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How To Stop Paying Per Diems for ICT4D Project Participation?

By Wayan Vota on January 25, 2016


In the research article Paying Per Diems for ICT4D Project Participation: A Sustainability Challenge by Terje Aksel Sanner and Johan Ivar Sæbø of Univeristy of Oslo, Norway, the authors note what we all have experienced.

By paying for attention, ICT4D projects obtain immediate responses from an understaffed government system, which sooner or later will have to retract its attention to cater to other equally important tasks. Yet for ICT4D practitioners, the number of workshops and participants are measurable indicators by which projects are evaluated, and are crucial to obtain, keep, and grow international donor funding.
The researchers note that the use of per diems to attract project participation is certainly not the only obstacle to ICT4D sustainability. Other obstacles include:

  • Underdeveloped technology and support infrastructure.
  • Technical bias of projects to focus on the technology vs. the users.
  • Lack of alignment of interests between projects and users.
  • Pilot project orientation, or “pilotitis”.

However, the researchers contend that per diem is a contributing factor that has not received its fair share of attention, and per diem is a complicating factor that may induce recipients to abstain from critiquing unsustainable interventions.

But how to combat this issue when civil servants expect that their low salary positions will be enhanced by workshops with monetary incentives such as per diems, which are perceived as legitimate income? If ICT4D practitioners don’t pay per diems, and others do, their projects may seem to have less user engagement and adoption, which would directly threaten project sustainability in the short-term, much less the long term.

Two Possible Ways to Stop Paying Per Diems

The researchers argue that on-the-job training is a viable option, especially for refresher training. It allows for ICT4D practitioners to:

  • Perform a reality check on the intervention.
  • Identify the right people for training.
  • Become sensitive to participants’ actual work practices.
  • Learn how technology innovations may coexist with equipment and routines already in place.

Of course, on-site training can be more costly in time, effort, and funding and sometimes it is unrealistic due to the sheer number of potential users. However, the main barrier to adoption could be the perception that it’s unfair because it cheats participants out of “legitimate” allowances.

They say that another way to strengthen the capacity of local institutions is for donors to establish a shared pool of financial resources and technical assistance that stretches beyond the lifespan of individual projects in close collaboration with ministerial functionaries. This resource pool would be utilized by ICT4D projects to cultivate public sector structures that can implement policies and harmonize ICT4D projects over time.

What is Your Opinion?

We can all agree that paying per diems creates false incentives for ICT4D project participation, and the practice should stop. But how to do it? Should we focus on on-the-job training and shared local resource pools? Or is that a fool’s errand and we should do something else? If so, what?

What has worked for you? What hasn’t? Please tell us in the comments.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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23 Comments to “How To Stop Paying Per Diems for ICT4D Project Participation?”

  1. Ladislas says:

    Thus a brilliant view I suppose and on whether it is workable, I feel once piloted the outcome will be a low turnout and motivation. On the job training is one aspect that is very good but this could come with time cost factor and in a way would still attract some cost. For instance, in the case of undertaking surveys, it’s almost inadvertently proper to undertake some sort of training in which case on the job training may not be applicable unless when doing field supervision where quality has been seen to be threatened. However, thus a brilliant view that requires some introspection.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Good point on the need for a pre-event training for surveys. On-the-job training doesn’t work in every case.

      What are other exceptions to on-the-job training? Or other training options besides group training that requires per diems?

  2. Markus Pscheidt says:

    Per diems are a big problem to development initiatives, not only in ICT4D. It has become a sport for many to participate in as many funded projects as a matter of resources consumption. But it’s hard to blaim any of the local actors, because it’s the funders who have taken the easy way, thinking along the lines of “better pay some incentve rather than failing my project right at the start”. A culture of passive receiving has been created, instead of pro-active productive engagement, for which the per-diems are a symptom.

    The basis for ICT4D initiatives should be the actual need by local institutions or persons. If the need is of sufficient importance, local institutions will pay the per diems fir their employees where approprate – which is during travels, not when attending a workshop in the same town or even same building. Consider the possibility that the ICT4D project is indeed not sufficiently important if no noticable contribution is being given by local participant.s

    And for sure, success doesn’t come quickly. Pilots should be communicated as that, not as finding anything permanent, but simply trying out something that might be the basis to build into something that lasts – but only if the necessary resources will be available after the pilot. So, ICT4D projects that are not prepared to run at least a few years, will hardly have an effect that is recognizable after the intervention has finished. Which donor is prepared for such perseverance?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I agree that in a better world, local institutions would pay for per diems or other necessary allowances, but often local institutions are unable to even pay decent salaries or required benefits. Or even just salaries on a regular basis.

      How do we engage low-capacity local institutions, or do we just skip them in favor of higher-capacity institutions that can co-fund a project intervention?

      • Markus Pscheidt says:

        Low-capacity institutions are sometimes problematic and have to be skipped, because for example the contitnuity of any intervention is questionable. Paying per diems doesn’t make the insitution more stable. It might even have the contrary effect.

        In other cases it may be possible to be on-site as much as possible, doing trainings and other forms of interaction direclty in the “target” community so that the per diems issue doesn’t interfere as much with the actual project.

        I think up to a certain point it’s a myth that funded projects need to provide every single penny with the argument that local partners are “so poor”. If there is a real need and interest, then ways will often be found. We don’t need to put so much funds and energy in pursuading local partners to participate in projects that they do not really believe in.

        • Wayan Vota says:

          I wish we were more honest with ourselves, donors, and local institutions on their capacity. Way too many are low/no capacity and yet we promise to make an impact.

