Recent research shows a big increase in the salaries of chief executives and directors of international non-governmental organisations in the UK, with thirty organisations now paying six figures compared to nineteen three years ago. The number of staff earning more than £60,000 has also increased by 16% between 2010 and 2012, with these senior members of staff receiving pay rises despite falling income. This was justified  by the NGOs due to the need to attract and retain talent and to ensure salaries were in line with the INGO market.

Now, on the one hand you seem to have people thinking that those working for charities and in development should barely be paid anything at all (as if we are supposed to live on air and water) and on the other hand, you have people justifying these high leaps in salaries at the same time that income is falling.  The truth is, as always, a much more nuanced reality. This debate and controversy over salaries ‘at the top’ captures a partial account of what is actually happening. It is missing the true story – increasing inequality between those in senior management positions and everyone else.

At the same time that there has been this massive inflation at the top, the salaries of a lot of  jobs in the sector have actually gone down over the past five years. In the last two organisations in which I worked, we received pay freezes and/ or cuts in cost of living allowance. Given that the cost of living rose exponentially at the same time, this meant that people are actually being paid less. When positions are advertised after a staff member leaves, it is often at the bottom end of the scale in order to save costs. Anecdotally, it seems that the numbers of these organisations in dispute with those who work for them over pay and conditions is surprisingly high, given that so many of them focus on workers’ rights.  It means a lot when people who genuinely believe in and care about their organisation and the work they do go out on strike. There has been a move towards cutting not just pay but also benefits. Jobs that were once covered by those working at entry-level have now morphed into unpaid internships, with the result that it has become even more difficult to find a paid job in the sector. There have been job losses and redundancies. At the same time, there have been big pay-offs for under-performing chief executives as well as increases in salaries for the already highest paid.

Does this sound like anything else?

Unfortunately, the practice of giving salary increases to senior management at the same time as freezing or cutting salaries of everyone else or making people redundant to ensure parity with the market and to ‘keep talent’ is oddly reminiscent of the corporate sector, most particularly companies in the City. Justification by recourse to looking at benchmarking with the market is one thing, but when the market as a whole in the sector is moving towards a model that rewards those at the top heavily and underpays and undervalues everyone else, what does this mean if you are an organisation supposed to be motivated by a desire for social (including economic) justice?

Cuts to salaries and benefits are often justified by talking about the present economic climate and the need for ‘austerity’. It is getting harder and harder to raise money. Individual giving is falling as supporters suffer the brunt of the recession, government funding is becoming harder to access and trusts and foundations are over-subscibed with grant applications. However, as with so much else, it seems that we are not ‘all in this together.’

What I find completely indefensible is organisations that increase senior management salaries while continuing to employ interns to do actual jobs but not paying them i.e. expecting people to work for free, in some cases full-time, knowing that there are those who will be willing to do so in order to gain the necessary experience to get paid employment. Of course this restricts access to the sector to those who are able to live in London, where most jobs are based, and not be paid for work i.e. primarily to those with family money and/ or accommodation in London. There is an expectation that people need to ‘do their time’ in order to get a job. This largely means  the equivalent of working for free for at least a year on a full-time basis. Who can afford to do that in London? The only reason I managed to get a job in the sector was because I lived in China after university. I ‘did my time’ there doing an unpaid internship but able to cover my living expenses by picking up relatively well paid work and living in a country where the cost of living is relatively low. There was no way I could have afforded to work for free while living in London.

The international sector in the UK is already dominated by white, middle/ upper class, southern English people. Often, when I was working in London, I would look around and see that I was the only black person in the room when the topic was peacebuilding or development in Africa or Asia. Once, I discussed women’s political participation in West Africa with five white European men. The irony of this was not lost on me, even if it was something that nobody else in the room seemed to notice. I fear that, given increasing barriers to entry to the sector given our changing economic times since the start of the recession, this lack of diversity will increase even further.

I have not even written about power imbalances in the sector between European/ North American members of staff and their colleagues in the countries in which the organisations work. That is the subject of a whole other blog post!

Organisations that are so closely aligned to work to redress and rebalance power and economic inequalities should not fail to look internally too. There needs to be a fundamental review of the kind of sector we want to be and what values we stand for.