Posts Tagged ‘per diems’

Paying for performance: the business class edition

Chris Blattman thinks that regular business class travel could be a symbol of all the wasteful excesses of the development industry*, and has suggested (symbolically, I am sure) that cutting back on business class travel by development agencies could be a new a Millennium Development Goal. But, as various commenters point out, there can be legitimate reasons for investing in business class especially for taller or older folk, and those who have to travel a lot (though I’m with Blattman on the issue of ticket flexibility being an irrelevance). So why, if you want to motivate your best staff would you want to take away an important symbol of your regard for their worth?

To me this question is the international jet-setting equivalent of the perennial poser of what to do about per diem culture in developing countries. Such payments are supposed to be reward for taking on extra or additional duties, and the hardship of being away from base, but have come to be completely subsumed in working practices as an automatic entitlement. I doubt that things are quite so bad amongst the the WB and UN global travellers**, but as symbols of their status as important people, I can see how business class travel and 5 star hotel accommodation is something of a badge of honour.

When evaluating these kind of perks, whether per diems or business class travel, the question that really springs to mind is: how good exactly are these best staff of yours? My experience of dealing with the UN system is somewhat limited, but my impression that its previous reputation for being something of a sinecure for the moderately accomplished is no longer accurate. However, even if your staff are geniuses (and I don’t hear many people questioning Jeffrey Sachs’s intellect), results from 60 years of international development aid are rather modest at best. Maybe humanity would actually be better off if some of these high powered folks were inventing whizzy new technologies or teaching the next generation rather than racking up air miles by the jumbo-load?

In conclusion, I am inclined to agree with Blattman that travelling business class as standard is indeed an unfortunate, highly visible symbol of wasteful overindulgence on the part of the aid sector. And in so far as it may encourage beneficiaries to puff themselves up with their own self-importance (as measured by the seniority of officials they meet rather than the extent of their actual achievements), then it could be worth cutting down on. But really I would mind much less if only I thought their work was delivering bigger results on the ground.

* My inference as to what he thinks it is symbolic of.

** For a start salaries are likely to be much better, so additional perks are not so important to overall remuneration.

Trust (part 3)

Over the past two days I have blogged about the contrasting trust relationships we NGOs have with communities and donors, how important they are, and yet how frequently they fall short. Both, however, are wonders of mutual respect and cooperation compared to the relationship we have with government.

I think it is hard for anyone in my position to be openly and completely honest about their relationship with government. To be sure there are positive elements; there are genuinely good people in government – well-meaning and able – and we do reach out to each other. Some government policies, moreover, can be truly enlightened to the benefit of ordinary citizens, although regrettably implementation often falls somewhat short of ideal.

Sometimes government objections are reasonably founded, or based upon miscomprehensions which are readily appreciated and not unreasonably derived. However, it can be hard to spot those amongst the general tide of basic intransigence; the default attitude that they should impede your proposals unless given a reason not to, rather than the other way around. New ideas and new approaches are greeted with suspicion: this is not the way things are done around here!

Deciphering exactly what is meant when bureaucratic obstructions are raised can be difficult, and there is no doubt that subtle cultural and linguistic barriers can play a significant part; we need to remain watchful of when we may be the ones erring. However, if you are experienced (not just generally, but with the specific culture in which you are working) and working closely with local partners, then these problems should be minimised. Thereafter you are in a world of political shadow-boxing and doublespeak, in which few things are exactly what they mean, and your real task is to decipher the real issues, and what perverse incentives may lie behind the words chosen. Then you need to respond in kind, with a tip of the hat to the justification originally supplied by the official(s), but also addressing what you hope is the underlying cause. Liberal application of per diems can often work wonders!

But finally, many obstructions are raised because your project threatens a little off-the-books sinecure or maybe bigger vested interests. A few per diems will not solve this problem. So instead we have to resort to the same nonsense; allies are sought, reassurances are given, half promises made, attention is distracted with a big workshop which conveniently glosses over the proposed transfer of power from bureaucrats to ordinary people.

Little of this will be news to anyone who has spent much time in the aid industry, and it regrettably fits all kinds of derogatory stereotypes of life in the “third world”. But where is the trust in this relationship? Donors expect us to work in partnership with government, though, contradictorily, they also fund civil society groups to add dissenting voices to otherwise untrammelled government propaganda dressed up as participatory consultation exercises. I hate it when we find ourselves having to resort to sleight of hand and political trickery. Mostly we only use it on the littlest of things, for it is no way to handle strategically important issues; these need to be properly thrashed out.

