Uses and abuses of Per Diems in Africa: An issue for Evaluators?

Guy Blaise Nkamleu
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My new book makes a compelling case on the devastating nature of per diem – i.e., daily allowance – systems in Africa. It supports the view that the per diem allowance system has become perverted and is now working against the objectives that underpin its existence. Although the book does not address evaluation as such, it can serve to draw evaluators’ attention to aspects of the development industry that are often not considered in their assessment of the benefits as well as undesirable consequences of development interventions.

An increasing share of spending in African countries is allocated to the payment of bonuses and other daily allowances, often in connection with seminars, workshops and missions of all types. Statistics in many African countries show that the amounts allocated to this type of expenditure have soared over time. This is worrisome in view of the budget constraints and public finance difficulties faced by almost all the governments of the continent.

What is the problem?

More disturbing is the demonstration in the book that in several countries per diem systems are gradually becoming a tool in service of corruption. The allowance systems as currently practiced create opportunities for fraud, and officers and employees are deriving undue benefits while preserving the legality of their actions.

Originally, the per diem allowance was introduced to solve a real problem: cover the costs associated with travel and thus allowing proper implementation of missions and holding of productive workshops and seminars. Over time, it has been perverted and has become the source of a disturbing dilemma. Take the case of a training workshop:

Per DiemOn one hand, if there is no provision for payments of per diem to the participants, there is a real risk that the meeting room will be empty on the day of the workshop. In the absence of per diems, many potential participants will not attend the meeting, either because their only reason to participate is the opportunity to collect and pocket some per diems, or because despite their sincere willingness to participate, they need per diems to cover the costs related to their participation – transportation, food and so on.

On the other hand, if for the workshop a generous amount of per diem is provided to the attendees, it is very likely that the day of the workshop the room will be full, but it might be full of non-appropriate people – not qualified, or different from the target group that the workshop was intended to reach. Suitable people will be crowded out by their managers who will decide to participate in order to pocket some per diems. This is then done at the expense of capacity building that would have benefitted the intended target group.

What is the result?

Across the continent the mad scramble to amass more and more per diems is leading to postures and actions that are at odds with the development objectives. Development activities are often planned and implemented around the benefits of their per diems, to the detriment of their impact on development.

Per DiemThus, the per diems that were introduced with good intentions have gradually turned into a powerful distortion tool that alters the impact of development efforts – the exact opposite of their raison d’être. Many workshops and meetings are nowadays used to make money, reward friends and acquaintances, and strengthen networks to the detriment of stated capacity building goals. Though the quest for the benefits generated by per diems and other allowances is observed worldwide, it is probably more distressing in the context of countries facing economic difficulties, such as in Africa.

I argue that the per diem allowance system in Africa is a phenomenon that is silently asphyxiating economic growth and killing development initiatives on the continent. It prevents and stifles all growth ambitions by crippling public finances and contributing to the failure of a myriad of projects and development programs that are supposed to usher in growth and development into the continent. It is not only about the problem of corruption associated with the per diems, but also the institutionalised and legalised form of lost time that it induced. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to find officials in their office, or to get them to take urgent decisions. They are always in meetings, for many of which they will collect per diems and other attendance fees.

Per DiemWhat about the future?

The per diem allowance system has over time become a faulty bolt in the machine of the African economies. It was supposed to be a facilitator of development activities by helping employees to perform their tasks and missions. In this ideal case, the objective would be the accomplishment of the activity, and the per diem would be one facilitator. Yet today development activities appear to be at the service of per diems. Allowance gains are now identified as the goal, and those concerned will look for activities that will help them to achieve this goal.

Should per diems be discontinued? I do not totally support that. Rather, the per diem system is in dire need of urgent reforms. In the book I provide some ideas on the possible areas of reflections and reforms for a more efficient per diem system.

I hope this is some food for thought for those who are tormented by the failures of the multiple development projects and programmes on the Africa continent – including evaluators who need to make sure that intended benefits do not lead to unintended negative consequences instead.

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7 thoughts on “Uses and abuses of Per Diems in Africa: An issue for Evaluators?

