From the Slums to the Big City: a Critique of Development Culture in Jordan

A year ago I was coming to the end of my 14-month residency in Gaza Camp, a Palestinian refugee community about 45 km north of Amman. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, waking up early each day to make the hour and half commute by bus to Salt – where I worked full time for the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf – and then returning to Gaza Camp in the evenings to run men’s training sessions at the community fitness center I had co-founded in January 2010.

Receiving a modest salary from my full-time job that barely allowed for subsistence living, I’d always be shocked when I’d come into Amman to hang out with expatriates who were in the development sector. The difference between their lives and mine, and the disconnect between them and the beneficiaries of their organizations, drove me to spend one slow day at my office knocking out my first (and so far only) published piece of writing. It was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek critique of the lifestyles of your average expat aid worker, with the general point being that such individuals tend to enjoy their high salaries, perks, and partying a bit too much considering the nature of their work. The post is #35 on the blog’s site and is on the site’s top 20 list (out of 142 at present). While initially receiving some backlash and accusations of drinking too much haterade, the post is one of the most commented on in the site, with experienced development workers offering their own views on development sector expatriate culture.

Now I am writing on the other side. No, I did not go on to get a well-paid job at the UN or at an NGO, though certainly not through lack of trying; as I learned, my Arabic language skills and project management experience can’t compete with a non-Arabic speaker with a Master’s Degree in refugee or development studies. After an intensive period of applying anywhere and everywhere, I finally did get a good job in the unlikeliest of businesses: public relations. Abandoning (for now) dreams of travelling the globe with the US State Department or Save the Children, I now write copy for some of the biggest corporate entities in Jordan (and surprisingly, find it very engaging). I live in a simple apartment in Amman, but overall my quality of life has increased dramatically since returning to the capital city. Life is good.

This brings me back to a memory from the days when I had just begun building the fitness center at the start of 2010 . . . I was in Amman visiting friends and happened to find myself at dinner with a four other Americans: a reporter, a business consultant, a Fulbright scholar, and a development worker. The conversation turned to incomes with a lively debate ensuing about how much people were making. I don’t remember the exact figures, except that everyone at the table was making significantly more than the average Jordanian. The debate turned to how the development worker and Fulbrighter were making as much those in the private sector. The argument of the reporter and consultant was that private sector employees like themselves could provide tangible, measurable benefits for their employers vs. the somewhat hazy criteria for success in development or the Fulbright program. How can you attach a dollar figure on the work of Fulbright scholar, for example? How can you do this for a development worker?

Chiming in, I expressed my opinion that development workers in Jordan seemed to be a bit overpaid. I will never forget the response of the young humanitarian (I use the term loosely). She replied that her salary was appropriately high because “you can’t help other people when you’re not happy.” Happiness, she went on to explain, is directly tied to quality of life. Soon after, we finished dinner and she drove off to her apartment in her 300 JD per month rental car (only slightly less than the average monthly Jordanian salary) which she was provided as a perk for her job working with one of Jordan’s many refugee communities.

This young woman’s statement was considerably vexing for me. Attracting young, enthusiastic applicants to perform gritty (yet sexy and appealing), overseas humanitarian assignments does not require waving money at them. Look at the  Peace Corps, which (mostly) young, idealistic Americans flock to despite receiving a monthly stipend that is at – or even below – the host country’s average salary. I would even go as far as to say that high salaries have a paradoxically negative effect on development work; resume-building opportunists are attracted to these positions for the money and not for the mission. Passionate, though less qualified (on paper) applicants – like I was – aren’t competitive. The result; a development sector dominated by highly paid humanitarian mercenaries, moving from contract to contract looking for the highest paycheck. The disparate levels of income and quality of life between the expatriate aid worker and the beneficiaries of their organization becomes so great that these Western transplants cannot relate – in any way whatsoever – to the vulnerable and impoverished populations that donors are trusting them to assist.

I am living comfortably in Amman now. Memories of life in Gaza Camp are fast becoming a distant memory. So has my passion for humanitarian work. I couldn’t get funding for a second installment of last year’s children’s summer camp. Meh, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t. What about that planned career training seminar with the Gaza Camp Community Development Office? Or those non-life threatening medical cases I was going to try to find sponsors for? Not enough time.