The aid industry is founded upon noble ideals, but its practice can be anything but. Is the local MP the people’s popular representative or a venal kleptocrat? What do you do when the answer is both? We want the government to coordinate but may deliberately fail to give them all the information they need. We want the government to enforce its laws but get frustrated when they do so in perverse ways. Self-righteously proclaiming oneself the saviour of poor people and riding roughshod over officious objections in their name is no solution, but then neither is following the path of negligible impact which many government officials would prefer you take.

Having the trust of local government is a vital badge for most NGOs engaged in development work, and we wear it proudly. But sometimes I wonder if it stands for anything more than a few inane platitudes from the guest of honour at our last workshop. I cling to the belief that it does, and the good, comparatively trusting relationships we have with the genuinely concerned and committed government officials is the basis for something nobler. I just wish that belief were not swamped in a thicket of dissimulation, from which the precious virtue of trust seems to have been all but extinguished.

Time to call in the lawyers?

Mike Jennings suggests homeless Haitians should be able to sue international NGOs for leaving them in temporary tented camps for so long, and not providing more permanent housing. You do not have to know anything about Haiti (I don’t!) to see how this would be a spectacularly bad idea.

We can start off with a roll call of those countries with strict NGO regulations: North Korea, Burma, Sudan, Ethiopia … The list goes on but you get the idea.

Dr Jennings is a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, so may be familiar with the results of the growing litigation culture in the UK with respect to public services. It’s affected the health sector, but I know more people in education. There it has resulted in an extremely risk averse approach; pupils are taken on far less school trips because schools and teachers are scared of getting sued. Just the paperwork involved for the simplest trips can put teachers off organising them. The outcome is a poorer, narrower and less engaging education for our children.

Now let’s compare with humanitarian aid. At least in educating our children teachers and schools mostly know what they’re doing. Despite the odd ideological battle, we more or less know how to educate a large proportion of our children to become welcome members of society. In contrast, the long list of disappointing outcomes from various humanitarian aid missions and projects shows just how little we understand what makes for a good project.*

If NGOs were to be made legally liable for delivering outcomes to some minimum standard (as determined by whom??) then they would retreat into the least risky kind of projects. Instead of a tented camp for destitute refugees they might provide scholarships to study in the US and Europe – not much that can go wrong there, but only a tiny number of people (probably already middle class to have the necessary education to benefit from tertiary study overseas) and substantial cost per person supported.

Mike Jennings appears to acknowledge this problem when he says:

By their nature, efforts to alleviate poverty, suffering and vulnerability in some of the most economically, socially and politically challenging parts of the world are risky. But risky for whom? Risky for the organisations who may face financial difficulties or a loss of prestige? Or risky for the communities in which the intervention has taken place?

I’ve never worked in emergency humanitarian situations such as post-earthquake Haiti, but I would imagine for most beneficiaries their initial risk was very low, as they had lost a large part of what they had before, and were likely dependent on outside assistance for the most basic needs such as food and clean drinking water. In general, in the aid industry, we strive to ensure that aid dependency is only short term, but it can be awfully difficult for both sides to extricate themselves from that rut once they are in it. Compared to where they started I cannot see what the big downsides are for people so desperate. This is not to say that we should not aim to give them the very best assistance we can for a given input of resources, but it seems perverse to me to paint such people as ‘victims’ of the international aid industry.

My experience, however, is in non-emergency work, and actually I think poor communities can be quite good at risk management. Although, by nature, conservative (a sweeping generalization, I know) communities welcome most proposed projects with open arms even where they do not fully understand the project design. However, they do know they’ll get two things: investment into their community of some form or another, and participants will be paid per diems for their time. As project implementers we hate this requirement as it smacks of aid dependency; we shouldn’t have to pay people to be permitted to help them. But that’s the way it is, and that way the community can be assured as to some benefit even if the project peters out in a few years without ever coming close to achieving what it set out to do. The development professionals will move away to the next big thing / step up on their career, and the community got some pocket money. Plus ça change …

All of which reinforces the need for strong accountability and transparency in aid work – and not just to the donors – in which all aid actors perform poorly (don’t just blame the NGOs), that lay behind Mike Jennings’s proposal. Just please leave the lawyers out of it!

* Actually I think quite often we do know how to do a successful project, but either the donor wants to reduce the costs and cut the time available, and/or the recipient country politics constrain the list of options, but that still leaves a long list of things we still really do not know how to do, such as providing new permanent accommodation in a country with a completely dysfunctional land registry.

