The Ethics of Hiring Locals for NGOs

By Petra Sarbach


It's a common practice for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to hire locals for laborious tasks, but it can raise ethical concerns about fair labor practices and potential harm to vulnerable individuals. In this blog post, we will delve into the significance of empowering local communities and promoting fair labor practices when NGOs hire locals.


When we think of NGOs, we often imagine a group of foreigners coming into a community to do good, but the reality is more complicated. In many cases, NGOs hire locals to do the laborious work, but what are the ethical implications of this practice?


The Potential for Exploitation

While NGOs often have good intentions to support local communities, there is a risk of exploitation when hiring locals for laborious tasks. This potential for exploitation arises when NGOs unintentionally take advantage of the vulnerability of local communities by offering low wages and unsafe working conditions. When locals are in desperate need of employment, they may be willing to work for minimal compensation without questioning the working conditions. This can lead to a situation where locals are being exploited rather than empowered.


Moreover, NGOs may lack sustainable funding sources and struggle to offer consistent employment or long-term career growth opportunities. As a result, local communities may become overly dependent on NGOs, leading to labor exploitation and, most importantly, a lack of economic sustainability.


Strategies for Sustainable NGO Impact

Let's take a look at Green Corridors, an exemplary NGO committed to achieving a balance between communities and their surrounding habitat while focusing on social impact. Green Corridors is currently active in Dungan, South Africa - a country experiencing a political leadership crisis. This crisis has direct economic and social consequences for municipalities, including a struggling economy, high unemployment rates, and gender violence.




To foster sustainable development and ensure long-term success, NGOs must prioritize the following principles, as exemplified by Green Corridors:


Cultural Sensitivity: Embracing Diversity

Cultural differences can pose challenges for NGOs when effectively engaging with local communities. For example, different work standards and deadlines may conflict with local expectations, and gender roles can be viewed as contentious by foreigners*. Therefore, it's crucial for NGOs to embrace cultural differences and work collaboratively with local

communities to find mutually beneficial solutions. By being respectful, patient, and teaching through demonstration, NGOs can establish positive and effective working relationships with local communities*.



One of the biggest challenges when working with local communities is the language barrier. Communication can suffer, with comprehension loss ranging from 20% to 50% due to language differences (Zulu-English)*. To overcome this challenge, NGOs should focus on simplifying complexities and building respectful communication channels. This can be achieved by learning the local language, using translators for complex and sensitive issues, and allowing enough time for inclusive discussions to resolve conflicts*. Effective communication can lead to greater efficiency and motivation*, benefiting both parties. Hence, NGOs must prioritize comprehensible communication methods.


Upskilling and Leadership

Empowering local communities is crucial for creating sustainable job opportunities and ensuring fair treatment of workers. NGOs can provide opportunities for local workers to take on leadership roles and contribute to the decision-making process within the organization. This approach fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for the program's success. By investing in skills training and education*, NGOs can equip local workers with the tools they need to thrive in the long run.


From Exploitation to Empowerment

Despite the challenges, hiring locals can have significant positive effects. Empowering local communities through sustainable job opportunities, fair labor practices, and respectful and culturally sensitive engagement can lead to greater economic growth and social development. By working collaboratively with local communities and investing in their long-term success, NGOs can make a positive impact while promoting economic growth and social development.


* Referring to Jonathan Welch’s presentation “Simplifying Complexity” for the “International Development Engineering“ course held at ETH Zürich, on the 8th of May 2023



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