Science, Finance and Innovation

Per diem: the petty corruption that hurts African development

4 min


Guy Blaise NKAMLEU

The pursuit of daily allowances has become a widespread trend across the administrations of African countries, diverting funds and focus away from productive activities. This column argues that the devastating nature of “per diem” systems in Africa is one of the main causes of the repeated failures of development efforts across the continent. Per diem should regain its role as an instrument of development rather than a tool of corruption.

An increasing share of public spending in African countries is allocated to the payment of “per diem” and other forms of daily allowances, often in connection with participation in seminars, workshops, and travel for work-related missions. Given Cette situation est préoccupante au regard des contraintes budgétaires et les tensions des finances publiques auxquelles font face la quasi-totalité des gouvernements du continent.the budget constraints and public finance difficulties faced by almost all the continent’s governments, this is a disturbing trend.

Until now, it has also largely been an unexplored concern in the development community. In my new book, PER DIEM, The Petty Corruption That Hurts: How the scramble for daily allowances jeopardises the development of the African continent, I describe the findings of my research on per diem, which supports the view that the system has become perverted and is now working against the objectives that underpin its existence.

The issue

Originally, per diem was introduced to solve a real problem: to cover the costs associated with travel, allowing proper implementation of missions, and productive workshops and seminars. Avec le temps, il s’est perverti et est devenu source d’un dilemme embarrassant.Over time, it has deviated from this goal and become the source of a disturbing dilemma.

Take the case of a training workshop: without per diems, many potential participants might not attend the meeting, either because they were only interested in the per diems or because they really cannot come without them. On the other hand, if a generous per diem is provided to the attendees, the workshop might be full, but not with the people who really should be there.

More generally, across the continent, maximizing per diems has taken precedence over quality development. Development activities are often planned and implemented only to the extent that they generate per diems, to the detriment of their effects 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. Many workshops and meetings are nowadays used to make money, reward friends and acquaintances, and strengthen networks to the detriment of stated goals of capacity-building.

Although the per diem practice is justified in many cases, it is moving from being part of the solution to becoming part of the problem. The possibility of earning per diems negatively influences projects and program design, management decisions, and how employees spend their time.

All this has a powerful distorting effect on development efforts and public finances. For example, during the 2008/09 fiscal year, the government of Tanzania budgeted US $390 million for allowances, an amount equivalent to the annual basic salary of 109,000 teachers. Furthermore, 16.2% of total payroll in 2011 in Tanzania was allocated to the payment of per diems. In Malawi, allowances related to travel accounted for 21.9% of salaries.

Civil servants sometimes attend several meetings during the same day by implementing the technique of “leapfrogging” between meetings – signing the attendance lists of several meetings during a single day without actually attending them.

In Nigeria and Cameroon, some senior officials were paid per diems for week-long training workshops they attended for only a few minutes. In Malawi, there are civil servants receiving more than 1,000 days of per diems per year. In Ghana, it was reported that up to 80% of a medical doctor’s revenue is attributable to per diems. A Cameroon poll revealed that the per diem system is one of the main reasons that civil servants keep their jobs in the public sector despite low salaries.

In some cases, different institutions and donors are engaged in competitions to pay the best per diems as a way to attract people to attend their meetings and favor their activities. In Mali, the daily allowance granted by the government varies between FCFA 4,500 and FCFA 7,500, against FCFA 15,000 for projects funded by donors.

Added to the corruption and failure of development projects associated with per diems is the institutionalised and legalised form of lost time. Officials are tempted to travel or go to meetings rather than do any actual work.

At a recent annual meeting of the World Bank in Washington, one African country arrived with a delegation of nearly 200 members. During the last World Cup football tournament in Brazil, African players complained that they were suffocating because of the large number of officials around them. In 2013, 600 people traveled to New York with the Nigerian president for the sole purpose of attending the United Nations General Assembly.

What can be done

Across the continent, per diem systems are in dire need of urgent reform. My research suggests a number of options. For example, we should:

  1. Stop treating per diems as a salary supplement. Offering fewer per diems and better salaries is a better way to correct the distortions in the system.
  2. Revisit capacity-building activities. Too many per diems are for meetings and seminars of questionable usefulness.
  3. Limit the payment of per diems to the reimbursement of actual costs incurred. This will reduce the tendency to view missions as a means to earn money.
  4. Maintain transparency and fairness in per diem payments.
  5. Develop better coordination and learn from good practices.

We need a more efficient per diem system, so per diem can regain its role as an instrument of development rather than a tool of corruption.


Guy Blaise NKAMLEU
Senior Advisor to the Vice-President, African Development Bank