Chris Blattman

My post-2015 agenda: Claw back business class from the hands of the development community

The Obama administration… has publicly rebuked U.N. staff in New York and Geneva for recently spending nearly three-quarters of their air travel budget on business class fare.

I think I see a new Millennium Development Goal.

That is an article in DevEx, which goes on to note even the World Bank is cutting back a little.

Not enough, in my opinion. I started my tirade against Business several years ago, and have been meaning to beat the drum again.

I invite arguments for business class i the comments, where I will in turns counter-argue or concede.

A note: any argument for business class in the UN or the Bank ought to consider first why most humanitarian organizations have survived for years without it.

In the meantime, my favorite quote from the article:

“I systematically asked the travel office to downgrade my flights to economy …  At the time, I was told that I was the only person in the entire NY office — and we are talking hundreds of people — who ever asked to be downgraded to economy,” lamented Massimo Lowicki-Zucca, a former program specialist with UNICEF.

I love that line. Coincidentally, Massimo is a dear friend from my northern Uganda days. It must be in the water there.

Update: Several people remind me that the UK’s DFID–among the most effective large aid organizations in the world–has dramatically clawed back business class.

41 Responses

  1. S: You might be right. It could be the Bank and others pay very little and get business class essentially for free. What’s striking is that no one seems to have looked further. Or at least no one has looked further and disclosed the result. This worries me. Because while what you say is plausible, it could also be the sweet half truth that assuages consciences just enough. To be honest, business class for free just sounds too good to be true. And if the cost is being driven by last minute changes in meetings, I would say: raise the cost of switching, and perhaps meetings will change less often.

  2. Please don’t be so quick to judge or make blanket assumptions about all institutions! I was very concerned about this business travel issue when I joined the World Bank as a Junior Professional Associate, because especially as a 24 year-old I felt it was a huge waste of money to fly me business half-way across the world every two months. I took this up with the travel agency, and they informed me that the Bank sets preferential agreements with larger airlines for each travel region (i.e. Lufthansa for Europe & Central Asia), and all international tickets are booked as Flexible Economy and then upgraded to Business automatically because of the agreement. Flexible Economy is a necessary booking class as meetings change at the very last minute nearly every mission. Please note, this hasn’t been confirmed but this is what a representative from the travel agency told me. Within-Europe and intra-national tickets are a different story. And, of course we cannot forget the much larger carbon footprint of a business class seat!

  3. It seems to me that the intent behind the cuts on business travel must be identified before implementing such cuts.

    If the intent truly is to reduce the carbon footprint of development officials by traveling economy, then that needs to be the main impetus behind the decision. This should not be backed up solely by moving travelers from business class to economy, but also a reduction in total flights taken. As it stands, the inclusion of a study done by the World Bank to identify the contribution of business class seats to carbon footprint appears to be present to justify the decision, rather than to be the reason behind eliminating business class seats. With the growing number of possibilities to connect electronically without the need for in-person meetings, if the World Bank and other such development agencies truly are committed to lowering their carbon footprint, a thorough report of various initiatives should be developed (reduction in flights, carbon offsetting of flights that are taken, evaluating the carbon impact of their development projects, etc), not just solely moving from business class to economy class.

    However, the way that it was presented in DevEx, it seems to indicate the main impetus behind the decision is to demonstrate that development officials are utilizing the agency’s funds in the most appropriate manner, and costly business class seats are not, in fact, worthy of allocating precious donor dollars towards. When other for-profit companies include business class and elite seats for their traveling employees, why not development agencies? Is being in the ‘business’ of developing countries and people not worthy of giving the employees the same ‘perks’ that a profit generating company receives? By relegating development workers to economy seats this is sending a symbolic message to the world that aid agencies, yes, are committed to ensuring every dollar is being maximized to the greatest potential for good, but this is simultaneously continuing to feed the idea that those who are in the field of development (and non-profit work in general) are in it for the ‘good’ of the work that they are doing, and therefore are expected to be sacrificing their own comforts. Does the difference between an economy seat and a business class seat mean that development workers are not as ‘important’ as business workers? Not necessarily. But by continuing to demonstrate that development workers are willing to work for less, receive less benefits, lower their demands in order to supposedly bring more benefit to the communities they serve, they are perpetuating a nasty cycle of being expected to sacrifice for their job.

