The promise and challenge of intercultural service teams

[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

While MCC teams across the past
century have almost always had some form of intercultural composition, the
intercultural character of MCC teams has become more pronounced in recent years.”

Many years ago, during an MCC country program review in Latin America, the evaluation team I was on engaged in a lengthy discussion about the “perks” that expatriate workers from Canada, the United States and Europe enjoyed during their MCC service term. Our local context expert, a professional who worked for a major aid organization, was dumbfounded that MCC would cover 100% of the costs of child care and private school tuition for service worker families and provide work for both spouses as a matter of course. At some point in the discussion, however, we realized that all along he had assumed that service workers were paid a salary commensurate with his own. When he realized that international service workers were what we used to call “volunteers,” he said, “Never mind! I thought you all had salaries! I completely withdraw everything I just said. Now it makes perfect sense.”

And yet, despite the “perfect sense” that it makes to differentiate support packages received by international workers serving outside their countries of nationality from the salaries and benefits received by national staff employed by MCC in their country of nationality, conversations and debates persist within MCC about the challenges that such differentiated support packages pose to creating truly intercultural teams. I strongly
suspect that no MCC country program has fully succeeded in satisfactorily resolving these tensions generated by different types of support packages, because every country program is operating within a context of power and privilege and within hierarchies shaped by the legacies of colonialism. MCC operates within and at times reflects and reproduces these broken structures and can only imperfectly redress the wrongs that they produce. Immigration and labor laws vary from one country to another, dictating
in part how compensation is organized. The ways that family members understand one’s commitment to working with MCC may differ widely as well. However, creative approaches to policy at the country program level can at least partially correct the persistent imbalances and foster more equivalence among team members who come from disparate situations, in turn nurturing a shared sense of mission.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul claims that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6–7, NRSV). This vision of Jesus’ self-emptying in service has arguably animated and infused MCC’s understanding of service in the work of accompanying hurting people. This conception of service as self-giving and self-emptying is in turn translated into organizational commitments:

  • Witnessing to God’s upside-down kingdom, MCC embraces God’s partisanship for the poor and is committed to working amongst marginalized communities for human rights and poverty reduction.
  • As a response to the Biblical commandment to love God, our neighbors, and our enemies, MCC serves and learns in community and builds bridges across cultural, political, religious and economic divides.
  • Working towards a vision of God’s reign on earth, MCC is committed to dismantling barriers of racial, economic and gender-based oppression and to ensuring that all community members are active participants in program design and decision-making.

While it is clear (at least in theory) how these principles apply to community work—e.g., participatory decision-making, grass-roots accompaniment—MCC has paid less attention to how the principles play out within intercultural MCC teams. As teams become more diverse, especially in terms of national origin, the lines defining who are the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed become somewhat blurred as categories of social class intersect with ethnicity and national origin. Determining what constitutes equitable treatment becomes challenging. Is a national staff person with a master’s degree and 15 years of experience working for non-governmental organizations poor, marginalized and oppressed in comparison to a 20-year-old SALTer from Goshen, Indiana? If that
national staff person is still paying off an educational loan from a family member, can MCC help her make payments as it would for some expatriate workers? What if the national staff person has an urgent medical need, but her health insurance provider will not give her an appointment until next month, while the international service worker at the next desk can see any specialist in the city that day and be fully reimbursed?

What does it look like, in the words of MCC’s operating principles, to learn in community and build bridges across cultural, political, religious and economic divides? How do these principles of equity and commitment to dismantling discrimination work in practice within an international team that includes staff from the country and that includes
some staff compensated through regular salaries and benefits (national staff serving in their country of nationality), while others are compensated as volunteers (expatriate service workers, who receive a stipend, but also generous benefits such as housing, full health insurance and, where applicable, children’s education costs)?

MCC, to be sure, is not the only international non-governmental organization that grapples with the complexities involved in working towards equity and fairness in the compensation of members of intercultural teams that include national staff from the specific country of operation. Houldey (2017) and Roth (2015) suggest that in some contexts as many as 90% of all aid workers are national staff working in their countries of origin. As these national staff work alongside international workers from other contexts, workers inevitably observe different types of and disparities within compensation and support. A writer for the “Secret Aid Worker” blog (2015), for example, poignantly questions the justifications offered by international NGOs for differentiating the medical insurance packages offered to international and national staff.

MCC works at this challenge by giving its country programs flexibility to create internal policies aimed at fostering equality within program teams that are contextually relevant. For example, when my spouse and I served as MCC representatives for Colombia, we instituted a $400-per-person-per-year emergency medical fund within our budget for
national staff to draw on in situations where their national insurance was woefully inadequate.

While MCC teams across the past century have almost always had some form of intercultural composition, the intercultural character of MCC teams has become more pronounced in recent years. The number of multi-year international service workers who come from the Majority World (i.e., not from Canada, the United States or Europe)
is steadily growing. The Young Adult Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) program in which young adults from Majority World countries serve in other Majority World countries has rapidly expanded. MCC’s two-year Seed units for young adults are deliberately designed as intercultural teams that bring young adults from Seed countries like Bolivia and Colombia together with young adults from the broader region and from Canada and the United States. The growing intercultural character of MCC teams pushes MCC actively to grapple with the tensions involved in working towards greater equity within intercultural teams. If we don’t deliberately address such tensions, the implicit
biases in our actions and decisions will inevitably default to maintain the status quo, leaving colonial relationships unquestioned. At its best, MCC constantly operates in a dynamic tension, like the strings of piano or guitar, or human vocal cords, vibrating into harmonic music, ever changing, responsive and expressive.

Elizabeth Phelps works as a consultant and previously served as MCC co-representative for Colombia.

Learn more

Aid Worker Voices. Blog. Available at http://blogs.elon.edu/aidworkervoices/.

Houldey, Gemma. “Why a Commonly Held Idea of What Aid Workers Are Like Fails
to Tell the Whole Story.” The Conversation. November 6, 2017. Available at https://theconversation.com/why-acommonly-held-idea-of-whataid-workers-are-like-fails-to-tellthe-full-story-85365.

Roth, Silke. The Paradoxes of Aid Work: Passionate Professionals. London:
Routledge, 2016. “Secret Aid Worker: It’s One Standard for Local Staff and
Another for Expats.” The Guardian. June 16, 2015. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/globaldevelopment-professionalsnetwork/2015/jun/16/secret-aid-worker-local-staffexpats-ngo-medical-care.

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