Article

"Nationals" and "Expatriates": Challenges of Fulfilling "Sans Frontières" ("Without Borders") Ideals in International Humanitarian Action

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Abstract

The international humanitarian organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is strongly committed to principles of universalism, egalitarianism, and equity, in both its internal and external relations. Nevertheless, the organization distinguishes between so-called "national" staff members (those who are indigenous to the countries where MSF projects are located), and "expatriate" staff (those who are involved in projects outside their countries of residence), in certain ways that it has self-critically termed "discriminatory", "colonialist", and even "racist". It has resolved to remedy such practices. Through a first-hand case study of MSF activities in Russia, this article demonstrates that the dynamics of the "nationals"/ "expatriates" divide is a more complex phenomenon than MSF's self-accusatory diagnosis implies; that a fuller recognition and utilization of nationals' local knowledge would mitigate some of the conditions of inequality and inequity that they experience; but that it would not necessarily be desirable to expunge all differences between the two groups of staff Furthermore, because they are intrinsic to the structure and conditions of international humanitarian action, some of these differences could not easily be elminated by MSF, or by any other organization engaged in this kind of action.

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... In this vein, Selmer (2000) showed that Swedish (expatriate) bosses in Hong Kong could recognize only one third of locals' contributions to their respective workgroups. As several humanitarian field reports highlight (Alcayna & Al-Murani, 2016;Bjerneld, Lindmark, Garrett, & Diskett, 2004;Da Costa, 2012;McWha, 2011;Shevchenko & Fox, 2008;Vaughan-Smith, 2012), these problems may emerge even more acutely in the aid context due to the various differences between expatriate and local aid workers. As a result, they may be less willing to collaborate. ...
... This quote speaks to a larger expatriate mindset-that it may actually be more efficient to lead operations independently of locals' perspectives (e.g., Alcayna & Al-Murani, 2016). Case in point: in a Doctors without Borders field office, expatriate leaders never invited locals to biweekly meetings where operational plans were discussed and updated (Shevchenko & Fox, 2008). In turn, locals may retaliate by withholding information that could help expedite critical processes, such as needs assessment or procurement (Obrecht, 2016;Sanderson & Ramalingam, 2015). ...
... In light of these findings, leaders who are perceived as in-group prototypical-and who then make tangible behavioral efforts in pursuing collaboration (e.g., between locals and expatriates)-may be more effective at persuading their in-group members to adopt collaborative behaviors. Stated differently, we posit that perceived leader in-group prototypicality can be a powerful amplifier for aid workers' interpretation of boundary-spanning behavior, especially in field offices where collaboration is not typically the group's norm or even welcomed (e.g., Hunt, 2009;Pfeiffer, 2003;Shevchenko & Fox, 2008). As such, when group members (either locals or expatriates) perceive the leader as prototypical of their respective in-group, his/her displayed boundary-spanning behavior may be more readily accepted as a (new) norm and thus emulated through intergroup collaboration. ...
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Many humanitarian aid workers receive training prior to being dispatched into the field, but they often encounter challenges that require additional learning and creativity. Consequently, aid organizations formally support collaboration among the expatriate and local workers in a field office. At best, those aid workers would not only exploit their joint knowledge but also explore novel ways of managing the challenges at hand. Yet differences between expatriate and local groups (e.g., in ethnicity, religion, education, and salary) often thwart intergroup collaboration in field offices and, by extension, any joint learning or creativity. In response to this issue, we study the role of field office leaders—specifically, how their boundary-spanning behavior may inspire collaboration between the two groups and therefore facilitate joint learning and creativity. We propose that a leader's in-group prototypicality additionally catalyzes this process—that is, a leader's behavior has more impact if s/he is seen as representing his/her group. We tested and found support for our hypothesized moderated mediation model in a field sample of 137 aid workers from 59 humanitarian organizations. Thus, our study generally highlights the pivotal role that field office leaders play for crucial outcomes in humanitarian aid operations. Furthermore, we offer concrete steps for field office leaders who want to inspire better collaboration between the expatriate and local aid workers they lead.