Big fish swim in bigger ponds

The ever excellent Ben Ramalingam posts on the complexity challenges of scaling up aid projects. He and the paper he reports have many interesting and valid points, and yet the dry analysis glosses over I think one of the biggest challenges of all: increasing political interference. It is relatively easy to run a successful small project largely under the radar; those few people who know about it won’t feel threatened by it. In such instances I have vaguely sensed what seems to me a rather patronising attitude from local officials; that it’s quite wonderful that the great unwashed should have their little aid project play thing to keep them happy, while they continue in their ways very much as before, and as long as things stay that way everyone else is happy too.

But as you scale up and the numbers become bigger two things happen. Firstly some people start to feel threatened by your project. You may be directly stepping on their toes or constraining their ability for future manoeuvre, or it may simply be that your success risks putting their rather more modest achievements in the shade, leading to their bosses (and ultimately the donors) to question why they are throwing so much money at regular system when there appears to be a better way of delivering said results. Secondly, the sharks will smell the big money and start to circle. Big development programmes are patronage opportunities and per diem cows to be milked to the utmost. Additionally, and as I’ve previously remarked, you lose the tight management team you had before and instead are confronted with trying to manage a big programme through the leviathan of government bureaucracy.

I think this explicit political dimension is captured to a certain extent in some of the figures that Ben reproduces (trade union organising is listed as an example), but I think it unwise simply to relegate it to one aspect of systems complexity. To be fair to Ben, I think he is not arguing that politics is unimportant, merely presenting a systems-based analysis of the challenges faced. Anyone interested in trying to scale up projects should read his blog post and take due note of the recommendations. Just don’t forget the politics!

Establishing and maintaining a supportive political environment is a major challenge and critical to the success of any aid project beyond the very smallest scale. As I sometimes joke to friends: in my job as a conservation project manager in reality I’m a part time conservationist, but a full time politician. Unfortunately that’s not out of choice.

Learning by Doing

Kudos to Owen Barder who has no lesser a dignitary on his Development Drums podcast than Tony Blair. Some of his answers are slightly evasive, suggesting to me that you can take the man out of front line politics, but you can’t take the politician out of the man. But he has also got some interesting things to say about his African Governance Initiative, and Lee the Bandit’s unerring sense for the hidden gem was fully functioning on this roughly transcribed extract:

“People often say to me ‘you’ve got to train the civil service of the country in order to be able to do the things they need to do.’ I personally think you can spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars doing that and nothing much come out of it (Barder: and we do). What we do is different in 3 crucial respects, the first is we combine a political interaction … the second is we prioritize, this is about delivering programs … people have this view that if you train up the civil service then they can deliver the programs. My view is that if you work on delivering  specific prioritised programs, you will get out of that the capacity that you require and can work on for delivering other things, and that its in the practical prioritization and doing things that makes the difference. The third thing is that our teams live in the country, they work alongside their counterparts in the country, there is a very strong interaction.”

Later on in the interview Tony Blair uses the actual phrase Learning by Doing. Three cheers say I, for this is definitely something in which I believe, big time.

Traditional development approaches to capacity building tend to focus around short training courses. These can teach people technical skills but they fail to stimulate the critical thinking that is essential to solving real world problems. Instead we get dysfunctional institutions that superficially look capable of doing a job, but lacking the internal engine to make it tick. This problem applies equally to government institutions, local NGOs and even local branches of international NGOs.

Learning by Doing gets people to work through an entire process, and in doing so develops a whole host of soft skills. In practice this is achieved through mentoring and is inevitably a slow process that is not readily susceptible to rapid scaling up. Indeed this lack of scalability is, I believe, a major factor hamstringing attempts to transform pilot projects into large national programmes. Development agencies have attempted to get around this problem by the ‘Training of Trainers’ approach, but you have to have trained some really top notch trainers if this is not to suffer from the inevitable Chinese-whispers-style degradation of skills imparted. Any way, nobody I yet know has tried ‘Mentoring of Mentors’.

One big problem with this approach can be the receptiveness of the institution whose staff are being mentored. Tony Blair’s initiative appears to work at the very highest levels, and to be aimed at supporting African presidents who really want to get things moving (even if this is at the expense of democratic accountability). He takes an admirably realistic approach that focuses on just a few priorities over a presidential term of office. Elsewhere in developing countries, however, just about every institution of government has multiple sources of donor support, many of whom will be engaged in some kind of capacity building. It is far from clear that the staff from these institutions are interested primarily in delivering change, or more in the per diems and other ephemeral benefits. I gather that the ‘traditional’ Technical Adviser role is losing popularity in favour of short term consultants precisely because developing country institutions find these less intrusive.

