Should international expatriate staff be paid more than national staff?

compare-643305_960_720This is a frequently mentioned concern by national staff, and very understandable.   Especially in the United States where “equal pay for equal work” is the law, most US international NGOs (like most INGO from other countries), have two-tiered pay systems for international and national staff.  There is no easy answer to this question because it depends on the situation—and even that is complicated. To address this concern in your organization, it is important to understand why international staff  are generally paid at much higher wages than their national staff counterparts.  T

The most common reasons are:

  • International expatriates are hired with special expertise that is difficult to find in the country where they are serving. In order to attract and retain these specialists, they must be paid at high competitive rates
  • International expatriates are working outside of their home country where they have to continue to pay housing mortgages, support families, pay off student loan debt, etc., so they expect to make a rate of pay that is close to what they would receive in their home country.
  • Paying national staff at wages significantly higher than the local labor market is unsustainable and disruptive to the local economy. Also, most donors will not allow wages to be paid above the local market rate.
  • Some donors require that an international expatriate be hired, even if there is a qualified national in country. Similarly some INGOs want an expatriate from their country to maintain a special link with their foreign headquarters office.
  • Sometimes expatriates are hired because they have the cultural and political freedom and protection to work in areas where it would be more difficult for a national staff. For example, some organizations hire expatriates where there is a strong risk or history of corruption, where it would be riskier or taboo for a national to introduce a culturally challenging program intervention or where meeting with a different ethnic group would not be possible for political and/or security reasons.

The questions that you should be asking as an HR professional are:  Can a national staff effectively perform in the required position?  Are there any extenuating circumstances that would require the hiring of an expatriate over a national?  The ultimate goal should be to hire a national whenever it is feasibly possible.  Keep in mind that, unfortunately, sometimes it will not be possible to hire a national instead of an expatriate for reasons that are troubling to you, such as an inexplicable donor demand or other hard to justify reason.  But don’t let this stop you from asking—and pushing for equity when it is justified!

Another important consideration is if the expertise is not available locally, and an expatriate needs to be hired to fill a position, you can request that the expatriate’s job description include a requirement that the s/he train a national to eventually replace her/him in the future.

In the end, it comes down to balance and good judgement—and doing the right thing.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions on this important topic!