Should development agency staff fly business class?

So asks Chris Blattman:

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?

The answer is obvious:  of course not. The staff of aid agencies should fly economy class.

Business class flights are not the only expensive perks.  Why do World Bank and IMF staff  visiting Addis Ababa stay in the Sheraton, which is one of the most luxurious and vulgar hotels in the world, when there are very good hotels down the road for one fifth of the price?  Why do international aid agency staff living overseas have such luxurious houses, with allowances for gardeners and domestic staff?  Why do some aid agencies pay to fly their belongings to Addis Ababa air freight, when it could come by sea for a fraction of the price? Should staff be allowed to ship cars from home, at public expense, duty free, and then sell them locally at a profit?

A good start would be to make all this transparent. As we are seeing with the row over MPs’ expenses in the UK, sunlight is a good disinfectant.  If all these expenses were individually and separately itemised and published, I suspect many aid agencies would soon decide that they are difficult to defend.

The senior staff of the Canadian aid agency, CIDA, are required by Canadian policy to publish their travel and hospitality expenses.   Here are the returns for the first quarter of this year.  That’s a good start. But I’d like to even more detailed figures published for all staff of aid agencies.  I suspect quite a lot of this stuff would stop quite quickly.

10 thoughts on “Should development agency staff fly business class?”

  1. For what it’s worth, I used to work for the office in the US State Department which dealt with providing funding to USAID for the former USSR. I can tell you firmly USAID does not provide allowances for domestic staff. It does ship cars, though, and provides a 1000 pound air shipment of possessions, followed by a larger sea shipment.

    I actually wonder how much of these perks are rumor. I worked for UNFPA back in the day, and we flew economy class, and were jealous of UNICEF who flew business. And I always heard it was DfID that provided allowances domestic staff salaries…

    1. Alanna – Absolutely. Not all agencies provide all of these perks in all countries where they work. And I am not for a moment claiming that DFID is better (or worse) than other agencies in this respect.

      My main point is that we should publish the details of all these perks. I think it would become clear pretty quickly which are defensible and which are not.

  2. What I find interesting is that, while DFID will allow it’s own staff to fly business class (on long haul flights), it will require consultants that it contracts (even one working on a long term assignment) to fly economy class.

    Since the very same consultants often cost more (on a pro rata basis) than the DFID staff they work with, you have to wonder about the ‘productivity’ argument.

  3. I too have been wondering how long it will take for the UK press to cotton on to the fact that a good deal of what MPs are claiming for also goes for aid people both governmental and otherwise.

  4. You’re spot on, Owen. And you and Chris Blattman are right to highlight this issue.

    I used to work for an aid agency and must confess that I took a number of business class flights. I also worked overseas and was initially baffled by the extra money that I was given for doing so. It meant that I saved a lot of money in the three years I was away – but it’s a million miles away from what aid agencies are all about.

    In the country I worked in, the rumour in the office was that the head of the office’s apartment cost $10,000 a month – mine cost $3,000 (which is itself a lot of money). This could immunise a lot of children, or pay for a lot of schoolbooks.

  5. Hi Owen. Stumbled across your site as I was researching a forthcoming visit to Ethiopia. I’m fully behind Economy fares (for all grades of staff) travelling on short haul flights, but less convinced that this is practical for anything over six hours of flying. So while Economy is fine for London to Accra for example, travelling to Beijing cattle class would be counterproductive. It’s near impossible to do any work in Economy. But that’s not the main objection to Economy. Upon arrival in Beijing, you’re expected to go straight into meetings. Not easy when you are fighting against the time difference and having had someone’s elbow stuck in your face for much of the previous night.

    There are of course other excesses in typical aid budgets. I was virtually lynched by my Malawi team when I told them I wouldn’t entertain purchase of 40 tumble driers! And yes, the entire team of UK staff lived in accommodation of a standard far higher than they were used to back home. And then there are those individuals who arrive in post with five kids, all of whom suddenly need an expensive boarding school education. If this was bad in DfID, it was far worse in the EC Delegation, USAID and in the Bank. Houses like mansions, 4×4 vehicles provided (DFID staff at least had to purchase their own) and mileages never questioned (so thousands of miles on private journeys, all charged to the aid budget).

    Now that I have time to think about it, there was much that Heads of Office could have done in Southern Africa to ensure that precious aid resources were not so obviously diverted. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But then we did have many other preoccupations.

    Trust you are well.

  6. Owen
    Indeed you have provoked an intersting debate. And it’s not just the cash costs. Does anyone have any firm data on the difference in co2 emissions between flying economy class and business class? It would seem logical that when flying business class the emissions would be higher per passenger as fewer of them fit on the plane. If so, how can aid agencies working on climate change justify this?

  7. Great discussion. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts.

    (1) The excesses are one reason that it can be hard to make an argument (at least in US red states) that more aid and more generosity is needed. Why should my tax dollars on a $40,000 US per year income go to finance the high life for some dude spending a week of every month traveling the world in business class and staying at top hotels? Tough to answer.
    (2) It’s true, not all agencies are the same. Peace Corps people and VSOs lived pretty close to lower middle class lives in Malawi when I was there in 1995. Whereas a EU couple I know in Bangkok have one of the biggest and nicest apartments I’ve ever seen in Bangkok now in 2009.
    (3) With the availability of easy and reliable video conferencing and genuine idea sharing taking place online now – seems to me that the amount of air travel is absurd. We shouldn’t just be asking “why business class?” we should also be asking, “why do you need to go there? what’s wrong with skype’s free video?” I know sometimes you really do have be there in person, but a lot of times you just don’t. Is it possible that many of these trips are more about the joy of travel, the self-importance of the traveler, the way things have always been done, or seeing friends?

  8. The expenses for “travel and hospitality” (adding eventual “per diem”s) can be a quite significant item in the budgets of grants supposed to be devoted to “aid” by Big Foundations.

    There is a whole culture of traveling around that would probably be seriously imperiled if all the expenses were immediately published. This can be done very easily by publishing all costs and adding a short explanation about the reasons for the travel.

    I have been looking at how the large Canadian crown corporation IDRC has managed the $5.2 million it was awarded by the Gates Foundation to promote tobacco control in Africa: in my opinion there is a lot of traveling, much too much. It will be interesting to see if this will be part of the external review that has just started but the culture of “extensive travel” is so pervasive…

    The same goes for the Bloomberg Initiative. Since there is absolutely no control…

    Wasteful traveling is not limited to the staff of the aid’s agencies: many “african advocates” are “invited” to travel extensively (and very expansively). It’s meetings after meetings and international conferences without any significant reporting of what (if anything) was achieved but many people indeed did travel and met for x days in an hotel.

    The Canadian system of “proactive disclosure” was a step in the good direction but it is much too limited and apparently there is strong opposition to increase the number of people whose traveling expenses would be monitored.

    With the internet the amount of traveling should decrease drastically and the proactive disclosure should apply to everybody: it would be good for the planet and good for the budgets.

  9. Good responses. My understanding is that DFID now require (all?) staff to fly economy class for flights under 12 hours. Good. They should make sure that everyone using UK taxpayer money does the same (WB staff using DFID trust funds, consultants, etc). Lead by example.

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