    If the field of development truly wants to attract the best and the brightest, and ensure that their employees are able to withstand the pressures of the field without burning-out, it is essential that the employment packages offered to employees start to match profit-generating firms. Lest we loose them all to CSR departments….

  4. Why not a simple decision rule based on the poverty we’re claiming to solve? (To remind us all why we’re in this business anyway): If an economy class ticket costs more than the annual GDP per capita in the country you’re “helping”, then you should not be allowed an upgrade. That would eliminate most of these expenses in a snap.

  5. Ha!

    Now that we are on the cost benefit realm, then, if we are honest, we should shut down the World Bank. Why stop at BC? That is very symbolic.

  6. One has to assume that people may cut back on travel if it became a painful slog. Let’s say 6-8 trips per year might become 3-4 per year. Most trips are not “meetings”, but operational work alongside governments. Would cutting back on frequency of travel be a good thing? I’m not so sure. The larger issue is where should UN/WB people be based… probably more effective in the field than in NY/DC, but that opens a whole range of other HR and cost issues too. It’s not as clear-cut as people think.

  7. So any system that made economy the default and offered BC under special circumstances would be an improvement, especially if people faced some mild incentive to control their own costs. In my experience, the Bank’s per diems were so far beyond what I actually spent that as a consultant I felt like I was getting substantial (non-taxable) income from traveling. That may be a function of the particular countries I traveled in, or the fact that I was still in grad student mode at the time and hadn’t developed expensive tastes. Also, I probably should have been hiring cars instead of flying about on Kampala motorbike taxis.

    Nonetheless, I’m no human resource specialist but from an incentive and performance perspective I’m not sure one would want to make aid agency salaries so contingent on travel rather than some broader metric or assessment that ultimately was about performance but also took hardship and retention into account.

    I’m actually not opposed to paying the best people well, if more money is actually what motivates performance at that level of status and income. Personally I think there may be intrinsic incentives that may work better for the already well-paid. But if better-paid people do a better job and that pays off in results, then by definition it passes a cost benefit test.

    My opposition to BC and other perks come not just from the ostentatiousness, but also from the (as yet unproven but plausible) suspicion that the perks probably cost more than they are valued by the best people, possibly attract the wrong kind of people, and can only be a skewed way of incentivizing and rewarding performance.

  8. Chris, I think your argument that business class tickets should be canceled for appearance sake is 100% valid (though I think you backtracked in your second comment). Here’s what I propose as a temporary solution to the ostentatious system: (1) The default flight is economy class (2) All World Banker’s get paid X% more depending on how many days they travel (this is essentially already true for US employees due to tax implications (3) World Bank employees can make the decision to bump up to business class, but they’d have to finance it out of their own pocket, which is fine because they’re earning more income.

    Now, this doesn’t solve the problem that they’re getting paid too much or that, as you say, “development professionals are unaccountable for their costs of doing business” or the iatrogenics inherent to jobs with no skin in the game (see Taleb 2012).

    Just fyi, comments “ask” NOT “say” “Why pick on business class airfare” because it’s unclear whether the issue in your mind of overpaying or ostentation. To me, it’s both.

  9. Chris, i don’t think that people said “why not other personal expenses” but suggested to evaluate the overall compensation package. I think that people who work in International organizations (all of them) are overpaid (when you include benefits etc., I worked in 3 of them so I have some experience) and I would have no objection in recommending a reduction in their overall compensation (and I am convinced that very few people would leave and, as you said, the queue to join is long), but I don’t understand the obsession against bc travel. It is not about being productive the day after and the usual bs people talk about, but if you travel a lot, it really affects your quality of life.

  10. An awful lot of people have said “why business class? why not pick on something else?” What about big homes or other big expenses?

    I’ll say in a moment why this is a red herring. But on some level they are right. I think everyone ought to take a look at their life or job every so often and try to put what they do in perspective. If you have a huge home or are thinking of buying a third flat screen TV, it’s not a terrible idea to think of the less fortunate instead. But that’s a personal decision and I won’t shame anyone into making it. If you do make that choice, however, you don’t have to become a ascetic, and it’s silly to say that the logical conclusion is to give away everything to the poor. We can all try to change for better on the margin. The classic, illogical retort to my claim is to say that if we must take the change to the extreme.