... Moreover, mutual interaction remains limited outside the office because expatriates hang out in bars that locals either cannot afford or do not consider culturally appropriate to join (Rodon et al. 2012). Taken together, these differences often encourage expatriates to look down on their local colleagues and, as such, perceive their cooperation as unnecessary (e.g., see field reports in Shevchenko and Fox 2008). ...
... Practitioners' experience (Shevchenko and Fox 2008) and social identity theorizing (Abrams and Hogg 2010) speak to the same phenomenon: Humanitarian workers naturally spend more time within, and construct identities around, their respective subgroups (local and expatriate). Such subgroup entrenchment then thwarts intra-organizational cooperation and, ultimately, humanitarian operational performance. ...
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International humanitarian organizations (IHOs) always strive to improve their operational performance in the field. While anecdotes from practice suggest that IHO field office leadership plays a crucial role in this regard, these claims have not been deeply substantiated by primary data. In response, we collected survey data from 125 humanitarian workers, concentrated in disaster response and development programs, on the issues of field office leadership and operational performance. Building on the operations management and organizational behavior literature, we find that leaders who adopt an intergroup leadership style can significantly improve operational performance via enhancing cooperation between local and expatriate subgroups inside a field office. Notably, we find that the intergroup leadership style becomes more effective as humanitarian workers become more entrenched within cohesive subgroups. These results should help IHOs to better select and train their field office leaders and achieve higher operational performance. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
... Although language skills (or lack thereof) of international staff are mentioned in several studies (De Jong, 2017;Jackson, 2005;Nowicka and Kaweh, 2009;Shevchenko and Fox, 2008;White, 2002), the role that language and linguistic capital plays in unequal aid encounters is rarely addressed. Instead, translation is primarily discussed with respect to process of transferring and negotiating concepts and practices (Cornwall and Eade, 2010;Lewis and Mosse, 2006). ...
... There were institutional barriers to the promotion of multilingual staff from aid-receiving countries (cf. Shevchenko and Fox, 2008). One African respondent, who spoke English, French, and Arabic in addition to her mother tongue, had worked for many years as protection interpreter for a UN agency. ...
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Globalisation processes and the spread of English as a Lingua Franca are closely related. I consider language skills as symbolic capital and focus on the hegemony of English as Lingua Franca in international aid organisations. I argue that more attention must be paid to the role of language and linguistic capital when analysing global inequality and post-colonial power relations. Humanitarian and development organisations have so far received less sociological attention than other aspects of globalisation processes, whereas in the context of development studies, attention to language usually focuses on the ‘discourse of development’ rather than on the role of linguistic capital in multi-lingual settings. Aid work, which includes the transfer of skills and resources, simultaneously addresses and perpetuates global inequalities. Language structures power relations and inequality within aid organisations, in particular between national and international staff. My article is based on qualitative interviews with multi-lingual and mono-lingual aid workers from a wide variety of aid organisations. My article is innovative by demonstrating how linguistic capital intersects with other aspects of inequality in the global context of aid organisations. It makes an important contribution to the understanding of globalisation processes and to post-colonial sociology.
... 12 An MSF think tank even argued that expecting 'local actors' to adhere to humanitarian principles in conflict zones 'might be nothing short of utopian': the reasons that these employees might not follow principles could be 'intentional (from a conscious decision to privilege a particular group), unconscious (such as a repetition of culturally normalized patterns of exclusion), or driven by a (perceived) fear of immediate or future retaliation by local power actors. (Schenkenberg 2016, 23) In effect, the supposed 'detachment' of foreign employees is framed as central to decision-making, whilst humanitarians who are hired in their own country are portrayed as having potential particularistic attachments (Shevchenko and Fox 2008). Instead of the largescale promotion of staff in their own country, MSF has focused on improving opportunities for 'national staff' to become 'international staff' . ...
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This article describes how events are turned into fables in humanitarian organisations. It explores how these fables circulate, the lessons they come to embody and their influence in maintaining an organisational status quo. The article argues that such stories teach new humanitarian employees certain ‘facts’ about ‘the field’ and help form and consolidate consensus about why things are the way they are in an organisation. By describing three such fables circulating amongst Médecins Sans Frontières ‘international’ employees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, each of which suggested a need for foreign humanitarians to maintain a certain distance from local citizens (including their nationally hired colleagues) as a means of personal and organisational security, the article illustrates how such fables can ‘justify’ certain organisational decisions that ultimately reinforce structures of unequal power relations between different humanitarian employees.
