For those working across the world in the international public sector, there is one important role that is often overlooked, or certainly taken for granted – that of the spouse.
Over the past couple of decades the role of the “trailing spouse” – usually a wife – has completely changed. As more women have careers of their own, including within the international public sector itself, the expatriate housewife is becoming an old-fashioned stereotype.
Even so, obtaining a work permit is rarely easy, as many countries see spouses as competition for qualified nationals. “Sometimes a permit will be granted if the spouse brings expertise that is in short supply in the country. Some countries also allow spouses to work within the international community without a work permit,” says Nicole Menage, a country representative in Nepal for the World Food Programme.
Her husband, Carlo Pandolfi, a civil hydrologist and geographic information systems specialist, has followed her from post to post. In the early days this was fairly uncommon. “My husband has sacrificed his career to a great extent for mine,” she says. “He has helped me set up house in post after post, absorbed many of the daily chores and has taken great care of the children. We have been a team, sharing many of the responsibilities.”
He is currently working on a short-term contract with a Finnish consulting firm on an Asian Development Bank project to improve the Kathmandu sewerage system, but he only secured this consultancy recently and can go many months without work. “It has often taken a while before he has been able to find work in the different postings we have had, which has been difficult for him,” she says.
Marcela Sandoval gave up her 10-year career at the White House, working for Bill Clinton, to follow her husband, Richard Ragan, also with the WFP, to Beijing. At the time spouses were not allowed to work in China. Her response was to become a chef. “After volunteering at a gallery and restaurant, the chef eventually let me in the kitchen and one thing led to another,” she says.
“Richard then went back to the Clinton administration for its last 14 months and I took the opportunity to get some training. We were then posted to Zambia, where I had a catering and gourmet ice cream business.”
Things have changed in China, but there are still places where spouses are not allowed to seek employment. And in Zambia, where it has previously been relatively easy for spouses to obtain a work permit, it has now become more difficult, as the country wants to encourage local hires.
But there are some countries where things have changed very little, with Saudi Arabia being one of the most extreme examples. Dame Margaret Anstee, a former under-secretary at the United Nations, says it is not typical, but women are forbidden to drive there, let alone work, making life more difficult for both partners.
“For any man posted there, it is important that he has a wife who wants to be there,” she says. “The job performance of a man working in Saudi Arabia can reflect whether he has a good home life.”
After one UN worker had a heart attack in the middle of the night and his wife could not drive him to a hospital due to the country’s laws, Dame Margaret worked with the Saudi government to persuade them to assign an area of Riyadh for all UN workers. “The spouses would then have company,” she says. “And if something happened, they can get help.”
As well as factors surrounding work permits, there is also the issue of families settling into a foreign country with different customs and cultures. Most organizations in the sector provide support: the UN, for example, provides a living allowance based on the cost of living in the country to which a representative is posted. There are also grants for children’s education.
“It is often difficult to settle in initially,” says Ms. Menage. “Most of the countries’ offices do their best to advise new staff members on where it is best to live, but there is so much you have to learn.”
Ms. Sandoval says a spouse needs to be able to help their partner and any family settle in, and says that she and her husband usually figure out how they are going to do things before they go.
Posts in places such as Africa, she says, are certainly different from the west, as there will not always be running water and electricity, for example. “You have to figure out how you are going to supply the house with water and everything. And it can take up to a year before you turn the tap on, confident that the water will actually be running.”
Ms. Sandoval is currently not working as her husband is posted to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she is not allowed to work. “It’s definitely a lot harder to settle in for a spouse who isn’t working. It takes about a year to get comfortable and figure it out.
“And it takes longer to meet people and find a community in which you want to participate and do stuff.”
She adds that there a lot more men now following their wives “which is great to see,” but they do get frustrated in places where they aren’t allowed to work.
It is becoming increasingly common for both partners to work for an organization such as the World Health Organization or UN and some organizations try to place couples together. Dame Margaret says that it is very difficult administratively, but “it is a good policy and really helps.”
In other cases, spouses can face separation as there are more non-family posts cropping up in emergency settings, such as the aftermath of natural disasters and famine-hit areas.
Where spouses are able to build a career, there are benefits on all sides. Krisztina Bana’s husband is working for the World Health Organization in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she is an in-house legal counsel for Maersk. She says the important part for her is less to do with helping her husband with his career, but building a life and a career that will “take the burden off the spouse’s shoulder, in the sense that it is no longer his ‘responsibility’ to make us all happy.”
But she adds that there are sacrifices to be made by a working spouse: “Obviously, there are no tennis lessons and expat shopping trips for me. I have no time for that.”