So three cheers for Learning by Doing and Mentoring. And thirty three cheers for institutions who are open enough to genuinely want it!

Numbering off

Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi lament the tendency to “make up” international development statistics. Though done from the best of intentions the result does rather seem to resemble a counting system that goes: one, two, many … pick a number, any number.

Thankfully, I don’t think too much attention is paid to such imaginary numbers at the national and sub-national level since clearly they have only a passing relation to reality. That presents development planners with a new problem: without relevant, up-to-date information how can ‘we’ plan our next round of interventions?

Leaving aside the question as to who are ‘we’ to be planning anything of the sort, the obvious answer is to fill the data vacuum pronto, and in turn this involves collating a whole load of statistics from the provinces. This generally requires a significant effort, and development organisations respond to this challenge in one of two ways.

One option is to ignore everyone else; go out and collect the information ‘we’ need and nothing more. Then, since no-one else publishes their data, we won’t publish ours. (And hence the endless of  cycle of household questionnaires asking almost identical questions of people.)

Alternatively ‘we’ can recognise that many others might be interested in answering similar questions and attempt something rather more systematic. Unfortunately it turns out that everyone has subtly different questions they want answered, and so, as we talk to each new set of wannabe development planners, new questions / dimensions get added to our information gathering initiative. It all takes a long time, but eventually we produce the master plan to undertake the best ever information gathering exercise ever; talk about “best practice” – ‘we’ are going to completely redefine best practice, yeah! Such talk is very exciting to donors, so even though this initiative is going to be very expensive, they readily cough up the cash. The developing country government is also pretty keen because this is a big budget investment that politicians can crow about and from which local officials can earn lots of per diems.

Of course, because ‘we’ are not stupid, someone will have realised quite early on the importance of developing this best ever survey into an on-going monitoring programme for which the initial big push will provide the base line. That big push will train all the local officials in everything they need to do the job, and so after that they’ll be able to continue it under their own steam, and the local politicians will continue to fund it because everyone will acknowledge how important this kind of information is so that we can plan development interventions properly …

Except that in practice that is often precisely what doesn’t happen, because although ‘we’ might think this is absolutely central to efficient aid planning, that is not the priority of our local country partners. For a start while ‘we’ may think in terms of development interventions, they are trying to run a country that has run just fine(-ish) up to now without that data, and there are always other priorities. Moreover a couple of years without updates won’t hurt, right?

At the end of the day I’m not certain which is worse: the original problem or the prescribed solution. But, in my limited experience, it does appear to be recurrent and until donors can learn to be more modest in their aspirations and less fickle with their money, I suspect it is unlikely to go away.

Exit stage left

Apparently Amref are struggling to see through their exit strategy in northern Uganda; ‘volunteer’ health teams are refusing to work without the per diems to which they have become accustomed. Amref have countered with the usual response that the VHTs don’t work for them, but for the government. It would be nice if the Ugandan government could find the funds to continue supporting the VHTs, but we all know that is wishful thinking. Surely Amref cannot pretend they didn’t see this one coming?

Why is this happening? Well I don’t know any more than what the Guardian Katine blog is reporting, but we can make some educated guesses. Firstly Amref sourced a fixed length grant from a donor. The donor – anxious that they weren’t about to embark on an open-ended commitment – would have required Amref to describe their exit strategy, and Amref would have duly obliged with the usual bla bla. Both Amref and the donor are to blame; the donor for enforcing such requirements, Amref for meekly assenting, and the donor again for believing the b******t that Amref wrote.

If Amref were smart and truly dedicated to the project, they would have prepared well in advance for the impending cut in funding, and sourced alternative support from elsewhere. This is easier said than done, but large NGOs like Amref have the resources and plenty of options.

Maybe, in future, and after a gap of some a year or two, if the Katine project is judged a success, Amref will be back with a follow-up. Except that in the meantime they will have lost a lot of credibility as long term supporters of health care provision in northern Uganda. Now the problem of per diems will be twice as bad; the VHTs will know they can only get these payments for a few years, and so now is the time to capitalise. By showing their lack of serious commitment, Amref will have provided the worst kind of example to their ‘volunteers’.

All donors need exit strategies – that is both clear and understandable – but they need to be a lot more flexible and distant than is presently the case (try 10-20 years rather than 3-5 years). Meanwhile BINGOs should stop launching projects just because they can get the funds, and concentrate on providing lasting, sustainable benefits. Communities never just exit stage left; neither should those seeking to support them.

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