Chris Blattman

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.

58 Responses

  1. Chris, I think there are some serious gaps in your evaluation. Also, you privilege is showing.

    I’ve had the privilege of providing short-term advice to a number of IDA-funded projects, and here is how I would approach the question.

    1. Most of the World Bank flying I’ve seen is by people in operations. These are people who prepare and then manage projects. I suggest that they do most of the flying. A typical Task Team Leader (in my observations) may work a 60 hour week, and may spend up to 50 percent of the time away from home. They are not allowed to spend more than the 50%, because HR concerns as to the impact of travel on health and relationships. The 60 hours per week is about 20 hours over contract: but the World Bankers I have worked with don’t count hours. From the point of view of mental (which includes relationship) and physical health alone, there’s a good case to send people in that kind of job business class.

    2. You ask what development can occur in a week’s trip. Well, absolutely zero development is accomplished by any foreigners arriving in country for a week, a month, or a year. All development is local. In your time in country, you accomplish research, which you claim to be beneficial. The average IDA TTL does not pretend to do development: they arrange grants. A grant might be between $30m and $100m over three years. The one’s I’ve seen focussed on primary education. So that TTL is critical to the targeted, efficient, and transparent arrival of say $20m a year into the basic education system of poor country. The positive impact of that is not only monitored and evaluated, but visible. Can you say the same for your own research?

    3. You take the “sleep on plane” argument and calculate that this represents 0.5% of flyers time. But the evidence is that it takes 3-5 days to recover from jet lag, and that’s both ways, so for each trip, that would 6-10 days of impeded function, which would impact both the TTL’s work and personal life. Take the frequency of travel described above, and you can easily get people in a state of continuous travel stress. Furthermore, in calculating the impact of that degradation, you take the worker’s salary as the measure of value. That’s not even the cost. At the very least you would take their fully absorbed cost, typically about three times that. But even that would not be a good impact measure, because the TTL is doing critical work on $20m per annum of incoming funds. So you’d have to ask whether it makes sense to have the worker doing that work in peak mental condition, or not. You’re answer is: not. Yet, when I’ve flown business I’ve been seated next to a person who is repair technician, being sent to do a critical fix on infrastructure of software. The company’s involved send such people business class because they know how to do the impact evaluation I’ve just outlined.

    4. You seem to playing on the popular trope that big international institutions are full of fat-cat bureaucrats travelling first class accomplishing nothing. That’s the same trope your President Trump is now calling upon in order to cut funding to the UN—a cut which aid experts say will impact the world’s poor the hardest. In spreading this trope, you helped. It’s false, and it needs to die. This trope also needs to die: “the hot humanitarian workers fly coach.” What developing countries ask for is money: not humanitarians. The best humanitarian workers don’t fly at all: they’re already there.

    5. Congratulations on finding a life partner, and I hope all is still going well. You should also know that I have never seen any World Banker have time for dating while they’re on the job. They hardly have time for relationships at all. So you should feel grateful for your privilege.

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

    Are you using the total cost or the marginal bump in cost to business class?

  3. given that the effectiveness of development aid isn’t even proven, it’s no wonder that we have no benchmark to determine when business class is worth the expense. the “talent” of WB/IMF employees seems largely mythical to me if you can’t put a clear number that values their impact. that’s the whole myth of development work in general, really. the WB/IMF play important roles in global economics, but that has little to do with helping the world’s poor. the development elite have a pretty sweet deal – they travel the world, stay at high priced hotels, get social praise for their career choice (“I could be richer, but I want to help the poor”), argue that flying coach will devastate their important work, and the only metric of their success is that they make us feel better about global inequality.

    this debate underlines for me what the key problem is with the global development industry: the people.

  4. In reply to adaptable’s comments. I’ve worked for the WB and for the UN and for a small NGO, I get the whole diatribe against the WB and UN, there are valid and serious criticisms to be made, but I also think his/her post reeks of the type of holier than thou positioning that everyone (WB, UN, NGOs) within the development community takes when looking at other agencies/organisations.

    There is a culture of flying business class in the WB yes, but there has also been a concerted policy effort within the organisation to battle this. The flight booking criteria within world bank for instance requires proving that your flight is the cheapest cost option, it is not automatic that you fly business class, you have to make an argument for it. The problem is the policy is not watertight, it is dependent on grade levels and it depends on which region, which head is in charge etc. When I was there the Latin American region had started implementing a policy of coach only for all staff levels, all situations. Given that the WB has roughly 10,000 staff members and a pretty complicated staffing structure it’s not surprising that to say ‘the WB always flies business class’ is not a particularly nuanced or accurate description of the state of affairs.

    Equally to argue that WB pay full business class costs is deceptive, they have agreements with the airlines depending on how much business they send their way, some airlines automatically upgrade from coach to business class for WB staff. That’s not to say though that it doesn’t happen and it isn’t a valid area of debate. It is just too easy, in my opinion, to caricature the situation to feel smug about it rather than to seriously discuss the situation.

