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NGOs part 1 – Pay your workers less

I don’t usually preface, but in this case it may help people dislike me less. I believe that NGOs go about much of their work the wrong way in Northern Uganda, to the point where some of them may do more harm than good. I’m writing a series of blogs on where I think NGOs are going wrong, and how they could fix it. These here are opinions. Informed opinions after 4 years operating amongst NGOs in Northern Uganda, but opinions only.

Abandon Ship

Last year, one of our best nurses left one of our rural health centers. With no warning and without telling anyone. It was the 3rd nurse that year who left for an NGO job. We rushed to replace him, but it put the only remaining nurse there under a lot of stress, and I’m sure patients weren’t cared for as well in the meantime. Our replacement wasn’t as good. I didn’t hear the nurse who left again until 6 months later, last week. He came to apologise for leaving abruptly. He said he felt really bad about it, that he had let his fellow staff and the patients down. He’s a great guy and it was good to catch up and reconcile everything. When I asked him why he left for the NGO job, he looked at me as if it was a stupid question.

“The money was too much, of course”

Too Much Money?

So why is it bad to pay Ugandans a lot of money in NGO jobs? Surely you pay them as much as you can afford to help them and their families get by in a poor country. Unfortunately, its not that simple. There are at least 3 enormous negative effects of high NGO salaries.

1) High quality workers get lured out of sustainable, productive service provision jobs (health work, business, teaching etc.) and into the NGO sector. It’s a local brain drain of epic proportions. In one case this became so extreme that the run-down government hospital wrote to anNGO asking them to stop stealing their nurses! Most of the best minds should be innovating and leading the society from institutions and businesses that will continue serving people indefinitely. Instead the NGO sector is overloaded with the best educated and most capable, while the cogs which drive sustainable progress creak and come to a halt.

2) The distraction of huge NGO salaries means that workers don’t concentrate and get stuck into their current jobs. Many workers have a legitimate ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. People are ever on the look out for that ‘Golden Goose’ job which pays 2 or 3 times as much, even if the NGO job only lasts 6 months. You wouldn’t believe how much time and effort local people spend thinking about and applying for NGO jobs rather than getting on with their current work.

3) High NGO salaries wreck the aspirations of young people and skew the entire education system. When you have a deep, honest conversation with people at university about what they want to do, very few have serious aspirations to help their country, or bring people out of poverty. What they really want is a cushy, high paying NGO job. People should have a heart to start productive businesses, teach at schools, be nurses at hospitals. To work within the system to create lasting change. When we advertised for a job managing our Anglican church health centers, I was expecting degrees in public health, or at least administration. But no, over half of the 80 applicants had a degree in “development studies”. What even is that degree? A ticket in the lottery for a bloated NGO job. Another phenomenon is that many people want to be ‘drivers’ so they  earn more than teachers or nurses by driving NGO workers around. Bizarre.

So why do NGOs pay too much? From talking to a bunch of people about it, these are some of the reasons (again add your own!)

1) The donors back home just don’t understand local salaries
2) NGOs have a budget which they need to spend, and salaries is a way of spending it.
3) NGOs rely on local NGO workers to suggest/decide on salaries – perpetuating the cycle
4) Wanting the best worker possible for their job (not OK, see below)
5) Wanting pay equity between local and Ex-pats (White guilt plus healthy instinct)

The Solution

The good news is that we can solve this problem almost overnight! Here’s how.

  • Pay the market rate for your staff. Find out what the local market rate is for teachers, nurses, lawyers or whoever else you hire. Ask for the salaries for similar positions among business people, government and private not for profit enterprises (Church Run) and add no more than 10% to that.

  • Not pay Ex-pats much more than you pay locals. Wanting equity between local and expat workers is fantastic, but the solution is not to increase the local salary, but lower the Ex-pat’s! This reduces the tension to have to pay locals ludicrous salaries to match. If Expat NGO workers can’t handle being here on close to local salaries, then I don’t believe they should be here. It should be a sacrifice to work a place like Norther Uganda, a big one. Awesome hard working, caring Ex-pats will still come work for your NGO, even if they are paid less.

  • Be prepared to not hire the ‘best of the best’ with a reduced salary. Why should NGOs get to hire better workers than the government, buisnesses, or mission hospitals? Realise that your work is not usually more important than what everyone else is doing. Be comfortable with hiring good workers, even if they aren’t the best. You’ll still get good workers, don’t worry!


Then spend the money you save on salaries on…. whatever you think is best! Hire an extra worker, sponsor more kids to school, drill more boreholes. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Feel free to disagree, comment, agree, ask questions, disagree or whatever you please.

11 thoughts on “NGOs part 1 – Pay your workers less

  1. Nothing has changed in the last 20 years Only got worse and more wide spread!

    1. Interesting to hear that it’s not a recent thing Pauline. Great to hear your voice as well even if on the internet only 🙂

  2. Nothing has changed in the last 20 years Only got worst and more wide spread!

  3. Thank you for bravely saying what so many others avoid saying. This is a critical issue for many local churches, agencies and communities who loose their best staff to wealthy NGOs. Incarnational ministry implies incarnational pay. This is a huge subject but thank you for opening it up so clearly.

    1. “Incarnational ministry implies incarnational pay” is very true Mark. Unfortunately NGOs don’t think like that, even the Christian ones.

  4. I agree that expats should be paid at the going rate for local employees. Additional allowances can be given where necessary for special needs, e.g. schooling of children, annual holiday expenses, medical needs if they arise.
    That is the CMS way, isn’t it? I know it used to be.

    1. That’s excellent Pamela. Its the CMS New Zealand way don’t worry about that :).

  5. Hi Nick and Tessa
    I appreciated your comment to get people talking more about this issue. Be great to hear from NGOs in Uganda on their perspective. Have you shared it with them as well?

    Paul Thaxter
    International Mission Director
    Church Mission Society

    1. Thanks Paul. I’ve talked to a bunch of Ugandan workers about this, but they are most interested in increasing their salaries as much as possible. I honestly think I’d get laughed out of the room if I brought this up in an official forum with Ugandan) here (although a bunch of them read the blog which is good, you can see one has commented on ugandapanda.com The idea of Ex-pats dropping salaries to equal theirs I don’t think makes sense to many people. I believe out of country bosses need to be the ones taking the lead on this and dropping salaries. The problem is that NGOs are thinking only of themselves interested in getting the best workers possible, so want to pay the highest salaries. Organisations don’t consider the wider negative implications, only the ‘success’ of this project, and then the next.

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