Sunday, March 29, 2015

Per Diem is a Big Hairy* Deal

All About the Banda's
Per diem is meant to defray the daily cost of breakfast, lunch, dinner and “incidentals” (defined mostly as tips by the US Federal Travel Regulations) incurred when traveling for work. It is typically a flat rate, prorated by percent for each meal. The US government international amount seems to be set by assuming the traveler would eat all meals at the most expensive hotel restaurant in town.

Because it’s usually so ridiculously high, it ends up being closer to a salary supplement. When I was traveling abroad from the US, I considered it a small consolation prize for sitting 18 hours cramped in aisle 48H next to the bathrooms. It was a nice bonus, but it wasn’t why I worked.

Thing is, when people live closer to the margin, the collection of per diem gets elevated into an art form. It moves beyond supplement to an incentive, and for some, a second salary. For a few more, it becomes a right. Thus, its provision in your project becomes more urgent, more pressing…

…and more of a barrier to actual work.

For example: Because drivers travel frequently, they need this benefit the most often. We spend a lot of time carefully managing their schedules to avoid complaints that one may be getting more than others. As such, between all the last minute changes, time off schedules  and jockeying amongst seniority, setting the monthly schedule can sometimes feel like giving birth to a pound of razor wire. 

When I first arrived, a group of sub-partners actually threatened to walk away from an all-inclusive training in Nigeria, because they’d only take home a nominal incidental fee. Forget learning, they wanted the money.

Local governments also seem to be in on the take. To get community buy in, development organizations work hard to meet with and work through existing channels (such as local district executive committees).  Unfortunately, some committees refuse to convene unless they receive per diem! I recently discovered that one such committee charged three different organizations for the same meeting. Coordination and communication being what it is (fairly informal) this was only discovered after the fact.)

Imagine if you were just an average constituent; how would you afford democracy this way?

If I let it, the Per Diem Issue feels like being hijacked by the people we want to help, off the backs of people we want to help. Aside from wasting resources, it expends a ton of organizational and emotional energy. Policies upon policies are created. Schedules are scrutinized. Meetings turn tense. At the end of it all, precious, valuable work undone. Even now, as I write, I feel the bile rise. If donors really wanted to see where their time and money were going, my bet is on this.

The solution here isn’t easy. How do you move someone from considering per diem as a right to a nice supplement? From beating the system to doing your job? The answer lies in the rat’s nest of macroeconomics, global inequality, choices and personality.

There’s nothing wrong for having the costs of your job be covered. However, how does this translate when everything has a cost? 

I contextually understand, but it’s a culture shock every time I run into it. This is consistently where my Midwestern no-nonsense work ethic rams like a sledgehammer into my carefully constructed attempts at cultural sensitivity. Why are you even here?! I want to scream. Do you care so little about helping others that you’d kidnap the entire program over a measly $8?  We more than likely end up paying, because we have indicators to hit, targets to achieve. But I hate every conversation about it.

I try to have compassion. I try to remember being squished in 48H, dreaming of what I would do with that extra money. But mostly, every day I’m reminded: Per Diem is a Big Hairy* Deal.

*Not the original adjective.

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