    Yes going business class as a matter of policy seems a bit whack, but for some very long haul flights where someone is going for a two day trip (and yes this can raise the wider issue of what sort of planning sends someone for such a short period etc etc but let’s assume this trip is valid) is it really that reprehensible to allow them to go business class? Especially if it is actually an arrangement with the airline that means the cost is not that much higher than the coach flight. These sort of arguments are much more nuanced than some of these comments allow.

    Going to the second point of R & R, yes it may be that the R&R cycle could be lengthened but I find something particularly arrogant about adaptable’s stance that you measure how reasonable that cycle is by what NGO’s have decided. It’s a position that assumes a lot about the quality of care NGOs take of their staff. And yes, there are people, in all systems and all areas, including and probably more shockingly so development, who abuse the system. But one obnoxious staff member boasting that they use DSA to buy luxury items is not the same as saying DSA is a bad idea or that these salaries are too high. To really make that debate you have to do comparison across industries, talk about opportunity costs, incentives etc, I am sure a reasonable argument could be made to reduce these costs but the argument that NGOs are cheaper and the people you try to help get paid a fraction – ergo the UN figures are obviously patently shockingly wrong – is an emotional and sanctimonious argument not a rational considered one. In my opinion at least.

    Given that many of the things that development workers, NGOs included, ask for could be considered extravagant luxuries by developing country standards, where do you draw the line, what is the moral basis of these decisions. If you reduce it to the absurd argument that only if we live by the basic standards above the poverty line can we work without qualms to our conscience in development, where above this point do we all agree on a middle ground. Is it about the living standards of those in the developing world we serve or is it about the basic comforts (as opposed to needs) that a person is entitled to, do we take into consideration the alternative incomes/careers available to someone working in development and should we really lampoon them as ‘not committed’ enough if they want incentives to forgo private sector for development work. If we do accept some incentives are fair, what is the limit etc etc.

  5. Fascinating that this discussion seems to have honed in on primarily World Bank employees’ welfare in flight as a proxy for all development professionals’ welfare. In fact, many of the Bank people posting here in favor of BC seem to imply that the extent to which they travel and need to work (no rest stops allowed! too much work!) is extraordinary in comparison to… everyone else who has a serious job requiring travel? As though most INGO workers do not work at very least equally long hours and get by quite well on economy class flights and cheaper hotels/per diems?

    I happen to be one of the hot young aid workers in coach class, so maybe my perspective will change as I age and grow a fatter paycheck and more ‘perky’ expectations, but I note that my boss is 70+ years old and a tall guy, and happily gallops off from DC to Africa on coach. On whether WB (or anyone else) would really be losing significant talent if they degraded their employees to ride coach: I graduated from one of the big 2 IR grad schools in DC and I can verify that there was no shortage of clamoring for WB positions because of ‘low pay’ or coach class flights; People who went off to work for big finance or consulting firms were going to do that anyway. As well, I think it worthwhile to point out that three years after having graduated, my many mid-30-something friends at the Bank acknowledge that they and most of their colleagues are generally underworked /underutilized compared to their experiences in US government or consulting firms.

    Finally, while I don’t think it diminishes the importance of the topic of conversation above, I would like to testify that there are bigger mountains to climb when it comes to stemming extravagance and waste that flies in the face of what those of us who are committed to a development mission will consider the spirit of our vocation… When I was working for a US government contractor in Sudan two years ago I often stayed with a UN-employed consultant friend in Khartoum. She was 26 years old, getting a fat, tax-free paycheck, which was supplemented by a monthly $5,000 cash DSA to cover living expenses–standard for UN consultants on 11 month renewable contracts at the time (I understand it has since been reduced). UN employees living anywhere in the country other than Khartoum were entitled to a fully paid international R&R every six weeks. I was privy to discussions about how on so-and-so’s last R&R she had so much cash from her DSAs that she was able to buy a fine work of art or an expensive watch. I heard people in the north-south border areas who had not had an R&R in five weeks express to one another that they are nearly dying to get out of the country. This is roughly half as much time as most NGO or other expats spend in country before heading for relief somewhere with heated showers and electricity (which UN staff are more likely to have on the ground anyway).

    My point? Human beings are adaptable. Most of us can survive (albeit with some grumbling yet also the satisfaction of doing the work we do) with middle-range guest houses, economy (or I’ll oblige economy plus) flights, smaller per diems, etc. Maybe there are some exceptions, but like some commentators above, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that those people who ‘need’ luxury when traveling beyond what they are used to at home are irreplaceable by less demanding and equally qualified but more mission-committed individuals who can suck it up and find reward in their efforts and achievements rather than in their perks. The defenders of a policy of BC travel for everyone need to get over themselves and get in touch with the people they’re ostensibly working to assist–because yes, that money CAN be channeled back into programs that will benefit the poor far more than the WB employee needs a good night sleep.