... This group runs a greater risk to be killed, wounded or kidnapped (Stoddard et al., 2020), and reported greater psychological distress compared to iHAWs (Cardozo et al., 2005). Considering that national staff makes up for 90 % of the aid workers (Stoddard et al., 2009), further investigation into the distinction between international and national staff is warranted (Shevchenko and Fox, 2008). ...
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... More so and given the fact that, as we learned from our experience there, eating together as a group is an important tradition, and therefore agreeing so easily to single out a person who eats alone appears suspicious. Of course, Dr. Smith is White and has a marked British accent, which materializes a clear socioeconomic privilege, as well as an obvious colonial stake, that locals cannot ignore (Shevchenko & Fox, 2008). Also, we are in Dadaab, one of the most dangerous regions of the world, where the notion of always having at least one medical staff member present with the patients may seem a futile matter given the surrounding chaos. ...
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This article explores the collective practices through which ethics is handled at the humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders. As an international nongovernmental organization operating in 72 countries, many times facing extreme contexts and yet able to uphold its ethical standards, we consider that studying the practical achievement of ethics at Doctors Without Borders is an occasion to learn how workers themselves deal with it. Our analysis of ethnographic data suggests that the question of what is right or wrong is materialized through what we call ethical matters of concern. We focus on the communicative practices through which apparent individual ethical decisions are in fact collaborative in the sense that they imply people, principles, and other artifacts that substantiate organizational ethics in everyday work.
... Such conceptualization links humanitarianism to the world of diplomacy and conflict resolution. For others the main emphasis is on témoignage, while the respective agencies maintain their main role as service providers (Fox 1995;Shevchenko and Fox 2008). Critics have also claimed, however, that témoignage is liable to essentialize the victims, as long as the new humanitarianism's call for introducing the 'political' into NGOs' activities grounds its interpretation of politics on ethics rather than on an understanding of power relations or a vision of social justice (Leebaw 2007). ...
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... In the 1960s and 1970s developed a "new humanitarianism" that expanded humanitarian activities from "the provision of immediate assistance … to the greater commitment of solidarity and advocacy work for victims and concerns for the longterm protection of human rights" (Chandler 2001, p. 682). However, "new humanitarians", while stressing the importance of giving testimonies of human rights' violations, still considered the provision of services in order to alleviate suffering their main role (Shevchenko & Fox 2008;Fox 1995). The self-assumed apolitical and "neutral" stand of humanitarian organizations contrasts with an increasingly political human rights discourse, which is related to the growing awareness among human rights activists that rights are socially embedded and that they should thus address them in their socio-political dimension. ...
... However, unwilling to sacrifice "their neutral and 'non-political' status" proponents of the new humanitarianism justified "their strategic choices through the language of morals and ethics rather than politics" (Chandler, 2001: 683). They emphasized the need for témoignage, but still saw their role mainly as providers of services in order to alleviate suffering (Fox, 1995;Shevchenko & Fox, 2008). ...
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This paper aims to explore the ways which expertise is covertly racialized in the contemporary humanitarian aid sector. While there are considerable discussions on the expat-local divide among aid professionals, such dichotomization is still inherently nationality-based, which may be an over-simplified explanation of the group dimensions within aid organizations. This study seeks to uncover that professional categorizations of “expatriate” and “local” are not race-neutral and, instead, colorblind. Organizations within the contemporary humanitarian aid apparatus have come to appeal to what Michael Omi and Howard Winant would characterize as a new racial discourse—one that does not require explicit references to race in order to be perpetuated, as racial subordination has been reconfigured to rely on implicit references to race woven within the everyday social fabrics of the humanitarian profession. The research suggests that embedded under the contemporary professional structure of the liberal humanitarian space is a covert power hierarchy fueled by perceptions of expertise and competency along racial lines—particularly around one’s whiteness.
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