Nicholas Kristof mused on Christmas Day in the New York Times on whether NGOs should pay high salaries. He seems to come down – though equivocally – on the side of saying that sometimes they should:
In the war on poverty, there is room for all kinds of organizations. Mr. Pallotta may be right that by frowning on aid groups that pay high salaries, advertise extensively and even turn a profit, we end up hurting the world’s neediest.
“People continue to die as a result,” he says bluntly. “This we call morality.”
I think there is a dilemma here only if you retain the mindset that aid agencies and NGOs are providing charity to the world’s neediest. If this is charity, then perhaps there is something incongruous about “profiting” from charity. (One of the commenters on the New York Times forum calls it “a moral repugnance”.) Today this is charity; and even so, the utilitarian in me thinks we should pay higher salaries whenever the return – in terms of higher output from securing better staff – exceed the costs.
But there is much less of a problem if we see development assistance as social justice. In the 20th Century, most of Europe turned its backs in the on Victorian concepts of charity and workhouses to deal with poverty in their midst in favour of building social institutions to protect all their citizens. In the 21st Century, our view of foreign assistance will, I believe, undergo a similar change: we will see foreign assistance as an act of solidarity and social justice, as part of what it means to live together as part of the same society. The world’s poor will have rights, not depend on charity, and there will be institutions whose job it is to protect those rights. When development assistance is not charity but justice, we will not think it strange to provide a decent income to those who deliver it, any more than we think it strange to pay our judges well.
Update: Wronging Rights has a discussion of this too.