  6. Even though the blog is not really active anymore, it is still a pleasure to read through!

    One point that hasn’t been raised throughout the blog is the health issue of the increased thrombosis risk, that you face when being squeezed for hours into the economy class. For organizations that require their employees to travel a lot, it becomes an issue in an economic point of view: rather pay some more for business class and give the traveller the chance to strech their legs, instead of risking high costs for health problems that can be directly related to extended hours in economy class over many years.

    Of course this comes in line with encouraging business class only beyond a certain time limit of 4-7 hours or so.

    In any way I imagine this is to be an issue particularly in countries like the US with their culture of suing companies for the oddest things…

  7. It’s easy to sit on the side and judge. I work at the WB. I travel almost half the year, to very difficult and far away countries. If on top of the challenging lifestyle I have to also travel economy class, I would feel totally depressed. So, please, take your recommendations elsewhere. Don’t bring them to our institution, because you will make life hell for many of us unnecessarily :).

  8. Agree. The only exceptions should be the tall development practitioners like me (6’4” or 190cm). Flying to Armenia in Economy takes about 1.5 days to get there and 1 day to recover from the pain of having squeezed your legs btw the seats. Very unproductive.

  9. The days of flying the Concorde at the World Bank are long over. Well, flying the Concorde is over anyway, but you get my gist.

    We know are strongly encouraged (very strongly) to fly only Lufthansa, which is one of the Bank's contracted airlines and gives a business seat at an economy seat price. It doesn't matter if Lufthansa only flies to the country (from Europe) a few days a week, or has a 12 hour layover in Frankfurt leading to a 2 a.m. country arrival (and expected to be at a meeting 8 a.m. sharp the same day).

    Since we can't source our own tickets, leeway in this area is a bit rare. Instead I have often chosen to fly economy on several occasions, which saved both time and money (more direct connection, etc). I was once offered a routing of Djibouti – Ethiopia – Dubai – Casablanca – Paris, to save money instead of the once per week Air France flight which is direct. The initial routing would have added at least 1 more travel day plus a rest stop, and that doesn't take into the account the possibility of ever seeing my luggage again. So there are factors to weigh, some a bit intangible, on both sides of the discussion.

  10. Is this an efficient way to remunerate? Not so. But if we allow them to choose between the coach and business, allowing to get (whole or a good part of) the price difference, not giving them any resting day before they get to work, I can imagine many people opting for the coach. The end results may be many sleepy looking faces. Do we want that as an employer? No. I think there is justification for flying on business. There can be moral hazard, because there are stochastic elements in work outcome measurement so there is no one-to-one mapping between cabin class choice and perceived/measured quality of work. If we can avert moral hazard by paying in for the business class, the employer may be happy to do so, so long as the work is valuable and loss in productivity in flying on coach is large enough. My questions are, do all the aid works meet these conditions? Are they all worth paying business class fares? Many people will say no. But how can we, from an employer perspective, differentiate unworthy works from worthy? That’s a tough call, and hence the blanket policy of flying on business. I don’t like it, but some problems are hard to solve.

  11. I generally think that the business class travel is justified, but I do think that the perk factor is a bit besides the point. At the higher levels, and across the board in the top 5%, the differential is barely measurable. Top private sector bankers or lawyers earn twice or more their bank counterparts, and after five or so years at least thrice, and after a decade that becomes an order of magnitude.

    So I don’t see the perk factor as very relevant.

  12. I currently work for the World Bank and would like to weight in the debate from another perspective. There are clearly arguments on both sides and I concur with Chris that the policy should be revised but this is only one of the many other intertwined structural problems that Bank as an institution must face.
    Another internal problem related to travel policies at the World Bank that is not evident to outsiders is the fact that the World Bank extended a monopoly to American Express Travel Agency (AMEX) to search for the least costly option each time a staff member travels. I have been in missions where team members were assigned different itineraries with none of them asking for specific requirements, leaving DC at same time, with free spaces in the planes. The outcome was of course that the cost was different by an order of magnitude, and most importantly, both staff members got an email from AMEX saying that the option was the least costly.
    From my point of view this happens precisely because there is a monopoly. How much would the Bank save on travel expenses if it allows some price competition? I do not have the numbers but this is a relevant empirical question. My hunch is a LOT. In the spirit of one of the most cited World Bank’s reports, Doing Business, what about establish a one stop shop where staff members submit their itineraries. The itineraries would automatically go to two or more travel agencies who would have 24 or 48 hrs to come by with a price proposal. Then the staff member would be required to pick the least costly. Note that this would create savings even if the business class policy is not changed. It also applies even if it is true that AMEX looks for full economy tickets that get upgraded. And just to provoke some good reactions in a time of crisis IFC recently announced a hiring freeze, just when there is more demand for IFC work in many areas. Some savings in the areas mentioned above may help shelter this painful emergency/panic decisions.
    There are many other topics that deserve discussion and scrutiny. For instance the amazing amount of money that the institution devotes to the so called retreats, workshops or in the case of IFC the fancy named “deep dives” in exotic places of the world (I confirm Bill’s comment: many hot women travel with us to these exotic places!). Any international institution needs avenues for knowledge/experience sharing among members working in all around the world, but there must be a better way to accomplish these objectives. Again there are pros and cons but I do not see the debate anywhere, at least not in the Bank. So Chris thanks for being critical and thanks for starting this discussion.