It is easy to ignore poverty when you’re living the good life. When Gaza Camp was my home – when I was struggling through two winters with no heater, eating nothing but eggs for days on end because meat or chicken was out of my budget – those were the days when I was most passionate about my work in the camp. The days when I was cold, miserable, cleaning my fitness center’s roof gutters in the rain and sleet (to prevent flooding), working 14-hour days. Yes, an email entreaty to my mom for help would have landed me a plane ticket home and the end of my misery. But I never sent that email, and I suffered along with the residents of the community I hoped to assist. I had four solid walls and a roof to sleep in and food to eat every day, and in this regard I was infinitely better off than many of the families in my neighborhood.

So when I think back to that dinner with that young, chipper humanitarian mercenary explaining the link between quality of life and helping others, I must ever so politely disagree. I would know.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “From the Slums to the Big City: a Critique of Development Culture in Jordan

  1. Dave. No one could’ve said it better. I will happily, with no sense of pity attached, give this a resounding “hell yes.”

  2. Brennen

    Man, you could not be more spot-on. I’m in Amman have have had very similar experience and thoughts. Would be great to talk in person some day, I don’t know if you can see my email.

  3. Tom

    Always good stuff from you ya David.

    I think you have to delve a bit deeper into development organizations’ motivations for hiring expats. For them technical skills are paramount, and definitely much more important than deep, cultural immersion — I mean if that was the case hiring local staff members would be much more effective. They want stuff to get done and they want people who are capable of doing it. And, oftentimes, the most important stuff that needs to get done is meeting donor requirements so that funding keeps coming. So when you say that it’s a problem if the staff can’t “relate” to the beneficiaries, development organizations aren’t funded by how well they relate or interact or whatever with their beneficiaries, they’re evaluated (and funded) by whatever outputs were agreed upon with their donors.

    I’d also like you to expand on your idea about “high salaries.” What would you include in the development industry with its high salaries? Private sector firms like DAI or Chemonics? Big NGOs? Medium-sized NGOs? Governments? Peace Corps, which you mentioned? All of the above? There are major salary differences between all of those and major differences between the types of people each of these organizations needs. In general, people who work in development are underpaid in comparison with their private sector partners — of course there are other intangible benefits but strictly look at salaries and comparable education and experience they are. You also have to acknowledge that you’re not going to find many expatriate experts in technical fields like water, health, environment, or finance to work in places like Jordan, and obviously there are many places tougher to live in than our wonderful kingdom, without paying at least on the same scale as what they could make elsewhere. Many people are willing to get paid less to work in development — or at least part of their careers in development — but they have to eventually go back to the USA or Europe or wherever and actually have enough money to live.

    Curious to hear your thoughts David, and anyone else.

    • Good questions Tom – all of which I have answers to. I’ll try to get to this over the weekend.

    • I think there is a big difference between hiring someone who has a very technical degree in say, water sanitation or public health, and someone with a degree in “Refugee Studies” or “International Relations.” People with the latter two degrees have pigeon-holed themselves into one line of work. I’m sorry Tom, but private sector entities are not going to be fighting each other to hire someone with a one year Master’s Degree in Refugee Studies, so why act like they rate a cushy private sector salary? This is even more absurd when we consider the cost of living in the developing countries where expat aid workers are posted, and then add the per diem pay for food and high housing allowances.

      Having done freelance work for development/UN organizations in my time here, I can honestly say that the main criteria for development work is a solid liberal arts education where one gains skills in critical thinking and writing. The technical details of how each development outfit designs projects and constructs their reports is going to be different, and that can be learned on the job (as I have). People with five, ten years of experience should be paid appropriately for their experience, but certainly not right out of school in their first year or two in the field.

      So, when we have a situation where most expat aid worker’s undergraduate/graduate degrees are not applicable to the private sector AND we have a depressed global economy and domestic US job market, why are expat aid workers being offered (in my opinion) exorbitant salaries. I know many expats who are/were looking for jobs in development (I was an example), yet I continue to see very high salaries and quality of life in Amman among the development workers here. As I’ve said before, it’s not just high salaries/quality of life in comparison to the local population, but high compared with people with equivalent educations/skill in the US. Look at the apartments people have. Look at the abundance of flexible vacation days, regular hours, and disposable income for travels, shipping items in from abroad, and partying at night (apparently showing up to work late/drunk has little consequence in development, unlike in the private sector).

      Also, I have deep criticism of the lack of outside perspective at development orgs. My general impression is that organizations are more willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a fantastic report writer, rather than spend more on local employee salaries and constructing a project that produces real, tangible results. This is an environment where there is no accountability for that money – as long as a slick final report is done and a minimal amount of budgetary oversight and results are documented, the donor will be satisfied.

