Should development agencies fly business class?

Midway to the US, the Avianca steward officially made his airline the best in the hemisphere. My iPhone and laptop recharged merrily away in their respective jacks; my juice from some crazy Colombian fruit rested peacefully in its foldout cup holder. At that moment, the steward appeared with his cardboard spin-the-arrow game and gaily announced a seat raffle. The prize: free tickets to Curacao.

Add all of the above to things-that-won’t-happen-on-my-flight-next-week-to-Liberia.

As I entered the plane, though, I passed the same sight I see on every flight to and fro a developing country: a business class full of World Bank and (senior) UN peeps. (Add that to things I will certainly see on my flight to Liberia.)

I seldom fly business myself, even on Bank and UN consultancies, mostly to conserve my project funds for research assistants and survey expenses. My incentives are just right: money I spend on me comes out of money I’d spend making my research projects just a little better. Not so the rest of the agency?

I also hold back from business for another reason: $6000 for a single ticket? When the purpose of your trip is to contribute (however little) to ending poverty, something about that price tag just doesn’t seem right.

The Bankers and UNers have a good response: I’m only there for a week, and I’m much more productive if I can sleep on the plane.

To which I reply: your productivity for a 0.5% of your time is worth 4% of your annual salary?

In some cases, I might add: what development assistance exactly is achieved in a week?

In an age of diminishing aid and global belt-tightening, now seems an opportune time to change this little practice. Mr. Zoellick? Mr. Ki-Moon?

If you Bankers and UNers out there disagree, please comment. I could be convinced. But let me make one final argument. Five years ago, deciding not to stay in the Bank’s preferred five-star hotel in Nairobi, I roughed it in a nearby four star guesthouse (principled, I know). If I hadn’t, I never would have met that cute aid worker, dusty from southern Sudan, at the Internet cafe down the street.

Jeannie and I married 18 months ago.

So remember this in your business class comfort: the hot humanitarian workers fly coach.