  13. Great blog and great discussion. I worked for 11 years for the World Bank, flying both business and economy class (especially for conferences). I have been thinking about this question quite a lot, but am still convinced that it is ok for development bureaucrats to fly business class; here are some observations on some of the arguments that I read on this blog:

    1. Cost vs. value of time: a friend of mine working in development and flying long-haul in economy has to sleep for a day when coming back home from Africa or Asia – I got to spend time with my kids: priceless. Further, you cannot compare discount economy with full-fare business class – you would have to compare flexible economy (as travel plans often change last minute) with business class that is heavily discounted via preferred carrier agreements.

    2. Would the Bank loose people if it downgraded to economy travel: absolutely yes. Of course, travel policies are part of a much larger compensation package, but with exception of people who have been at the Bank for more than 12 years, the Bank does not offer very attractive employment conditions and compensation in many (not all!) sectors. Job satisfaction is important, of course, but many people also have to raise a family and often their spouses cannot work in Washington, D.C.

    3. Should development workers all be located on the ground? No; I think there is a role for development workers both on the ground (implementing projects) and being located centrally and traveling throughout the world. One big contribution of development aid organization is to bring experience from other countries and having people stay in one single place for five years does not accomplish that. I actually think that the decentralization trend within the World Bank has gone too far, robbing it of one big advantage vis-à-vis regional development banks, that is the global perspective.

    4. Do World Bankers travel too much? There is the concern that World Bankers artificially increase the amount of traveling; well, I think the opposite is true; rather than traveling six times to Laos in two months, many World Bankers spend four, five weeks in a row away from their families, combining a trip to Laos with mission work in other parts of the region. Same goes for the Africa region. Travel budgets have been cut quite a lot in the Bank over the past years, which forces people to take these month-long trips. And when they finally come home, they do not want to sleep, but rather spend time with their families, before they go on their next trip a week later.

    5. Having a rest day on either end of the trip? Well, for many people in the World Bank this is simply not an option, given their work load.

  14. Pills! Pills! Bring on the sleeping pills!

    Really, unisom works wonders on long flights.

    Just don’t try sleeping pills in unmarked bottles from sketchy pharmacies that don’t require prescriptions and accept only cash. You’ll end up wandering around zombie-like for hours and seeing strange things in places you really shouldn’t.

    Unless that’s your thing.

  15. I’ve thought about this a lot. It is true that the vast majority of Bank staff do not directly control the budget, so flying economy class has no direct effect on their research budget. I agree with you that I cannot imagine a good night’s sleep being worth $6,000, so i make the same choice you do.

    i have a friend who says she takes business class because of the power supply. I said, How much would it cost to buy two extra batteries (in case they don’t let you sneak up and recharge).

    I think the amount of development work that gets done in a week is a bit of a straw man, though. in the vast majority of cases (that i’ve seen), these people are working closely with partners on the ground consistently, followed by a brief visit to make key decisions. i don’t think it’s an outlandish model (which isn’t to say it’s the best model).

  16. 1) I couldn’t agree more with Michael Keating on this. The reason development professionals have to travel so much is that too many of them aren’t prepared to live in developing countries themselves. Presumably moving their offices to Kigali or Kinshasa would deprive them of their mocha-sipping-all-day-shopping-global-capital-culture so much that they’d all quit their jobs.

    2) Kovrig’s point on the need to decentralise is valid. There is one irony in this: the Bank is able to negotiate cheaper business fares than the UN because its travel arrangements are overwhelmingly made centrally. UN agencies on the other hand tend to pay the going rate because they’re scattered all over the place.

    3) These organisations need to be more transparent about WHY their officials need to travel all the time. They all file expenses claims and mission reports… why not post these on the web for the taxpayer (and the supposed beneficiary) to see? Then we’ll know whether Development Specialist X really needed to travel to Laos 6 times in last 2 months (the class of travel, at this point, being trivial).

    Great blog post. Thanks!

  17. Another issue is that business class is usually calculated as having twice the greenhouse gas emissions per seat as coach – around 90% of most agencies GHG emissions are due to air travel. cutting business would be a good way to reduce their carbon footprint – certainly do more good than buying carbon credits.

