- Uses and abuses of Per Diems in Africa: An issue for Evaluators? - July 14, 2016
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:
On 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.
Thus, 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.
What 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.