Nowhere does the African Development Bank (AfDB) working paper on per diem mention Botswana by name but it describes scenarios and objectionable conduct that are very common here. The obvious (greed) is known about why senior government officials want to hoard per diem; the paper makes additional revelation that this type of payment has also become a serious health risk.
“Some meeting participants will even sacrifice meals in order to save per diem money. Staff who receive low salaries will hardly use their per diems on food and will not eat adequately during missions, or will overeat when free lunch is offered in order to compensate for the other meals of the day.
This nutritional disturbance carries some risks for the health of the participants,” says the AfDB paper which was authored by Guy Blaise Nkamleu and Bernadette Dia Kamgnia who both work in the bank’s development research department. Per diem (Latin for “per day”) is a specific amount of money that an organisation gives to an individual per day, to cover travel-related expenditures in connection with work done away from home. Titled “Uses and Abuses of Per Diems in Africa: A Political Economy of Travel Allowances”, the paper says that excessive love of per diem often results in meetings which could have been held within office premises being relocated to distant locations “in order to ensure that attendees receive per diems for their participation.”
In some instances, participants would not even speak the language that the meeting is conducted in. The senior government officials in question are suffering from a condition that one scholar who has studied this phenomenon calls “perdiemitis” – deeply pathologised love of per diem. Supervisors with perdiemitis would choose to attend training that would have better suited the needs of junior staff members.
“The person who could have used the training is denied the opportunity to improve her skills, whilst the person who does attend may not contribute to or benefit from the experience because they lack the right pre-requisites,” says a part of the paper that, judging by the choice of the personal pronoun, would have been written by Kamgnia. Perdiemitis-afflicted supervisors slow down government’s operations because they are unable to fulfill administrative tasks which require time at their desks.
“In the end, per diem become a way of paying people not to do their work,” the paper says. Donor agencies have also been implicated in the per diem problem. The paper says that as government workers seek more revenue from allowances, they may favour programmes directed by external agencies, which sometimes pay higher rates than government. Resultantly, such civil servants “have less incentive to advocate for a fairer compensation package from their own government.” In service of the latter argument, the report quotes the case of Mali where civil servants are opposed to direct budget support “because per diem rate for donor-funded projects are more than twice the government rate.”
Some cases of the corruption that has sprung up around per diem are extreme even by Third World standards. Senior government officials in Nigeria were paid per diem for week-long training workshops that they, in actual fact, attended “for only a few minutes.” In Malawi, a government official “collected over 1000 days of per diem allowances in one year.” Someone familiar with the epidemic of perdiemitis in the Botswana civil service says that dozens of globetrotting senior government officials have become filthy rich off travel allowance. The problem is as rampant in parastatal organisations where some CEOs make substantially more from international travel allowances than they do from their normal pay package.
The AfDB paper says that some managers select staff to attend international trainings with the expectation that such staff members would share or “kickback” a portion of their per diem. A Botswana secondary school teacher recalls how his headmaster shook him down for a loan (that he would later repay in painfully slow dribs and drabs) after recommending him for a trip to the United States. A 2010 study says that “perdiemitis is one of the most prevalent illnesses in Africa and is contributing to the expected failure to achieve the MDGs in Africa.”