  18. The issue is as much about governance of the multilateral organizations as anything.

    In the private sector a CEO will decide if marginal productivity gains from flying business are greater than cost and the shareholders can vote him out if he is wrong (i.e. profitability drops). In the UN , the “shareholders” are the governments who a) do not have a simple metric like profit/loss to decide on productivity gains (although Chris’s example suggests there are none)e.g. how do you tell a aid worker is more productive the day after a flight b)citizens of governments cannot vote out leaders of UN agencies if they are not convinced of claims about productivity increases and government rarely if ever do.

  19. Let’s also not forget that per diem rates are way over the top for many agencies for most except for crazy expensive places like Moscow or so. I recently worked on a UN consultancy and got about $340 per diem for a stopover in Amsterdam that was too short for me to leave the airport let alone to pay for a hotel. I did take it, since it was kind of non-negotiable, but I felt bad about it. Do I have to live in greater luxury during a stay in the world’s poorest countries than I actually do at home?
    Per diem policies should be revised across most agencies. There should be no automatic per diems, but only reimbursement against actual expenses with certain caps per location. I think that might save quite a bit of money.


  20. So now I am hot. I wish my former class mates would read this.

    – Michael
    (humanitarian worker, flying coach)

  21. This whole discussion seems to me to be focused on slightly the wrong question. I am less interested in whether development workers should fly business class, much more in whether there should be all this travelling going on in the first place. I was struck by Conor Foley’s comment:

    But I live in Brazil and a lot of my work is in Afghanistan and other parts of Central and Southern Asia which means two overnights before I arrive where I am workingI have every sympathy for his preferring to fly business class in those circumstances. But without knowing anything of his work, is it really the case that there is nobody who can do whatever he does in Afghanistan any closer than Brazil?

    (declaration of bias: I work for a government (though not on anything to do with development) with relatively generous rules on flying business for longer flights and have an inside leg measurement which makes economy uncomfortable from the outset and increasingly painful beyond three hours or so)

  22. if people are prepared to quit their jobs in development over the loss of their business class seat, perhaps the development community is better off without them…

  23. I have a better idea…how about moving the UN and the World Bank to Kinshasha and Kigali so that the developers could actually experience what they speak of with such authority. I wonder what the retention rate would be?

  24. UN staff are only allowed to take business class for flights of more than 8 hours, but country directors and the like may skip that rule.

  25. I worked for a private sector company that had a clever rule. On flights of over 10 hours, you were allowed to fly business class. But if you chose to fly economy, you could personally keep 40% of the difference.

    I’m not sure how well that would translate into the non-profit sector, but it was wildly successful in reducing the company’s travel costs.

  26. I agree that BC can be a tad ridiculous, people do tend to go forth to do good, and do just great for themselves.

    On the other side though, when I was working for a development agency, some of my co-workers were logging enough miles annually that they got automatic upgrades and were not paying out of budget for those upgrades.

  27. I’m anti-BC on an individual level for vaguely moral reasons but ambivalent on the institutional level. As a Bank staffer, I always buy the cheapest economy ticket, but am obsessive about nabbing a tolerable seat for my 6’4″ frame, e.g. an exit row seat, an upgrade to Economy Plus on United, etc., I love you!

    It is certainly true that many of my skilled and committed colleagues cherish BC, for those flights to Asia in particular, and would be less likely to stay at the Bank if they were flying economy. Could they be replaced with equally skilled and committed people willing to fly economy? I’m not sure.

    Here’s the most recent public Bank budget breakdown I could find:
    (see Figure A.1.8)

    In FY07, travel was $223 million, about 10% of a 2.3 billion budget. Travel includes airfare, hotel, per diem, and a few other expenses. How much is the difference between business class and economy class tickets? My bank-of-the-envelope guesstimate is that they come to 10-20% of overall travel costs, i.e. 1-2% of the overall Bank budget.

  28. Interesting post, Chris. I've worked at the World Bank since October, running a blog for the East Asia & Pacific region.

    While I have never traveled for the Bank, one of our bloggers, conservationist Tony Whitten, who logs quite a few air miles every year, pondered a similar question/personal dilemma a few months ago, asking, "Is it immoral for a conservationist to travel this much?"

    Post link:,

  29. From a U.S. government perspecitve, the use of business class by government agencies was sharply curtailed after a negative 2007 GAO report on the use of business class ( Now the rule is pretty strict that business class is not allowed unless the flight is over 12 hours AND the schedule does not permit a recovery day. As much as that makes my life less pleasant, it seems pretty reasonable. Since we tend to fly on full-fare tickets anyway, I often get upgraded into business class anyway if there is a shortage of seats in coach.

    The best solution seems to be to implement systems where employess have an incentive to conserve their travel budgets.

  30. Wonderful post. My two cents: I don’t think that moving to economy would greatly affect the budget of WB/IMF/UN (but it would be nice to see see the numbers), it’s more a symbolic thing.