  1. I FULLY AGREE with Dr, Nkamleu. I am wondering if he was in Liberia when he was writing this piece? This is precisely what is happening NOW in a lot of development partner organizations in Liberia. For example, in 2015 and the first half of 2016, 82% of top managers (i.e. country directors, chief of party, head of mission, country representatives and deputy directors/representatives spent near 67% of their time travelling to training workshops and conferences that were solely intended for technical staff. This was because they have the decision making power to determine who attends such events. But guess what? I entirely blame the planners/organizers of those events that accept individuals that the events are NOT intended for. Organizers of meetings, workshops and conferences should be able to rigorously reject individuals if they are not the proper audience for their event.

    Although I have not read you book, I would like to suggest that one of the possible reforms that the culture of per diem should undergo is for corporate entities to first reform their policies, including submission of payment receipts for all transactions and where there was an unspent amount, such amount be return to corporate account. Also, if an expenditure from per diem was not one of those authorized a refund be requested.

  2. Dr Nkaleu has put forward a very disturbing trend . Why do we not have structures in place on perdiem in development organizations? Do we have expenditure policies.? Do we have Auditors in these organization? Or is thete conspiracy between management and evaluators? Any funds granted without structures will fail. Therefore the grantors need to quickly move and put this to an end and stop blaming the weather. If management can’t comply then find those who can, I work in the private sector and this has worked very well: I.e we have combined efforts between the top management and employees to build fraud proof structures and ensure they are followed to the latter. Good luck and I look forward to hearing some improvements some months/ years down the line.

  3. I agree with Dr. Nkamleu that the per-diem allowance syndrome has become anathema to development efforts. However, i fault Suwo’s comment of payment receipts as they even create such receipts to ‘benefit’ itself corruption. In Tanzania we have attempted to discuss this btn CSOs and government with little to no traction. We found that per-diems have also created unnecessary competition among CSOs where intl pay more than local or govt and thus creates preferences to particiation by ‘target’- sometimes not intended ones.
    Result…it makes capacity development for those who need it become a money minting scheme, no wonder skills and knowledge from such seminars are rarely cascaded as participants are not target but corrupt fleas who have made workshopping an occupation and abuse their power to select themselves as participants.
    In my experience, we reimburse costs incurred and provide access to food and has worked for us by being explicit ab initio on our policy on allowances.

  4. Truth . … even in Malawi perdiem syndrome is growing at an exponential rate up to the extent of it being replacing salary in as far as job satisfaction is concerned.

  5. The issue of per diems will continue affecting the achievement of development objectives unless the remuneration system for most govt paid employees is reformed . What do you expect in a scenario where the per diem is by far much greater than the monthly salary. In some countries a week of per diems earned in attending a training or participating in a mission is is greater by 101% of one’s salary. Any notion of reforming the per diems in africa should also examine holistically the structure governments use to pay its employees. The per diems are so attractive and enable employees even get much more than what their salaries are able to. In part if salaries are made better than the benefit earned through per diems, no one will be interested to go to training and missions merely on the premise of accumulating per diem which are now seen as a way of supllementing one’s monthly salary.

  6. Your message is spot on, Dr Nkamleu!
    The issue of per diem is troubling particularly in most of rural Africa. My experience has been with policy makers and particularly engagements with elected leaders (Members of Parliament or County Assemblies), any policy engagement forum without a ‘sizeable’ amount of per diem will not attract the attendance from any of the leaders – many will opt to send their Personal Assistants or even Secretaries – denying the forum any meaningful outcomes. In some extreme cases, we had MPs insisting on coming with mistresses/wives/partners to a retreat and the programme had to meet the added costs, in addition to per diem, or else the ‘Honourable’ MP would not show up. The issue of per diem will be very difficult to address since it has been ingrained in the culture of ‘development work’ particularly that of non-governmental organizations. There has to be a structured process aimed enabling an ‘unlearning process’, that prioritizes the content of the forums or workshops above other personal gain…

    May be we should do away with workshops, seminars and all similar activities all together, as we delve into the era of globalization and digitization, where formal virtual meetings are gradually gaining popularity as good alternatives.

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