Those USAID’s, DFiD’s, are allocating funds to all the others down the “food chain” (as a long-term EAW called it). The few donor representatives in the field are topping the pyramid in terms of packages. They are part of their respective government pay scale. There is little criticism to be heard in the EAW world about this, probably because one does not want to have a bad relationship with a donor, and because every tax payer in the developed world would want to be sure that someone competent and non-corruptible makes the right decisions about the use of that humanitarian and development budget for that really complex country or region. The smartest donors increasingly decentralize their staff to be as close as possible to the people in need and the partners of implementation.  
My very personal conclusion is: EAWs all make some money, and why on Earth shouldn’t they? Does the banking system have better managers than the EAW world? Can people affected by poverty count on a bail out in the same way that system-relevant banks can? Also, most organizations, whether non-governmental, governmental, or international, find it hard to recruit and retain competent personnel, who are willing to put up with the realities of the field. Amongst the sacrifices may be your own family.
Some EAWs are able to just get by with the money. Those are likely to be at entry level and stay for a shorter period of time. They are also likely to criticize those in the other categories, who make more, out of a position of moral superiority. Often, they reach those higher categories over time themselves.  Others stay on for longer, see it as a profession as much as a mission, can save over time for a house.


There are still absurdities and injustices, which should be eliminated. Every USD, GBP, or CHF, which taxpayers or individual donors have entrusted to any entity, should be spent in way that is most likely to bring lasting change to the people in need. That includes some experts in the field.

But the bottom line is: If you are not already an EAW and have been reading that far, maybe waiting that finally some figures are posted, and are now continuing with research on sites such as Glassdoors to find out just precisely what will be on your bank account at the end of the month in your dream job, well, stay away from the aid world. The smile of a little girl in a remote village in Afghanistan benefiting from a successful project should always be your first compensation. 

Q 8: How long do you still want to do this?

A: Some people become EAWs for their personal development, for a couple of years. Others seek temporary adventure (often disappointed). Some have become non eligible for any normal job back home, so they stay on a bit longer than most of their colleagues and partners might wish.
And for some, it has become their life, their profession. EAWs often have to manage sizeable teams and budgets. It’s not enough to become a “good doer” after you have watched a really distressful documentary about Zimbabwe. You need to be as much of a professional as when you work in a Swiss insurance. If you do a bad job, people including your staff or yourself may be hurt. If you have some degree of success, you may accompany people in transforming their lives.
My very personal answer is: As long as the annual health checks remain good (I call them “astronaut tests” because of the quantities of blood they take for only-god-knows-what-tests – not unlike astronauts, the assumption is that you may not be within quick reach of a good health facility if you fall ill), I would not know what I would rather do. It’s frustrating. It’s stressful. Your social environment changes too frequently. But fundamentally most EAWs, and I still count myself in, do something they believe in, meet an amazing variety of people, and even if the days are sometimes long, none is ever the same.
There was unexpected interest in this post. Continue to Email me your questions and comments. The content of the answers are my personal views only.

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