    I used to care less about BC travel and always (or almost always) traveled economy, but the older I get the more I give value to BC. I would try to avoid more missions if I had to travel economy (of course, this may still be optimal from society’s point of view).

  31. What a great discussion Chris. I love this blog.

    just to come back to a couple of comments:

    1) I think the Bank’s “package” of compensation is still competitive at the entry level. I have not heard of any drop in quantity or quality of they young professional program applicant pool.
    2) for people with 10 – 15+ years of experience, in SOME areas, there has definitely been a decline in competitiveness in the past 5 years. Partly this has to do with poor human resources policy/ management – that is the Bank is not able to adjust compensation packages across fields of expertise. So in some areas, our mid-level positions are paying people a good bit more than they could make elsewhere, while in others a good bit less. In my particular area, health systems – we are competing with health consulting and management consulting firms for mid and senior level people. And we are not competitive.
    3) I think it’s useful to keep in mind that much of the expertise that is needed in developing countries is possessed by technical experts with no particular link to development, or humanitarianism. They did not go into their field, or acquire their skills to help the poor. Yet sometimes their expertise is desperately needed. I think we do a disservice to the people who live in developing countries, if we limit ourselves to bringing along only the experts with the values we approve of to provide them advice and assistance.

  32. No debate such as this is complete without sharing Ross Coggin’s razor sharp poem:

    The Development Set

    Excuse me my friends I must catch my jet –
    I’m off to join the Development Set;
    My bags are packed and I’ve had all my shots,
    I have travellers, cheques and pills for the trots.

    The Development Set is bright and noble,
    Our thoughts are deep and our visions global;
    Although we move with the better classes,
    Our thoughts are always with the masses.

    In Sheraton hotels in scattered nations,
    We damn multinational corporations;
    injustice seems so easy to protest,
    In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

    We discuss malnutrition over steaks
    And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
    Whether Asian floods or African drought,
    We face each issue with an open mouth.

    We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
    Raises difficulties for every solution –
    Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
    By showing the need for another meeting.

    The language of the Development Set,
    Stretches the English alphabet;
    We use swell words like ‘epigenetic’
    ‘Micro’, ‘Macro’ and ‘Logarithmetic’.

    Development Set homes are extremely chic,
    Full of carvings, curios and draped batik.
    Eye-level photographs subtly assure
    That your host is at home with the rich and the poor.

    Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
    Our task is as broad as the human condition!
    Just pray to God the biblical promise is true:
    The poor ye shall always have with you

  33. Most of the time – development dollars don’t work.. at least for non-emergency program targets. So most of the time – it doesn’t matter whether you fly economy or business I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that flying economy is going to help the poor become more rich. If you want to be in solidarity with the poor- definitely choose business class. I know that if they had a choice, they would.

  34. It seems that we’re concerned as much about the perception of those who travel as we are of the actual cost. One basic assumption seems to be that travel itself is already a perk, regardless of the class of one’s ticket. Adding that “business class” tag onto a trip that colleagues in the field may not see as needed in the first place can just add insult to injury. Those of us based in HQ or regional positions with frequent travel to “the field” have a responsibility to actually add value when we travel.

    On the flip side, I agree that there is a bit of a slippery-slope issue here. While the extreme of flying business class seems obviously problematic, where do you draw the line moving in the opposite direction? Do we really think that, as The Offspring so eloquently sang, “the more you suffer, the more it means you really care”?

  35. “airlines should offer a more modestly priced section with seats that allow for a decent night’s sleep without all the other perks of business class”

    British Airways does this (Economy Plus) and it is what I usually try for. Sometimes I up-grade to Club from there with air miles – because it is a perk.

    But I live in Brazil and a lot of my work is in Afghanistan and other parts of Central and Southern Asia which means two overnights before I arrive where I am working. If the agency lets me take one overnight stop en route (eg London) or gives me a day’s recovery time on arrival, then I am more likely to go Economy, but often it is their own rules which dictate that we get put in Business Class and have to be ready for work on arrival.

    At the end of last year I had to give two week’s training to the EU mission in Georgia and that meant standing up in front of a class from the morning of arrival. I don’t think the sleep argument is entirely bogus in those conditions.

  36. The “business class as important perks” and “reward the development professionals” arguments don’t make a lot of sense to me.

    First, business class is an incredibly inefficient form of compensation. The World Bank could push people to coach, raise salaries by an order of magnitude, and let people decide for themsleves how to travel, and still save money (and have happier employees).

    As compensation, business class travel also fails to incent employee performance–it is automatic rather than earned by the best and brightest we want to attract to development.

    I’m also skeptical that compensation is a big issue in attracting talent. Every call for the young professionals program gets thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applicants. Graduates from the top PhD programs in the world have trouble even getting to the first interview. Bureaucrats vie for important positions in Bank management. Competing for talent is always hard. I think the burden of proof of on the business class advocates to demonstrate

    Ultimately, however, the question is not “do these people deserve business class?” or “are development workers living too luxuriously?” but rather, “is this a remotely effective and efficient use of development dollars?”