      Internally, expatriate members of an organization can justify raising their own salaries and giving themselves excessive perks (like spending $15,000 of donor money to have a wine collection moved, for example), while the beneficiaries and local employees have no outlet to express the belief that more of that money should be spent on them. Local employees grumble about the severe inequality of their salaries and their foreign supervisors, but they have no channel of communication with donors and thus remain passive recipients of whatever their expat employers feel like paying them. In the case of local staff, they development/UN orgs really do make sure to pay the minimum amount that the job market requires, while in contrast the expatriate staff receives the maximum amount allowed without arousing donor suspicion.

      As far as living close to beneficiary populations is concerned, I made this point because of my belief – from personal experience and from speaking with Peace Corps volunteers – that qualified, motivated expat aid workers can get more done for less money if they have a personal connection with a beneficiary community. This would be in contrast to an expat sitting in a headquarters office somewhere who speaks not a lick of the beneficiary language and could not even name a single individual beneficiary. It also lowers incidences of expats designing projects that anyone familiar with local culture would recognize as completely hairbrained or impossible. When donor money is wasted trying to implement said project the disconnected expat aid worker can casually write a report blaming the beneficiary culture and not their ignorance of it.

      • Tom

        I think you’re wrong to conflate someone who gets a degree in IR or International Affairs (or let’s add Public Policy) with someone who receives a degree in a specific policy area like Refugee Studies. A degree in the former are much more general than the later and consequently graduates with those degrees have many more options in terms of career paths. Don’t believe me? Look at SAIS or Georgetown’s MSFS career brochures (and I imagine any other of these international schools like Tufts or SIPA will have comparable numbers) and see what sort of sectors and companies their graduates are going into. For SAIS it’s about 1/3 Government, 1/3 Private Sector, 1/3 NGO — you can also see the median salary disparities between the Private Sector and the other two… It’s quite a lot and if I recall correctly something like a 15k – 20k difference for starting salaries between the Private Sector and the other two.

        I guess my overall point is that the private sector does pay significantly more than the public sector and that people who choose to work in development or public policy could make more in the private sector.

        As for the liberal arts education, yes I agree that people with strong liberal arts educations are more than qualified to work in some development positions. But that’s true for most business positions whether they be in finance, consulting, whatever. It’s not so much what sort of skills you have coming in (although those are obviously quite important and speaks to your interests and ability to do the work) but how you develop and what you can PRODUCE in the end — IE the whole interacting with beneficiaries is nice and good (and I think INTEGRAL to help design these programs, develop policy, studying the region, whatever), but if an organization really wanted someone to do that they’d hire another local employee.

        I also don’t understand your logic behind salary pay-scales and where you get the idea that expatriates get the “maximum amount” allowed without raising donor suspicions while the local labor force gets shafted. The salaries (and benefits) are all reported in fairly meticulous detail…

        I also think you have you take into consideration the distorting effect international NGOs, development organizations, etc. have on the labor markets in the countries they enter. It’s not so much about the disparity between expatriate salaries and local salaries, but between the local salaries paid by international organizations and their local equivalents. The effect is to basically lure the best employees from local organizations and businesses and drain them of their best talent. Their skills are used to develop a firm that will be gone in a few years rather than building up local institutions (I think there are counter-arguments to that point about skill development, but that’s for another time). Aid dependency is obviously a huge problem for a lot of these countries whose economies come to depend a large part on the influx of money from development work.

        It’s a bit strange of an argument for me to make because I agree with the aspects of your argument but for me it misses the big picture of what’s really wrong. The bigger problems with development are structural (IE based on the critique of neo-liberalism I sent you) and much more broad than how programs are implemented, which in my view are actually done fairly decently as a whole, and if this person makes too much money or whatever .

      • Cindy

        Showing up to work late/drunk has little consequence? Check again!

  4. Malko

    I was not going to comment…. but I find your post very egocentric…. it’s all about how great you are, how your job was so meaningful for the people, how you changed the life of so many and top of top how proud you were not to ask your mommy for a plane ticket back home…. you are not different from the people you are criticizing…. just a bit less mature.

    • After three years rubbing shoulders with development sector folk in Amman, you’ll simply have to take my word for it that I am very, very much different. I do have an ego, and I think an ego is an absolute requirement for the kind of project that I undertook. You have to be a true believer, both in what you are doing, and in your own ability to do it. You can also add self-righteous in there as well.

  5. Malko

    Anyway, thanks for publishing my post, others with a bigger ego will have censor it. Your answer is also very honest. All the best.

  6. Reblogged this on "What small potatoes we all are, compared with what we might be!" and commented:
    I think this is a critique of development culture simply everywhere…

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