    We’re not talking about personal expenditures, however. We are talking about a business expenditure by a organization that has a social mission. It’s reasonable for outsiders to say “how to improve on the margin?”. And the BC tickets look like obvious ones. One reason is that they are symbolically ostentatious, at least to those unaccustomed to them. They’re also a target because a large number of (arguably better performing) development organizations forego them on principle and on simple cost-benefit grounds.

    Basically, I’m suggesting that BC flights are a margin where some of the greatest cost savings could be had for some of the least impact on performance. If there are other margins where the cost-benefit ratios are even more out of whack, then by all means trim. Development professionals are not accountable for their costs of doing business, or even in most cases aware of them, and in the absence of real information or mechanisms for controlling cost, what else would an outside advocate pick on?

  11. People! If you want to work in development you have to be like Jesus. Give up unneeded pleasures, downsize your home, use public transport, and have fire in the belly.

    It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a plutocrat to work in development.

    BTW the greatest opposition to this may come from developing countries themselves. Or you think junior African ministers spending a spell at the WB. want to work in IFI like a peace corp?

  12. This is a very interesting conversation and one which comes up a lot. I fully agree that we should not be flying business; I also agree that we shouldn’t live in gigantic houses with ridiculous properties which are only used by the gardener when he or she mows the lawn. I do not buy the argument of being tired on arrival. Arriving at your location the night before and getting a good night sleep would save thousands of dollars and you would have a better night sleep. Many good projects have finite resources and spending it in this manner is just a waste. In this day and age, we should be careful how we spend finite resources for humanitarian and development work. Sure, there are “bigger fish to fry” let’s fry those too. I don’t think that bringing up business travel prevents us from bringing up other waste. But in the end, it is a waste and it’s one of those pretty simple fixes. If “talented” people want to leave the organization, well, trust me that others would take their place and do a hell of a job. Perhaps we should turn against the airlines and make them make our economy seats more comfortable. Why should they continuously cram more seats in the plane (IT’S HURTING MY KNEES AND I CANT EVEN OPEN MY LAPTOP!!!!? I HAVE TO HOLD IT FLAT LIKE SOME CLOWN!! no offense to clowns). If you want a normal seat, you have to pay for economy plus, it’s a bit ridiculous. I am of course, sensitive to back problems and any persons with disabilities.

  13. Dear Enrique RP,

    I feel the urge to respond to your response to my comment using the acronym RCT (Randomized Controlled Trial), because it appears that it really upset you. That clearly was not my intention. I don’t have much intelligent to say in response, yes, acronyms are often thrown about needlessly, but here on this blog, it seemed to me acceptable to use it without the requisite introduction. Be it understood that my comment was tongue-in-cheek, but still meant to make the point that while the discussion would evoke highly emotional reactions – borne out by many of the comments that were posted -, it would benefit from some rationale based on facts.

    Please do accept my apologies.

    1. Dear Joris,

      I´m sorry if I overreacted, actually my criticism is not against your input in particular, it is something I´ve thought of so many times, and just now I decided to make a statement. Reading my comment again, I see it´s maybe too sarcastic,and among other things, I see I made a huge overestimation of the costs of this particular acronym (according to my own estimates, it would be something like 39,72 dollars, actually heheh).

      Further, maybe I should have memorized by now that RCT stands for Randomized Controlled Trial, which is a “mainstream” concept for any person in the development field and many other statistic filled scientific disciplines. For instance, I have been reading recently quite a lot about Health Economics and Homeopathy (or non-based on evidence sorcellery, if you like), and I have read the expression (I´m not sure on whether the complete words or “RCT”) lots of times. But that´s precisely my point: I believe it should not be compulsory to memorize huge quantities of acronyms to be a good professional in a particular field, and to read papers with no unecessary visits to Google to see, for instance, what “KPI” means (one of the last acronyms I found recently, totally decontextualised… and in the end was a dull “Key Performance Indicators!”)

      Yes, I was quite sarcastic but I think the use of acronyms in the corporate Anglosaxon culture (which permeated to virtually every science or field at the international level) is actually an issue (sorry if I bursted out in your particular comment).

