First class missions, and everything else that’s wrong with the big development agency travel culture

Nathaniel Heller over at Global Integrity goes on a wonderful diatribe about aid workers “on mission”:

The reason I (and others, apparently) find the use of the term “going on mission” so self-important is that it sounds, well, self-important. Only in the Diplo-Development Universe™ does a trip to a boring industry conference in Toronto turn into a breathless, dramatic “mission.” Really, it’s Toronto.

I can’t help think the use of the term is somehow rooted in the less secular sort of missionaries, which is a delightful idea. Any reader have a particular morsel of history or etymology to offer?

Next, Nathaniel targets fat per diems. I almost never take these, mostly on principle. I charge actual costs where I can. But I can say from short experiences as a World Bank consultant that the per diems are fat indeed. And (surely not coincidentally) are non-taxable too.

I still cling to my least popular principle: that development workers ought not to fly business class. The post that infuriated the masses (and by masses, I mean UN and World Bankers) is here.

There have been many counterarguments, and I have retorts ready but little time to write them. One I have been meaning to compile and trot out: a list of major NGOs that do not fly their executives, let alone their consultants, business class. (readers: able to add to this list?)

I have dreams of a research project to see if I’m right. One might even say, I’m on a mission.

In the meantime, I welcome dissent in the comments.

23 thoughts on “First class missions, and everything else that’s wrong with the big development agency travel culture

  1. In response to your question of etymology, when I was preparing to ship off to Lesotho people would ask me if I had accepted a missionary position. I would respond, “That implies, among other things, a religious element. There will be none of that.” Extend the metaphor at your discretion.

  2. Again, on etymology, the concept of going on ‘mission’ comes from 16th Century, originally of Jesuits sending members abroad. So, yes, it seems the religious connotations are true and historical. Linguistically, from the Latin, missionem (nom. missio), which is the “act of sending”. In a diplomatic sense, from the 17th Century, of “body of persons sent to a foreign land on commercial or political business”.

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=mission

  3. Couple things… Major NGOs often buy full fare economy tix which are upgradeable with miles and are essentially same price, maybe a few hundred less, than business. At least one UN agency (guess which one) has extremely strong recommendations to all staff and peer pressure from the top to NOT fly business class. But they cannot deny it since all UN agencies have to follow the same administrative rules. And finally, the payment of set per diem rather than claiming expenses might actually be cheaper for some agencies… Considering all the travels to bizarre places without receipts, and all the admin staffing needed to process claims… This was the justification for some large scale policies within some agencies. Not to justify it, but some side issues. The per diem amounts are too high (world bank, UN, and also donor aid agencies like USAID, EU, etc) in most places and create a questionable set of incentives.

  4. I’ve long thought that per diems (as well as salary adjustments based on dubious “cost of living” and “hardship” assessments) are a scandal waiting to erupt when the right opportunistic politician decides to make a fuss over the waste of foreign aid. It’s not that the sums we’re talking about amount to a whole lot as a proportion of the budget of a big time development agency like the Bank or USAID, but they serve as an effective symbol of a sector primarily concerned with spending money and only secondarily concerned with accounting for it.

    I would also add that these kinds salary subsidies have a more subtle but more pernicious effect of promoting a certain expat aid worker lifestyle characterized by an almost unavoidable decadence. Most of my friends who work for the big agencies are literally embarrassed–at least initially–by the size of their houses, the costs of the hotels they stay in, and the very notion of “hardship” pay for someone who’s chosen a career in development. But gradually this lifestyle becomes an expectation, and it’s part of the corrosive process by which people slowly change from seeing themselves as working on behalf of the intended beneficiaries to working on behalf of the agency.

  5. The system is broken. ‘Subsistence’ rates in the hundreds of dollars per day, bottom rung UN staff (i.e. JPO) earning ~$100k/year in non-dangerous ‘hardship’ posts (tax free and not including per diems, of course), pointless workshops costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and entire departments seemingly built around the pursuit of allowances.

    Too many UN/multilateral staff have forgotten:

    a) you chose this line of work, you knew what to expect, you can choose to do something else if you don’t like it.
    b) every dollar you (a rich person) take in allowances comes from funds that could otherwise be spent on, or given to, poor people.
    c) if you can’t do your job without all this extra crap, step aside. There are armies of qualified, motivated professionals waiting to replace you.

    I dearly wish someone would publish some research into this – it is absolutely scandalous, tantamount to defrauding poor and vulnerable people under the guise of assistance. And I say all this as a young UN contractor working in a ‘hardship’ Middle Eastern country.

  6. “bottom rung UN staff (i.e. JPO) earning ~$1.00k/year in non-dangerous ‘hardship’ posts (tax free and not including per diems, of course)”

    Are you serious? Can you quote any UN payscale which give such salaries to anyone at a low grade? Having worked at UNDP and seen a lot of contracts, I have never seen a bottom rung staffer get anything approaching that.

    Your point is valid – salaries are too high, as are various allowances, but this has the ring of a falsehood.

  7. “Mostly on principle.” I’m curious what other reasons there are for not taking a per diem?

  8. Perhaps it’s unfair to describe JPOs as bottom rung, however, it is the most junior staff position available to internationals.

    With the adjusted post allowance (which, from memory, is around 40-50%) a UNHCR JPO working in Juba will receive around $87k in salary, equivalent to P2 staff. However, they will also receive additional one-off payments for flights, relocation, paid R&R every six weeks (including flight out of country), air freight up to $5,000 and heavily subsidised rent and transport. This pushes the total to well in excess of $100k. They are also entitled to Daily Subsistence Allowances (DSA) of several hundred dollars per day for the first month in post.

