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Aid Workers and Their Housekeepers

Is the humanitarian industry a jobs program for college-educated Westerners?

yemeni child

Aid and the Help: International Development and the Transnational Extraction of Care, by Dinah Hannaford, Stanford University Press, 228 pages

Dinah Hannaford, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Houston, is not the first academic to provide a pointed critique of the humanitarian aid industry. She is, however, unique in focusing on the hypocrisy of those working in that industry—and it is an industry. She avoids the word hypocrisy, but that is what she is describing.


Hannaford offers a study of expatriate aid workers in Senegal, looking at the inequalities between them and those around them, specifically those they hire to do their house work. As she points out, “there are relatively few studies that treat expats to Africa as economic migrants.” Hannaford is getting to the heart of the matter, namely that the aid industry is as much a jobs program for privileged college graduates as it is an industry having a transformative effect on the lives of those it is supposed to help.

When employees of large humanitarian organizations move to places like Dakar, Senegal, they immediately become economic elites with access to domestic help such as nannies or housekeepers. These luxuries are inaccessible to them in Europe and the U.S., where the bulk of aid employees hail from. They employ three strategies to justify using low-paid workers to do what they would have previously done for themselves. First, they say that hiring staff is an obligation, whereby they pass a portion of their generous salary to domestic workers who need a source of income. Secondly, they compare themselves favorably to other employers, stressing that they treat their staff well in contrast to a potential abusive employer from the local elite. Lastly, they try to provide other benefits, such as helping their domestic employees’ children with schooling or providing the employee with training that will help them in the long run.

Aid agencies justify the exorbitant salaries they pay their staff by claiming that without competitive salaries, qualified employees will abandon the humanitarian sector for more lucrative endeavors. This way of thinking skews what a humanitarian organization should be doing. Are these highly paid workers transforming the lives of those they help? 

Obviously, in some contexts, transformation isn’t the goal. Following a massive displacement, for example, the goal is merely to keep people alive and meet their basic needs. In those cases, the value of the humanitarian sector is clear and undeniable. In stable contexts, however, development programs are meant to transform lives and lift people out of poverty. Not only do most of these programs fail, most people in a place like Senegal do not perceive the aid sector in this way.

The domestic workers in Hannaford’s book rarely notice any difference between their employers and those working in the private sector. Giving one example, Hannaford writes that “like nearly all the domestic workers I spoke to, she had never inquired or been told about her boss’s development work. For Marie Claude, it was entirely irrelevant to her life. The only way the development industry had directly impacted her life was by providing the opportunity to cook and clean for an American expat in Dakar.” This despite the fact that in this particular worker’s area of origin, Casamance, there were ample development projects meant to have a positive impact on local society.


Hannaford shies away from criticizing too heavily the expat aid workers themselves. “A key point I try to stress in this book,” she writes, “is that most present-day expatriate aid workers are not clueless parodies of colonial officials going through the motions with nothing but contempt or paternalistic condescension to the populations they serve. The majority of aid workers I spent time with and interviewed were politically engaged, moderate liberals who abhorred racism in the abstract and talked about poverty as a structural global system of inequality. Most were concerned about inequity in their own lives.” And yet their decisions did not reflect this concern, as Hannaford shows. 

Hannaford stresses that modern aid workers are “woke,” as she puts it, and therefore more aware than their colonial era predecessors of racial and economic disparities. Her blind spot is for all the ways modern aid workers perpetuate a form of cultural neo-colonialism, namely in pushing social agendas that do not necessarily reflect the cultural norms in a place like Senegal.

“Two different Canadians in Dakar told me with apparent derision that a certain high-level Canadian diplomat and his wife didn’t hire a housekeeper in Dakar, because the wife insisted on doing the housework herself,” Hannaford writes. Instead of commending the decision to avoid exploiting Senegalese women for their cheap labor, the aid workers saw this as a backwards decision. “The gossip-worthy elements of this rumor were twofold: one, it suggested a retrograde wife’s-place-is-in-the-house kind of gender politics that my two interlocuters found shameful and embarrassing, and two, it was a selfish act. With a salary like his, the diplomat should be creating a job opportunity for one (or several) local people to wash his floors.”

Hannaford calls for a “decolonization of development,” without specifying what that would entail beyond hiring more local staff to run programs. “Decolonization starts from an understanding that the contemporary aid industry is rooted in the framework of European imperial conquest.” In that case, decolonized development would necessarily be carried out by African governments, rather than international agencies and organizations. 

Many domestic social programs have the same goal as external aid and would surely benefit from more resources. Instead, most of those involved in the aid industry—expatriate employees, local employees, and local governments alike—have realized that if they don’t rock the boat, money will keep flowing in. Criticism of the aid industry is perceived as criticism of aid in general, and therefore little changes.

Change in the sector has to come from those who write the checks, the donors and policymakers. They should be skeptical of any aid organization whose employees do not live alongside those they serve. Those who remain confined to the expat bubble may spout the right opinions but will have little sense of the actual impact of their work. 

Nonetheless, many organizations do good work. Thanks to Hannaford’s book, we might have a starting point towards a litmus test: If given the choice, would one of their purported beneficiaries rather participate in a program offered by the organization, such as skills training, or work as house help for one of the organization’s employees? If the answers skew towards the latter, we can see clearly that the organization is more effective as a temporary jobs program than as a project to empower people to escape poverty.


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