      I believe the way we use acronyms everywhere yields a huge loss of time for everybody. In Spain and in Europe as well, this massive use of acronyms (with no prior explanation of what they mean at the beginning of a paper, article, Power Point presentation (you name it) or the first time they´re used) has become the norm, and I still don´t understand why.

      The only answers I can imagine are:

      a) unawareness of the problem (which I´m sure this case is an example of)
      b) the tendency to deploy acronyms as a way to make what one says interesting or “expert stuff” (I think it happens a lot as well)

      For me, acronyms are a great tool that can make communication easier and faster, either from the point of view of the person writing/ speaking, or the position of the conference attendant, or the reader.
      Once they become a pseudo-status symbol (I can use acronyms, therefore, I understand what it is all about and I´m a respectable scholar in this field), they become pointless.

      If one need loads of jargon to feel important or serious, then one is probably not that serious in what he is saying.

      Actually, I believe the English language, in comparison with other languages, often tends quite to the opposite, i.e. it tends to simplicity and is not particularly snobish. Simple grammar structures when describing complex ideas and so on.
      I am currently learning German and I find the grammar structure a nightmare, even though I find it beautiful and elegant, somehow.

      But make complex ideas simple, to me, tends to be a sign of a clever mind behind.


  14. I agree with Jessica above. I think scapegoating aid workers flying business class frees those of us who work in development from thinking about how the money we spend on non-necessities could be better spent in developing countries.

    I’m an economics Ph.D. student, studying development. I don’t have very much income, but I buy lots of non-necessities. I bought a $15 bottle of wine to drink with my wife last night. Should I have given that $15 to a charity that provides de-worming drugs? I spend $10 a month for Netflix. What if I put that money toward Kiva loans?

    These sorts of questions drive a person crazy. It is a great relief to point at other people and say, “Well, at least I’m not doing that.”

    Chris, you’ve talked at length about these same issues elsewhere on this blog, when you discuss how much you give to charity and the marginal impact of your research. I think the joy we get from pointing out “excessive” spending by aid workers flying business class is a copying mechanism for this anxiety.

  15. I’m in agreement with Chris’s sentiments on this one – in my experience people definitely view business class travel as a fancy perk rather than a necessity and it’s a massive expense that is hard to justify. I really don’t see that many people jumping ship if they lost it. I think you could look at consultants who work across different agencies (e.g., US agencies and World Bank) and figure out if they show a real preference for the Bank over US agencies due to the business class rules.

    A couple of points from the perspective of American aid agencies such as MCC/USAID which, as the article points out, have the most restrictive policies. (On that point – how many international flights are there from Australia that last less than two hours? Why even have that rule?) First, it’s hard to work at a taxpayer-funded agency and have to face family members who are in part paying for the perk of business class when a) they may never fly business class themselves (or fly that much at all) and b) they may already make substantially less money than a development agency worker and yet you have to explain that this is yet another perk you deserve for your work. So I wonder if it’s easier, from a psychological standpoint, to work at an international agency where any employee’s connection to the people funding the business class travel is fairly tenuous (although, this doesn’t explain the situation with other bilateral agencies). Finally, while the US agencies place more restrictions on business class travel, potentially lowering their travel costs, they simultaneously restrict travelers to US carriers in most situations, resulting in increased costs on that side. (It’s not unusual to see non-US carrier business class fares lower than coach fares on approved carriers.) So that would be another place to look for savings and yet another battle to fight.

  16. I agree with Chris on the vast majority of the points discussed here.

    But I would like to comment something that strikes me in one of the first comments and has nothing to do with the discussion, but is quite relevant for the Development arena and relevant since it happens everyday. There is a man talking about “RCT”. After thirty seconds, I can vaguely understand what it means by the context, even if I still don´t know exactly what the letters mean. I have been working on development projects until quite recently. Following World Bank Programs, I´m a trained economist, and I believe I have a fluent level of English (as well as in four other foreign languages on which I regularly read articles on development and Aid management). Well, sadly, I don´t know what the f*** is “RCT”. I mean, the acronym. If I looked in google for “RCT”, I will probably discover it is a quite simple concept that any person with a basical knowledge of management or economics understands.

