Starting out in International Development: Money Talks...
This post is kind of long, so I’ll start by the main conclusions, and let you read all the way through, if you’re interested.
There are financial implications for young professionals moving into international development, especially if you don’t have a staff position. They key words here are
- Before moving to a new organization, have 3 months of cash on hand.
- West Africa is mostly a cash economy. Come with cash.
- Your high credit limit is useless if you can’t charge anything.
- ATMs don’t necessarily recognize US cards. Bring cash.
- ATMs don’t always work – they're plagued by power-cuts, and internet outages.
- You need to have 4 months of student loan payments set aside before moving, or you’ll run the risk of missing a payment.
- The CFA Franc is pegged to the Euro, not the Dollar. This means banks will stiff you when changing dollars but have to give you the set euro rate.
If you're living in Francophone West Africa, chances are you'll be seeing lots of this bill...
I learnt all this the hard way. In 2013, I was a new, young Junior Consultant at the African Development Bank, embarking on my first wholly unsubsidized move abroad. I was one month into a 6-month contract and was thrilled to finally be working in international development. I eagerly waited, in vain, for my first check. Soon, with my savings dwindling, I was growing more and more anxious. Would the Bank of Parentals have to be my lender of last resort?
That’s when I found out that oftentimes when you work in international development
people assume you come from money
. My desperate pleas to be paid in a timely fashion were only taken seriously by my then boss. Admin assistants couldn’t understand why I didn’t have serious savings to buffer the first 3 months or so, and found it ludicrous that I expected to be paid regularly. After 2 long months, and in no small part thanks to my then boss’ dogged efforts, I got my first paycheck.
I learnt a very valuable lesson from that episode: development workers who aren’t permanent staff are in a sort of no man’s land and are expected to function like businesses. You aren’t a wage earner with a family to feed: you’re a business that is extending credit – free of charge – to the institution. Don’t believe me? Consultants are classified as external vendors, not temporary employees.
Pay tardiness is rampant
, so much so, I’ve had fellow consultants come up to me and offer to lend me money.
After that first contract, I was asked to move to Abidjan and eagerly accepted. Abidjan is an expensive city, where landlords demand 6 months of rent upfront. But I had learnt my lesson, or had I? Oops, I crunched numbers and found my meager savings wouldn’t cover the move comfortably. So I invested in myself and borrowed the cash.
This year, I am in Bissau, UNDP. UNV and UNDP have gone above and beyond when it comes to trying to ensure that volunteers get paid before they leave. That said, it doesn’t always work out. Charles Schwab, while an excellent banking choice for expats (no foreign transaction or ATM fees) uses an intermediary bank (that doesn’t fit into the UN system’s neat Vendor Bank Form) for international wires. And as an American abroad, the Patriot Act doesn’t look kindly on me trying to open a bank account back home while living in a notorious drug trafficking hub. The silver lining in all of this?
If you're an expat, get Schwab. If you're moving to West Africa, don't come without cash.