    None of this is subject to tax and, more seriously, they are then eligible for DSA for every official trip they take, introducing a massive perverse incentive. A visit to HQ in Geneva, for example, will net you $500+ per day, in addition to paid hotel costs. Like you, I’m basing this on having worked for UN agencies/missions and having ‘seen a lot of contracts’.

    My first post was a rant, but I continue to believe that dysfunctional recruitment and incentive systems within the UN represent the greatest obstacle to its effective operation. But it’s a boring issue, so research and advocacy are scarce and those with the power to change it are themselves beneficiaries.

  9. If you ask me to fly economy class, I’ll add a day (i.e. daily rate & per-diem) at the beginning and the end of the trip for recuperation. You pay me to deliver good work and results, not for nursing a backache or sleep-deprivation.
    Same goes for asking me to fly cheapest-possible flight, if that means 6-hrs-layover in the middle of the night in Dubai, Addis, etc.
    I am running a business here (micro business, i.e. self-employed), not a charity.
    If you don’t like that, don’t hire me.

  10. And as a private business owner/manager, you are fully entitled to charge the maximum you think your hiring agency is willing to pay, under any terms and conditions you think they will accept. Your company exists to generate a profit and that’s fine.

    That’s not the case with the UN, other multilaterals, donors or NGOs. Most of them were created and explicitly mandated to reduce poverty. The use of business class for their staff, excessive allowances and, dare I say it, frivolous spending on consultants actively harms this goal, or at least reduces the resources available to pursue it.

  11. I don’t think you’re going to get too much dissent on this one, Chris. And your original post got a broadly positive response as well, certainly you couldn’t say it infuriated too many people. I feel like when you write about the aid industry you do seem to assume that everyone is against your point of view, when most people I work with would broadly agree with these kinds of points, as do most of your commenters.

    Having said this, obviously the majority of Bank and UN people do take the business class flights when offered. I’d say it’s more of a status than a pecuniary consideration though, obviously it’s not efficient as a perk if considered just on its monetary value.

    Your point is a fairly obvious one, but in terms of encouraging people who feel they are alone in refusing some of these things, it is worthwhile. I admit I’ve taken one business class flight when I first joined the UN from the NGO world – I’d never been in business class and wanted to see how it was. But never since, and I don’t believe it is a good use of the organisation’s money.

    As issues go, though, it winds me up less than the salaries and perks of Kenyan or Nigerian members of parliament the likes of whom fill up most of the business class seats in flights I take.

  12. Should businesspersons fly business class, or are aid workers uniquely bad, such that they should not enjoy the ordinary perks that regular travelers use to maintain their bodies?

  13. Yes, what he is saying is that we shouldn’t hire you, and should instead burn people out. A long and tiresome liberal tradition of treating good people badly.

  14. Yes, I agree with Reliefer “With the adjusted post allowance (which, from memory, is around 40-50%) a UNHCR JPO working in Juba will receive around $87k in salary, equivalent to P2 staff. However, they will also receive additional one-off payments for flights, relocation, paid R&R every six weeks (including flight out of country), air freight up to $5,000 and heavily subsidised rent and transport. This pushes the total to well in excess of $100k. They are also entitled to Daily Subsistence Allowances (DSA) of several hundred dollars per day for the first month in post. ” I also know UNV staff that made in the 80k region for work in Khartoum, Juba and Abeyi as well as contract workers getting very high wages in West Africa.

  15. Can’t agree more, and would like to add to this the terrible donor habit of giving people in government money to participate in various mission meetings. Saw first hand in Sierra Leone how officials would move their effort to maximize DSA by going to any meeting they could, rather than do their job which didn’t pay anything comparable by the hour.

  16. Finite research budgets. More per diem for me Not only means less for beneficiaries, but also lower sample size. And I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t care as much about the quality of the research as principles in this case.

  17. As I said, a great many eat people do great work at great NGOs, without business class. I never argued thatthere aren’t benefits for the person and the organization. But I don’t think they pass a cost benefit test and I don’t think they buy a principles test. And besides, there’s always the chemical solution to sleeping in coach which we all have learned to use well and wisely. I hit the ground running, hit the air tired, then hit home running again, and unless Delta sees fit to upgrade me because of my insane miles, I do it all coach.

  18. I completely agree on the point about flying business class, the huge extra expense is unjustifiable in almost every case. People like it because it makes them feel important to know that someone else is paying for them to fly business. It makes good dinner time conversation for people who like to buffer up their own egos. I work for a major international donor and have never flown business class, nor do I ever expect to. On a number of occasions I have flown overnight and gone straight to work from the airport.. Its amazing how quickly people forget the motives for getting into a certain line of work and like to suck in as many perks as is possible. Chris, I also loved your story about how you met your wife, I got to know mine in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. Ostentatious locations tend to be full of people who have overly inflated opinions of themselves. Oh and for people who complain that they are tall and so need to fly business, I’m 6ft 3 inches or about 1.9 metres depending on which measurement you prefer.

  19. I think there is one group of aid workers who *should* fly business class: responders in the first wave.

    I remember when our guys were flown from all over the world to Santo Domingo right after the Haiti earthquake (PAP airport was still closed) and they were immediately bundled into helicopters or trucks and brought to Port-au-Prince to set up field hospitals or water purification installations or deliver first aid. And of course they flew economy. But you know what: I would really, really, really prefer these guys to arrive as fresh and rested as possible.

  20. If 20 or even 30 somethings can’t function except if they fly business class then they should seek another profession. Really! What a bunch of whiners….even if you can fry business class you should ask your organization to donate the difference to a charity in a country you are going to. Get real and get to the gym!