    I bet I´m not the only person reading this blog that didn´t understand what this person was talking about, particularly among non-mother tongue english speakers reading this blog, which is probably read by lots of foreigners, given the issues dealt with here. And I´m pretty sure a SL (shitload) of native English speakers didn´t understand it neither.

    Is there any good reason to write “RCT” instead of the complete words, at least once? Or, if the concept “RCT” is going to be written later ten times, is it really that hard to say what it means on the first place, so that the acronym works fine in the rest of the text (i.e., it serves the purpose of language economy and is globally time saving for everybody).

    I would say to this guy: imagine your comment is read by 3000 people, and 200 people don´t know a priori what the acronym RCT means. Some of them, let´s say, 50, will understand it a few seconds later, by the context. Some other 50 people will skip your comment and go for the next one without clearly understanding what you meant, not because it was difficult, but because of the damned absurd acronym. And 100 others, if your comment looks relevant or interesting, will maybe take a minute to look for the meaning in google. All in all, you are wasting around, say, 120 minutes of time of these guys, who are probably well educated, and whose salaries could be, let´s be very conservative on this point, 20 dollars per hour on average. So, you are wasting around 2400 dollars.
    Assuming your time is much more valuable than the one of the average readers here, because of your intergalaxy Senior back-pain inducing position, let´s say 500 dollars per hour, the time to write the complete wording instead of “RTC” would have costed two seconds, 500 dollars/h *(2/3600)h= 0,28 dollars.

    All in all, you are producing a waste of 2399,72 dollars.
    (I guess something around a BC flight Washington-Nairobi!).

    Now, extrapolate this result to every time someone in the development field makes an exaggerate and unnecessary use of acronyms that lead to confusion on readers/ attendants in a discussion.

    In the name of the Lord, please deter innecesary, or at least explain once at the beginning of your text or speech any non-mainstream enough acronyms. Please take a few seconds to write an entire sentence and don´t waste people´s time!

  17. I know it’s hard to defend, but large numbers of overnight non-BC flights are killing me. I am sick of turning up in meetings after no sleep and on the wrong time zone as well – and just as fed up getting back for rare family time and just wanting to sleep. I sometimes pay to upgrade myself on cheaper airlines such as PIA. (I’m a consultant who has worked for lots of different organizations.)

  18. OK, so let’s say they’d drop J class for Economy. I can reasonably imagine that people would ask for economy flexible tickets, which allow you to make last-minute changes at no (or VERY little) cost.

    I have no clue about tickets to Africa, but discounted Business is cheaper than Eco full-flexible across the pond and to Asia. I’ve had already several trips when it became soon clear that flying business is cheaper than flying economy (due to my organisation’s guidelines, I still had to fly economy).

    Also, you can hardly compare if you have no clue how much of a discount WB gets on their tickets. Some French companies get as much as 50% off the publicly available business class fares on AF; and complimentary First Class upgrades for senior staff. No such deals exist for Economy. The marginal cost of upgrade may then be not that high…

  19. Is the world bank a real bank? It has a tiny finance operation given its headcount and exists primarily to subsidize research done by and largely for researchers based in and around developed countries.

    Better way to safe money, just outsource its entire research staff or axe the paper shuffling divisions to developing country based institutions.

    Otherwise just face the facts,the primary task for the WB/UN family is to serve as event management organizations thereby funneling development monies to hotels and travel chains.

    Great idea on WB carrying out an experiments to study organization culture. Offer a lottery to all eligible staff to put in their bids for a business class seat, pick the winner through the lottery draw and see how they perform vis-a-vis economy class controls. Let Hawthorne and Henry Effects gobins take over in the analysis

  20. Is the world bank a real bank? It has a tiny finance operation given its headcount and exists primarily to subsidize research done by and largely for researchers based in and around developed countries.

    Better way to safe money, just outsource its entire research staff or axe the paper shuffling divisions to developing country based institutions.

    Otherwise just face the facts,the primary task for the WB/UN family is to serve as event management organizations thereby funneling development monies to hotels and travel chains.

