Unlike many of my colleagues working with grassroots in the field, this is an issue that I haven’t reflected much upon before coming to Cambodia. As an employee, I’ve received ‘per diem’ allowances for lots of travel with organisations. Per diem is the term used to call a set amount of money that has been calculated to cover expenses for work-travel. Sometimes that amount includes accommodations, food, transportation, incidentals, or a combination of these expenses. If I think back to some of my per diems, they were often very generous. I might not have been able to spend the full amount even if I tried.
The logic of per diems is that it calculates the expense amount that the receiver would approximately spend on work-related travel and cuts out the administration costs of processing receipts. So instead of keeping receipts for the hotel, for every meal, for making copies or sending faxes, for buses/taxis/tuk tuks or whatever, you receive your allowance with a single administrative transaction. It makes complete business sense. Even if the traveller would spend less than the allotted amount, the savings in both human and financial costs are very significant and very likely outweigh the difference considering the salaries of two people (the employee submitting and the employee processing) to do all the paperwork.
I can happily say that I have never been motivated to travel for work for any financial benefit of a per diem. Perhaps the structures built into a developed country do not create such an incentive, at least in my case. I will admit, though, that I have been pleasantly surprised to find out I receive some extra payment later on based on some incidental per diem or another expense I may not have calculated. And the thought has crossed my mind – “Wow, I think I actually made some money from that work trip!”
Is this wrong?
When you get into grassroots development work in the field, you’ll often see the amount of planned workshops starting to fill up your schedule. In Cambodia, workshop is such a common word, along with others like exposure visits, forums, meetings, consultations, and input sessions. You wouldn’t be crazy to think that Cambodians, elite and poor alike, are extremely well-trained. Gather villagers for a workshop and they will come in droves. Ask them to join a consultation on providing input for advocating to local government, and you will have a full house. Certainly some naturally engaged people are present in all levels of society and wish to learn and share their voice in this environment. But when you look at concrete incentives, don’t be surprised if a per diem might be the alluring factor in getting people to the event.
In countries where salaries are insufficient to meet daily needs, particularly for government employees, per diems can be the supplement that sustains the livelihoods of travelling employees and their families. In fact, a focus on per diem opportunities is actually categorised as a major coping strategy: “Per diems and daily allowance provided by development partners constitute one of the most popular coping strategies for compensating for low public sector wages in the developing world” (http://www.u4.no/publications/low-salaries-the-culture-of-per-diems-and-corruption). In this case, you can imagine a government employee perhaps receiving a salary of $100/month. He cannot realistically survive on this amount, but if he joins a UN workshop for four days in another province, he might receive $45/day (but actual rates can even go up to $292/night depending on the situation based on the World Health Organisation, for example – http://apps.who.int/bfi/tsy/PerDiem.aspx). With the $45/day, he might actually be able to stay at a cheap guest house, eat very locally, and only spend perhaps $12/day. After the workshop, he has nearly doubled his take home salary. A few more workshops or events in the month will allow him to be able to earn enough money to live a decent life and support his family. Is there anything wrong with this? It is his right to spend the per diem any way he wishes and the benefit (financially and administratively) to the organisation far outweighs the practice of receipt compliance and processing that might be considered a more transparent and accountable method of expense reporting. But what about the culture that this practice creates? There is no doubt that the incentive structure resulting from per diem income supplements greatly changes the dynamic of participation at the event. Does it matter if people begin showing up for money before the importance of the content?
I recently attended a forum that brought together villagers to voice their opinions on the problems they face in accessing public services. The point was to first hear concerns, and then have a group of leaders provide that input to the local authorities to consider for upcoming actions and policy change. Some people were actively engaged while others seemed zoned out, just like in any group event. At the end, villagers queued for their per diem allotments provided in named envelopes. A lot of time was spent on this administrative activity, but it was obviously an important component. The idea is that villagers should be paid for their transport to get to the event, and any extra should be considered a supplement to cover the money that they will lose out on by attending. They had to spend their morning away from their crops, away from the market to sell their produce, off the boat that they could be catching fish on at the moment… The NGOs involved were able to get valuable input on the needs of the people they are mandated to serve, and to be able to report that to the commune councils, and to their larger funders who need to understand where their money is going. How many people came to the forum to really exercise their civil right to take issues to the government? How many came to feel like part of the community and to socialise with fellow villagers? And how many came because the per diem would be a guaranteed income benefit that might surpass the amount they could receive had they continued their usual routine at home or in their daily work activities? Perhaps one or the other, or maybe a bit of all three.
I’m not at the point of judging the per diem system. It would be hypocritical because I have fully supported per diems in my own situation and find the calculation of every expense to be ridiculously wasteful in terms of time and money. In development, sustainability is probably the biggest buzz word at the project level. In creating a culture of per diems, we need to imagine a time if and when funding is pulled for such activities. Will workshops and input sessions continue to thrive? We know that the answer is probably no, at least not in the current and traditional sense of capacity-building. As a mild idealist, I have found it disheartening to realise that people show up firstly to collect their per diems. In the complex paternal structure of international development and the notion formed on the basis of developed donor countries, you cannot simply create two standards between two levels of development. My instinct is to still take the opportunity in a very participative way and try as much as possible to help everyone feel they’re not wasting their time. In an ideal world, every community would gather and voice their concerns to the leaders that represent them.
I’m left without an answer on the culture of per diems and whether they are fundamentally contributing to inevitable disasters, or whether they need to be worked around to extract the most benefit possible by bringing people together. Comments and opinions very welcomed as I think about this – and live it – in the work I’m carrying out.