    The burden of proof is on the business class advocates, I think. My sense is that the answer is “not even close,” even with the marginal gains in talent and productivity.

    So why is there business class? In part because it is helpful at attracting talent, and increases effectiveness.

    Most of all, however, working in a development organization is like an insider game. It’s very easy (and costless) to vote benefits for the in-group. Incentives are not otherwise.

    I think it’s merely time for a second look.

  37. One argument that is similar to what “Wall Street” is making is that without bonuses (or perks like flying business class) they would lose their talent. I am not sure I buy that entirely.

    In today’s economy how much more would some of these bank employees be making and where would they be working? The absolute best/creme of the crop will make more, but what about those that are merely very very good (those in the 90-95th percentile)? Is it really true there would be flight to other sectors or jobs?

    If I worked in industry I would make 50% more to start with, but the trade-offs would bring the value of that 50% down and really not worth it.

  38. Maybe we should let the World Bank & development experts whose ideas work fly business class. Everyone else has to rough it in coach until he’s proved himself.

  39. I’m an academic in DC who travels coach around the world and stays in modest places (or on friends’ couches). I’ve stayed in some of the worst hotels on the planet, if those even were hotels. I have a modest salary, and I put heart and soul into teaching and research on environmental, development, and human rights issues.

    If someone doesn’t want to work at an ostensibly poverty-fighting institution like the Bank because it just doesn’t pay enough for them, I’ll gladly take the position and save you some money on the deal if it goes to decent use. I’m not an economist, however. And that’s perhaps why an earnest discussion about whether to fly business class or economy to a given destination where one will be fighting poverty strikes me as patently absurd.

  40. I work at the Bank. I am largely in agreement with what you, and the other commenters, have said. Personally, I have opted to downgrade to economy for all my mission travel, but I see this as a personal choice and do not feel that this should be mandated (and I know of other Bank staff who do the same). Here are some qualifiers and caveats for my position (some of which echo the other comments):

    (a) The Bank negotiates business class deals with the travel agency, and so does not pay full face value for flights (the ticket is usually a full-priced economy and gets automatically upgraded to business). This argument is somewhat disingenuous, however, since the restricted economy fares are still significantly lower than the full price economy fares (although the differential is not as shocking);

    (b) I wouldn’t underestimate the added-perk value of business class flying. I have colleagues who have explicitly cited this as a non-pecuniary benefit (recall that in addition to the nice slippers and real silverware, business class fliers accrue more miles for the same distance flown, which can be applied to personal flights). This offsets the relatively lower salaries received by Bank employees vis-a-vis comparable private sector positions;

    (c) The idea of getting rest on business class is, in my view, largely a non sequitur, insofar as “rest on the plane” is concerned. Honestly, does the little bit more rest you get in business compared to economy justify the price differential? Besides, Bank staff often get an official rest stop at both ends of a mission, and so that added day can generally be used to recover from the travails of economy-class flying. However, *given that* the standard for many firms is to fly their staff on business—especially for longer haul flights, which is de rigueur for Bank staff—it becomes another standard industry practice that, for better or worse, gets compared by staff and built into expectations.

    (d) The most economically consistent way to rationalize the idea of flying business, at least for me, boils down to the marginal contribution of flying business to productivity. *If* flying business—and all the psychological and physiological advantages that come with it—means a significantly higher marginal product (relative to the marginal cost), then it should be done. This is how I view business expenses that seem inane, costly, unnecessary, and potentially wasteful (such as advertising and premium office rental and color photocopiers). The only reason to *not* follow such a rule, then, is if you feel that nonprofits/charities/public offices should not be subject to normal economic rationalization, perhaps due to a moral obligation. But that is a whole different argument altogether, and besides it is not entirely clear that nonprofits should always try to squeeze the buck. Cost minimization need not immediately imply profit maximization, if marginal product is endogenous to expenditure.

    All said, I fly economy mainly because of this moral imperative, not for any of the other reasons. But like all moral decisions, I believe that it should be one that is personal and non-coercive.

  41. Flying coach will not make the so called high quality professionals quit the aid industry – indeed it would demonstrate their solidarity with the Global South’s poor that they purport to be fighting for..

  42. consider this – you have no way of knowing whether or not they have paid full fare for business class. It is very possible that as savvy travelers they have purchased a coach ticket and used frequent flyer miles for an upgrade, as I do when I travel overseas.

  43. I think April has it — there aren’t a lot of folks on the margin, but if you make the differences too vast, you’re not going to get high-quality people.

    Separately, if you’re a person with only okay health like mine, the productivity differences are pretty stark for being able to sleep on the plane.