    Great idea on WB carrying out an experiments to study organization culture. Offer a lottery to all eligible staff to put in their bids for a business class seat, pick the winner through the lottery draw and see how they perform vis-a-vis controls. Let Hawthorne and Henry Effects gobins take over in the analysis

  21. Chris, I agree that it seems arbitrary to condemn business class airfare due to your discomfort with it “symbolically.” Symbols are, of course, important, but I feel like this is an example of scapegoating to resolve a long-standing crisis: Western aid workers, as well as academic researchers, are well paid and lead lives of enormous luxury when compared to those they research/are trying to help. To draw the line at expensive air travel is just a convenient way to differentiate oneself.

    I am sure it speaks to a larger frustration, that gluttony abounds in the face of great suffering, but condemning business class air travel and saying, “I draw the line here,” or, “At least I don’t do that,” allows us to avoid scrutinizing our every waste.

    Thanks for starting this conversation with your post. Have you read any Rene Girard?

  22. I would refuse to travel to Africa 10 times a year in cattle class.

    I am not Mother Teresa, I am 6ft3in. I understand other do gooders my height might well put up with this, plus 3 star hotels. That is fine. At that point I would leave the organization. But hey, i am substitutable.

    I also suspect many more people would try to avoid positions involving a lot of travel. You may underestimate how people dislike travel.

  23. The good thing about the business class is it gives people flexibility and allows them to work globally with minor interruption. You leave the office, say, on monday and you are on the field on the opposite side of the world the following day. Sometimes the difference between economy and business is much less than the daily income of the person who is trvaelling. It would be waste of time and resources especially for senior staff to take a day or two off between flights in order to recover from an economy class flight. That being said, the Bank has rules about economy and business flights based on distance and travel time. So Chris, I think you are mistakenly overpassionate about a minor issue to make yourself look humble. Total BS.

  24. Quick anecdote. An former colleague at an unnamed national aid outfit (DFID equivalent but not DFID) kept asking the travel folks to downgrade him to economy. He was then visited by a union rep, who told him to stop doing this because it was a perk they had to fight for with the management and he was undermining their arguments!

  25. Interesting conversation. I think it’s valuable if you’re looking to change the default policies of large multilaterals, but why are we starting with business class flights? We should be starting with whether a flight is needed at all. I’ve seen a huge number of meetings that could have been conducted via videoconference and instead just add to global carbon emissions.

    Reduce the total number of flights
    Use business class where it makes sense (6+ hour flights, 2-week+ trips, disabilities, medical reasons)
    Pressure airlines to improve the quality of economy seats (which have become increasingly more abysmal with each passing year)

    If you really wanted to get into it, you could even come up with a policy about where the miles go–x% of accumulated miles goes back to the organization to pay for flights or offset costs of future flights (and business class accumulation happens faster, so it would make sense to have a certain subset continue to fly business).

  26. I would heartily endorse low ostentation for development agencies. I’m actually quite surprised it’s all lasted this long. 5-star hotels are part of this. BC is symbolically important, and yes, I think symbols are extremely important in all things, not least aid and politics.

    As for the flexibility of tickets, the World Bank and UN have enough market power that they could probably arrange this easily by competitive bid, just as they arrange for lower BC airfares than the usual price. They are, I understand, British Airway’s largest customer (though that is hearsay).

    Even if they didn’t, I can’t see a lot of $100 change fees as a strong argument for defaulting to BC. It’s simply an absurd argument, and the fact that it gets made is an indication how emotional rather than rational are so many of the discussions around this.

    This brings me to possibly the best and only defense of BC by the big agencies: that they pay very little premium for it. I know they get a discount, I don’t know how it compares to the average economy fare. They are not transparent about this, or so I understand. I would happily be proved wrong.

    So I make a simpler, more justifiable claim: new transparency around just what kind of premium the Bank pays for BC, and some sense of the relative cost of BC versus (say) salaries for it’s non-admin staff.

  27. Chris,

    Why pick on business class airfare? Does it really matter how it looks? Is it about the disconnect between ostensibly “solving poverty” and in reality financing exotic trips or is it about misallocation of funds?

    Perks are simply part of an employment package that includes salaries, medical care, travel perks (business class, 5 star hotels, and per diems), and other employment benefits. If it’s purely a money thing, then would you be fine if everyone were paid the difference between what business class costs and economy tickets cost?

