My two other expat colleagues had to leave almost at the same time and the first replacement was supposed to come only three days later. Thus, for three days I was the only expat working for the clinic run by my NGO in Bangui.
“You’ve been left alone” was repeated by several people.
“Alone”? 65 people working in the same place, a lot of them with competences that totally excluded me from giving them any kind of help in their domains. And still…
The first times I heard this I answered with a weird feeling of embarrassment: “Well…uhm…A lot of things to do, yeah… But there are also the locals”.
I then became a bit more aggressive in my answers but, to be honest, never found a good response. The only small difference in my answer was if the comment came from another expat or a local. In the first case, my answers generated embarrassment in both for having thought that (“well, yeah, of course you have your ‘local colleagues’…I mean…you know…”). With the locals, it always ended with a laugh, with me playing the part of the discriminated-against mounjou* (“Hey, just because I’m white I don’t count as a colleague of yours? Are we not together?..etc.”). But, in the end, the underlying logic was the same:
Most people truly consider locals and expats on totally different dimensions. The main distinction between staff is not made on the basis of competence, like being a specialized doctor (almost no specialization exists in the country, so an expat specialized doctor is, by default, “special”), or personal attitudes and characteristics, like integrity or motivation. The supreme distinction is between expats and locals. The chain of responsibility is determined according to that distinction, first, and all other variables are considered secondary.. When you talk about a colleague you almost always specify, more or less explicitly, if s/he is expat or local and it’s not rare (to put it lightly) to hear compliments such as “he’s local but he’s really good”.
Because this is the subtext of that distinction. That expats are inherently good and locals are tendentially less competent and/or less honest**. This probably stems also from the fact that expats are (supposedly) called (and paid) to bring technical knowledge not available in the (under-developed) country. Those who have been “on the ground” know that this is not always true. Often far from that.
To be sincere, I don’t think that the “average” (that is, most commonly found) expat aid workers generally have the same characteristics and forma mentis as an “average” local applicant for the same job. This is for many reasons that I won’t discuss in this post.
However, I do think that this entrenched distinction between expats and locals is not only unfair but also has an effect in perpetuating and widening the differences that exist between them. And that this kind of attitude is an active part of the vicious cycle that makes international organizations feel treated like cash cow (vaches à lait) and locals feel expat snobbism towards them and, in the end, influence people’s behavior.
I don’t think that racism and prejudices are the only reason for that. Not even the main one. Self-gratification is probably the main engine. I have to admit that my ego was absolutely not immune to the vision of the “lonely hero saving children” (I work in a pediatric clinic). That I also felt “alone” and that I was more than tempted to not prevent people from thinking that I was. Martyrdom can be so attractive…
* Munju (mounjou) means “white person”, probably from the French “bonjour”.
** Using “incompetent” and “dishonest” would probably be closer to what people seem to think. However, I do not want here nor to force to much the caricature, neither to enter in a debate on hypocrisy and the importance of language in getting round accusations of racism&co.