  44. Like Bill I’m sympathetic…but I feel it would cause more harm then gain if we made it less appealing to take the jobs. (Full disclosure- I am on leave at a think tank, but have worked at the World Bank for 17 years). I’ve been on several recruiting committees at the WB in the past few years where we extended offers and were declined by both the top and second choice person. One of the folks rejecting us was someone I knew personally, so I took the opportunity to ask why he rejected our offer. He described (accurately) what it was like to work at the Bank, relative to the compensation, and what it was like to work elsewhere, in his case a consulting firm in Latin America – and the remuneration, and said our offer wasn’t close to making it “worth it”. Points against accepting the job: the 120 plus days of travel (away from his family); his wife couldn’t work in DC (due to visa and language); and his family was especially unhappy at the prospect of moving far away from family and friends, and then, seeing very little of dad too.
    So in the end, we took our third choice person – someone not even close to as skilled and experienced as the first choice. This does, like it or not, undermine the quality of the Bank’s work over time.
    would making the travel less comfortable diminish the willingness of good people to take (or stay in) the jobs….whether we like it or not, the answer is honestly, yes.

  45. Praise be with ye Mister Blattman!

    @Bill, I think you could easily argue that there is also a slippery slope in the other direction which is why we’ve gotten to the point where all of these folks take business flights and live in $10,000 a month homes in places like Congo.

  46. I like your blog and have sympathy with your basic premise, but would like to point out:

    1. The Secretary-General’s last name is Ban. Ki-moon is his first name, Mr. Chris.

    2. One week is likely about 2% of their time, and 6K probably 3%-6% of their salary. I think you’re exaggerating the discrepancy, particularly if you subtract the price of an economy class ticket to many of these destinations.

    3. A better way to save money (and reduce carbon emissions) would be to increase the use of video and teleconferencing for cases where face to face meetings are not essential.

    4. At the UN, policy is that flights are now economy class for travel times of about 7 hours or less, if I recall correctly. The cost differential between business and economy should also factor in the extra night or two of accommodation and DSA that travelers would need to rest and adjust to the time difference.

    5. Better still: airlines should offer a more modestly priced section with seats that allow for a decent night’s sleep without all the other perks of business class. I think many development professionals would be happy with that compromise (or could be guilted into accepting it).

    6. The cost of these trips also needs to be weighed against the cost of employing internationals in developing countries. These trips may be expensive but in some cases could be more cost-effective than maintaining staff permanently in-country.

    7. Development agencies should be encouraged to limit such travel and to decentralize their regional operations to centers that are in the regions, thus reducing travel costs from Western centers.

  47. Nice post. It is good to know that there people out there with this kind of concern…


  48. I fly all the time, internationally (around 250k last year), for a for-profit company in the oil sector. Guess what – I fly coach. Always. Unless the airline tosses me a bone for an upgrade, I fly coach, as does everyone else in my company who isn’t a division president or c-suite member.

    The comment that you need to be so much more productive and business class allows that is a joke. Yes, it’s infinitely more comfortable. No, it’s not 8x more worth it when you get to where you’re going.

    My metric is this – on their own dime, would these guys buy a business class ticket? Not a chance.

  49. 1. It is a perk, and are you going to raise pay to compensate for the loss of that perk? Some of these people are actually employable outside the development sector for more money after all… Or are you really just advocating a cut in pay for these people?

    2. People who travel often and frequently should be able to travel in more comfort than the occasional flyer. Especially in frequent travel.

    3. Do those meetings matter? You assume that all time is created equal when performing your job, something that is manifestly untrue.

    As for Bill’s comment regarding effectiveness – well, that is a structural problem of not having metrics and holding people accountable for those metrics…

  50. Bill, I don’t see much of a slippery-slope reasoning here, unless one assumes all kinds of arguments about degree are slippery. And, even if we assume that such is the case, that is rather hard to choose benchmarks against which we should judge certain choices, I guess that should not refrain us from dealing with such issues. In fact, if we know how far up we can go, we should also know how far down we can. Best, Jonas

  51. Chris, I sympathize a lot with you about this. At the same time, I have always resisted myself making attacks on the aid professionals of the “They’re living so luxuriously as they work on the problems of extremely poor people” type. It’s kind of a slippery slope — how far down to go on NOT-luxury until we feel comfortable about the aid professionals — when they also are in poverty? But then of course that would dampen quite a bit the supply of high quality professionals to work on global poverty. Here’s another possible emotive argument: we should reward people who work on the world’s biggest problems of poverty and misery at least as much as we reward people who make deodorant commercials for the rich. Of course, there is the much bigger problem that these high quality professional talents at the Bank are just NOT paying off — how could such well trained and smart people do such dumb things? But that’s a different problem. Best, Bill Easterly

    PS I liked your Jeannie story. I met my wonderful wife at a development seminar. People who participate in development seminars are also HOT.

  52. Thank you.

    But, if you count the healthy per diems, ‘danger pay’ and other such benefits given for being in Liberia, $ 6000 is actually a little low for many of the upper crust UN ‘peeps’ you speak of.

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