    Also, just FYI — business class seats are “flexible” i.e. you can change them whenever. You can purchase economy “flexible,” but it’s basically the same rate (way, way more than a regular economy ticket). In practice, schedules change and the flexibility is important for business…

    So, my question to you: What are you really arguing about? Should WB/UN etc. be paid less or just look a little less ostentatious? In contrast to WB, there’s IPA, which pays its employees pennies… And its employees leave… maybe it was just a stepping stone anyways, but what you’re getting into is the ethics of HR for supposedly “do good” institutions. That’s a hard question!

  28. I’m sympathetic to sincere disabilities and maybe aged hyper travelers. Neither is a good reason for business class (BC) being the default, and one could imagine safeguards to thwart abuse.

    I don’t buy the “we need BC to attract the best people” argument for a number of reasons:
    – I don’t know this to be true, but I imagine the compensating differential in terms of cash or added salary would be much less expensive, and more transparent and incentive-compatible
    – A day off on either end of a trip would probably be cheaper for the majority of staff than a BC ticket, assuming even the day off is needed
    – I would rate people at the 50th and 90th quality percentile from non-BC-flying organizations at least as highly as at the World Bank and certainly higher than the UN
    – The list of overqualified people who want to work at the WB or UN is a mile long, which may indicate the compensation and perks are doing just fine
    – I would argue that the WB and UN have trouble retaining their top 10% best people, and it’s not because of BC (nor would it be seriously threatened by BC’s disappearance)
    – The profuse perks at places like the UN actually lead to a lot of negative selection, in my experience

    Certainly there would be some bad consequences, but I am not convinced they outweigh the good ones, or the principle: that if your job is to decrease the number of people living on $1 a day then it looks bad if you spend 5-10 times their annual incomes to get legroom.

  29. And while we are at it, let’s put global development goals related to climate change on the table and commit to reduce all ‘international development-related’ air travel by 50%

  30. Economy class is appropriate for the young, able-bodied, and for those who don’t travel much (I’m thinking 25% time or less). I’m in my early 30s with no back problems and I travel to Africa maybe 6 times a year. I never fly business class, even though I could qualify with a doctor’s note, because it would be immoral. Most of my peers do the same. Those who can at the Bank and UN should too.

    On the other hand, some of the senior managers at my DC-based consulting firm travel more or less constantly. Most are in their 50s or 60s. Let’s be honest, some are a little overweight as can happen over a lifetime in a busy career. Many are juggling careers that involve 40% or more international travel with family and kids at home, and probably don’t sleep much even at home. I just don’t think they’d be able to keep up the pace if they weren’t able get halfway decent sleep on the plane. I don’t blame them at all for flying business class. If anything, we should be talking about their salaries.

    Those who can fly economy and function well have an obligation to do so. But if you’re looking for waste in the aid industry, there are much bigger fish to fry — like should we be doing some of these projects at all?

  31. …because the reasons to work at a major international development institution don’t have much to do with a seat that reclines more than 4 inches….

  32. One has to look at it from a HR market perspective…you want the best people to work at the World Bank and other development agencies…these folks could easy be working for another for profit firm and fly first class with all the associated, but if you need to attract them to non-profit firms then one needs to provide them comparable perks. Otherwise, why would the best want to come work at these agencies???

  33. I like the idea of performing an RCT.

    Isn’t this exactly where the default should be economy, and if there’s a good reason to upgrade (per Ted), do it?

  34. Seems to me that this issue can only be settled through an RCT. If B-Class travelers perform better on a per dollar basis, that’s it then. We can then add business class travel to the short list of proven interventions like deworming, vaccines and cash transfers (of course).

  35. As one who suffers from back problems (and does 1/2 hours a day back exercises) I think one must also consider this in relation to the decline in standards/quality of seats/legroom in economy. I am happy to go with the client’s rules for their own staff, but have to decline some assignments as I would be unable to work after 24 hours in economy flights (or for 2 weeks afterwards). As well, I have been on many consulting assignments for the World Bank where I downgrade from business class (as the flights weren’t beyond my back’s tolerance) and never had an objection, so I suspect your experience was an outlier.

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