Bridging the Gap: Equality for NGO Employees

 Mar 19, 2024 | 4 Min Read

Table of Contents

The NGO sector often promotes the values of equity and justice in its work. However, pay disparity, unequal opportunities, and different working conditions between international employees and their local counterparts have created contradictions that can undermine these values.


Despite earning salaries that are several times higher than local staff, expatriate staff often receive even more perks in their benefit packages – luxury accommodation, transportation, security, household staff, school fees, generous medical cover, pensions, and life insurance - benefits that local staff are not always eligible for.


The massive discrepancies in compensation and benefits has caused significant resentment and dissatisfaction among local workers, making them feel less valued, which is detrimental to employee motivation, job satisfaction, engagement and retention. Thankfully, NGO organisations have been undergoing significant change over the past few years to address tensions around differences in lifestyles and living standards.

Dual salaries are the common practice of paying skilled local employees less than international counterparts, by using different pay scales and benefits packages. Dual salary systems have contributed to a brain drain because talented local staff often leave their home countries in search of better pay and more opportunities overseas. This has made it difficult for the humanitarian sector to achieve its goals of building capacity in aid recipient countries and increasing local ownership of development initiatives. These concerns have nudged the sector toward more equitable remuneration and more systemic efforts to shift away from expat hires or align more closely with local NGOs.
Many NGO organisations employ expats to lead programs or fill short-term consultancy assignments, often overlooking well-experienced local professionals. Expats can bring vital skillsets and experience. But local professionals can also bring these skills, alongside cultural fluency and local market expertise, which are key assets for development work. Foreign “experts” are assumed to know more about how to improve local lives than the locals themselves. However, local staff often have deeper cultural understanding and networks within the communities where NGOs operate. Their knowledge and expertise is crucial for sustainable development and ensuring programs are culturally appropriate and meet community needs. It is encouraging to see NGOs moving away from only using international employees and championing local talent. 
Investing in training and development programs for local staff empowers them to take on leadership roles and contribute to broader development goals in their communities. It can provide them with the necessary skills, confidence, and knowledge to advance within the organisation. This creates a sustainable pipeline of local expertise that benefits the region in the long-term. When local staff have equal opportunities and decision-making power, development programs are more likely to be relevant, effective, and owned by the communities they serve. 

Differential treatment between international and local workers may undermine international aid programs. Thankfully, in recent years, the issue of equality among NGO organisations is gaining more attention, leading to discussions that will transform the sector.


Most NGOs don’t offer medical insurance for their local staff. It is not uncommon for organisations to provide more extensive policies to travelling staff or international staff based overseas than to national staff. This is partly due to the availability of appropriate insurance in different countries, but also a reflection of the relative lack of mitigation measures put in place for national staff.


This is a nonsensical and discriminatory approach to risk management, as national staff are often significantly more exposed to safety and security threats than their international colleagues. Medical insurance should be provided to local staff to reduce liability in case of major incident and to let employees know that your organisation is focused on the healthcare and security of local staff. However, the situation is changing, and offering medical insurance to local staff is now becoming a priority for many NGOs.


Thankfully, there is increasing focus within the NGO sector on the importance of fair reward, and demand for a common set of reward-related principles and standards for organisations working in the sector. Some NGOs have already implemented policies to address compensation and benefits disparity, promote equal opportunities, and foster inclusive work environments. In addition, initiatives to train and develop local staff are becoming more common, with the aim of enhancing their skills and leadership potential, and addressing compensation and benefits disparity, in a sector that values and promotes equity and justice.

Protect the health and wellbeing of your employees with international health insurance specifically tailored to the needs of NGOs so you can continue to support those most in need around the world.