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Musings on CEO salaries (from a Vietnamese noodle bar)

August 7, 2013
A spurious link at best between this photo and this post...that said, damn fine noodles are to be had here, next time you are in Hanoi...

A spurious link at best between this photo and this post…that said, damn fine noodles are to be had here, next time you are in Hanoi…

Already two months have past since I posted here about Fair and Lovely cream whilst I was working in India.  Various travels have kept me busy since that time (documented in part over on www.saigonsays.wordpress.com).

Suddenly August is in full swing.

Sparking my curiosity enough to open up these pages once more, is a piece in the Guardian, unpacking the seasonal debate we like to have (and perhaps the “we” inferred here – the UK – are not alone in this musing?) about the large salaries paid to CEOs of international NGOs, such as the one I have been working for these past seven years.

Here’s the piece http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/aug/06/charities-ceo-pay-transparency-ngos

It’s well balanced, non confrontational and, given this is not the first time the press have put the topic under the microscope, I like the angles that the journalist pursues: placing an emphasis more squarely on an NGO’s ability to demonstrate positive impact on those it seeks to help, over and above the organization’s turnover; asking for a public debate on salaries and promoting transparency in the sector; recognizing that administrative costs of managing “aid” programmes are part and parcel of the overall business of alleviating chronic situations, over many years.  And so on.

Many of the public comments which follow the article also err on the side of seeing the need to have well paid leaders in the sector, in charge of large chunks of public money, provided there is equity in terms of how others in the same organisations are remunerated.  “We should pay interns” exclaims one observer.  “Why does the article only refer to international NGOs?  What about UK based charitable organisations?” proposes another…

Why does this interest me?  I ask myself – and myself alone, given I am eating pho noodles in a local Hanoi restaurant as a type this, and the person sat next to me is Vietnamese, so my chances of engaging them in a bizarre exchange of ideas about UK CEO salaries is about as likely as me winning the Saigon lottery (for which I never buy a ticket.)

First of all, there are too many charitable organisations in the world.  Fact.  In the UK alone, there are around 180,000 registered charities.  Globally, there are 40,000+ international NGOs, and the numbers for the national NGOs would be fairly impossible to quantify (ok, fairly impossible for me sat in a local joint in Hanoi’s old quarter, with its shaky wifi, and with my limited patience for how many times I am prepared to experiment with typing the question into wiki answers).  I can tell you, however, that there are 3.3 million national NGOs registered in India, (which is strangely in step in terms of ratios of organisations : people as it is in the UK – around 370 people per registered charity).

Anyway.  Rising above the pedantic fug of data analysis, let me try and elevate my point into a more blue sky stratosphere, punctuated by the wispy cloud sentiments of let’s hope that, and why couldn’t we, and surely one day…

I think this whole salary debate is a waste of time.

Given similar debates are had about others (politicians, bankers, the usual suspects) and given the lack of evidence of genuinely meaningful changes happening as a result of said debates, I am not convinced that the CEO of a large international NGO – more likely than not to be over 50 years old, having invested much of their time and career in getting up close to chronic humanitarian issues – whose annual salary pays considerably less than a Premier League footballer receives for 5 days work, is necessarily someone we need to rush to the dock to face heavy questioning.

OK, comparisons with the Premier League is perhaps an extreme one to make, and a flawed way to take the discussion.  But, further comparisons made with many other senior positions across the different sectors will offer up a similar outcome, albeit in a different shade of extreme.

We, of course, want a more transparent process.  Public funding has to be monitored.  Absolutely.

However, if I may, in a moment of lofty stratosphere thinking, let’s hope that in the future, what characterizes society does not hinge on a tribal, sectoral framework in which too much time is taken up comparing the profit, loss, and governance of a business vs. a government vs. any type of NGO.

Why couldn’t we adopt a more hybrid approach to the structures used by organisations, one that would be more befitting a planet increasingly modeled around diversity, equality and cohesiveness?

I recognise my slight ‘kool aid’ inebriation here, and am mindful of the fairly fundamental societal nuances that would need to be ironed out were this future scenario to actually happen.  But, now and again one is allowed to float such ideas – particularly in the absence, in this now completely empty noodle bar, of a counter opinion.

Surely one day.

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