Valerie works for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I asked for her thoughts on pay differentials between expats and locals, this is what she had to say: “As an expat, I am paid more than local colleagues who (obviously) have a better grasp of the country than I do, and I sense that they suffer [because of] foreign ‘experts’ who are fundamentally less useful at the job, linguistically and culturally, and who are more likely to stay only for a short-term period. I have a better benefits package, including more vacation time, and ultimately will have a better chance of advancement in the organizations than people who’ve worked a decade in the same position. Most people turn a blind eye and pretend that this is okay, but it’s not.”
Expats abound on the African continent. They work in NGOs, and in for-profit companies. Some public sector organisations such as government ministries have expats providing technical assistance as part of a donor package. The life of an expat on the continent is generally a good one, and usually far superior to the life they left behind. When the expat is recruited they are often paid a relocation allowance to move, given a house in a plush part of town, have their children’s school fees paid (if they have any), and get a ticket to travel back ‘home’ (with their family) at least once a year.
The supremacy of white expats in Ghana
In Ghana where I live expats are predominantly white and mainly from countries like the UK, US and South Africa. In a few cases, second generation Ghanaians from the UK/US or middle-class Ghanaians who went abroad to attend university manage to find jobs in Ghana as expats before they move back ‘home’. The incentive for a Ghanaian to aspire to expat status is high. This is the type of package a Band B expat marketing manager working for a telecommunications company in Ghana can aspire to:
• Salary – US$10,000 per month;
• Full medical coverage; • Use of corporate car with a fuel allowance;
• Accommodation in a plush part of town; and
• Two vacations home a year with tickets for up to five family members.
A local Band B marketing manager with the same qualifications will earn somewhere in the region of US$3,000-5,000 and will have no housing allowance. And that type of package is still rare to get. This ‘local’ marketing manager very likely has the same qualifications as the expat manager – and may even have attended the same schools abroad.
Locals see the sweet deals that expats get and (understandably) feel resentful. My friend works for an Italian construction company, and she told me about the glee one of their project managers feels when something goes wrong for the expat contractors. “They don’t listen, they think they know it all. I just watch them quietly.” My friend thinks this project manager has the wrong idea. She feels he should work hard, show how he corrects the mistakes the expats make and then the construction firm will realise that they do not need to fly in people to do the work. I think that is a rather utopian view.
I asked another friend, Zeinab, to share with me her experiences of working with expats. She told me about a time she worked in Ghana’s Northern Region. One year the country manager for their organisation left and in his stead came a young woman who only two years previously had worked there as an intern. “Can you imagine, Nana? She knew absolutely nothing about the job or the local context and now she was my boss.”
The case usually made for hiring expat staff could include any of the following:
• They have more expertise than local staff;
• They work harder; or
• They are more knowledgeable.
And yes, sometimes you have expats who are incredibly knowledgeable and add great value to whichever organisation they join but I am not convinced that in a country like Ghana (which is where I live and have the greatest knowledge on) expats are required in the quantities that exist.
I haven’t been able to find any official statistics on the numbers of expats working in the country but I know that when I visit upmarket restaurants like Kaya Design Bar or Bistro 22, the majority of people there will have French, American, or English accents. Even more laid back places like the Republic Bar (which is great for its affordable akpeteshie-based cocktails) seems to be overrun by the ‘expat crowd’. And surely they can’t all be staff from embassies and diplomatic missions?
One would hope that at a minimum the number of expats in Ghana would be contributing in some way towards deeper intercultural understanding but all the evidence is to the contrary. An American friend of mine who used to work in Ghana told me: “One of the things that I feel so sad about is that after two years in Ghana I barely made any local friends.” She also described the discomfort she felt about the pay differentials between her and Ghanaian staff. “It was also awkward. Even if you wanted to organise something socially it was hard. When the bill came at expensive restaurants I never knew whether to offer to pay or not.”
But Ghanaians are not looking for their expat friends to give them free meals. Ghanaians are looking to be paid fair wages for their work, and for there to be fairness in the employment sector. A system that pays huge salaries (with associated benefits) to a tiny tier at the top of the scale, and balances that out by paying low salaries to a huge base is bound to fail.
The expat pay system also has more than just a tinge of racism about it – it contributes to foreigners feeling superior to locals, and that superiority is reinforced by their monthly pay checks.