          I think a good way to differentiate would be to expect them to pay for their own staff to travel to trainings that are for the benefit of the organization. If the organization will not pay their own staff travel, then their capacity or buy-in should be highly suspect.

          • hawi rapudo says:

            Growth in organizations is associated with capacity, education and resources that organizations have in the process that also apply for ICT projects. High level organizations have undergone transform over time to become sustainable even become very bureaucratic to local poor communities in time of achieving their results and impact that become another source of discrimination and alienation. In Africa, Low organization at the early stage in project cycle are without adequate technical capacity, leadership structure and framework to support financial stability. Institutional training and meetings become a way of dependability. the best way is to initiate

  3. hawi rapudo says:

    The challenge of per diems is associated with the concept of development was introduced in Africa. Induced participation and interventions initiated by the projects have limited impact on local communities. As result removal of the per diem it would be important to introduce new approach that engages the beneficiaries more effectively. Majority of funds are concentrated on administration, logistical and institutional capacity that also need to be reviewed. The universal approach has default in the social science

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Do you have any ideas for new approaches that engage constituents better? They don’t need to be perfect, as pretty much anything could be an improvement over the status quo.

      • .hawi rapudo says:

        Engaging communities in social projects that build the capacity and capabilities to transform needs and concerns into economic gain. Does ICT connect well with small wares traders who hawk their goods from door to door. they travel long distance to attend meetings; how would such meetings contribute to their loss of time and resources. What investment who promote sense of ownership to avoid dependability

  4. Jessica says:

    Why the false barrier of ICT projects? Per dimes for participation is a problem with or without technology.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      True, per deims wreck many projects, regardless of technology. I am taking the ICT4D angle because this is ICTworks and the research paper focuses on the role of per deims in ICT4D project failure.

  5. Derek Caelin says:

    We’ve tried to reduce (although we haven’t yet eliminated) the number of per diems we pay when doing workshops in conflict zones by only inviting participants from in-town. At first, we had tried to invite participants from all over the country/region, and we ended up paying not just per diem, but travel expenses. It saves so much money just to focus on local participants. Now the only per diems we end up paying are for workshop staff, and technologists who aren’t from in town. Slowly but surely, driving the event cost down…

  6. Ladislas says:

    I agree for a local survey it would be great to only focus on those who are local. I would give an example of how I argued by view of considering only people around the city for recruitment in a national wide survey for instance. The other part said we could not find people eligible to be data collectors in those other parts of the country but I did emphasis issues of understanding the local context in terms of hiring the people from local regions due to issues of culture, language especially for countries in Africa with more than 50 dialects

  7. There is a larger question of the overall business model for the intervention. What is the motivation for the participants to participate? Is it cash? Or some other benefit?

    I am speaking primarily of per diems, snacks or other benefits paid to communities, but it also can apply to government staff (more specifics at the bottom).

    While the original point of per diem was to address reality of cash poor communities and paying people for their time (which I strongly agree with, btw), expectations have taken hold where per diems are set up as a short cut to participation. We actually don’t have to think about how our intervention is – or at least is perceived to be – of value to our audience because we literally pay for them to turn up.

    Ironically, one can assume that individuals within a community who value their time more highly than the per diem rate are not going to attend our event – but these individuals may be the very ones best situated to benefit from our interventions.

    In terms of local government, you have the added complexity of these Per diems being seen as an actual monetary benefit to their jobs (and even budgeted for!) Plus massive cashflow challenges within governments. Often these officials have minimal money to do their jobs beyond their own labor. Their dysfunction won’t be helped nor will it be hindered by per diems – the problem is much greater.

    Personally, if we are going to pay for participation, can we pay for outcomes rather than attendance?

    And if we are stuck with per diems for the moment, can we make sure to not use them as a short cut to user based design?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I like the idea of paying for outcomes vs. attendance, but how could we do that as a practical matter? Could that be seen as bribery? And wouldn’t that contradict many gov’s rules that gov staff cannot be paid bonuses by outside organizations (just because of that bribery perception)?

  8. Sabina says:

    In my limited experience, it’s not always possible to take the event (training, workshop, etc.) to the last local participant, but you can take it as local as possible. e.g., hold the event in a secondary city rather than the capital.

    This lowers the cost of per diems and travel expenses, but it doesn’t address the problem of people wanting to participate just because of the cash return. This is relevant not just for ICT4D projects.

    Although govt contracts require that we pay per diems, could we somehow blanket that cost in the form of incentives for the local project/department/unit in order to take away the individual incentive for cold hard cash? Then again, if other projects are going to continue paying per diems and your project isn’t, well…you do the math.

    Hmm…maybe there’s no solution to this problem after all.

  9. I work in technology enhanced learning projects in TVET institutions in 4 Commonwealth regions – the Caribbean, Africa, SE Asia and the Pacific. In the Caribbean and Africa we almost never pay per diems because we work in partnership with Ministries and institutions. An agreement on cost-sharing means institutions cover the costs of per diems when people have to travel. If institutions or Ministries do not have the funds then on rare occasions, we will pay.
    On the whole, people come to our events because they want to get the training – not to earn a per diem. We have a philosophy that says no-one should be out of pocket from participating in our events – but neither should they make a profit. We cover costs.

  10. Johan Ivar Sæbø says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, and for all the insightful comments. In our research we found many references to disruptive practices in other fields, but our empirical material was only from ICT4D. I think we have learned a lot over the years, and are more aware of how we incentivize trainings and workshops now. But we still see that there is a kind of “competition” between (often similar) projects for the attention of local partners. Per diems is one part of this, but we have also seen that partners in countries engage in several overlapping projects because they bring in other resources as well, such as hardware, possibility for conferences, or just promising alliances. So they spend one week on one project, just to work the next week with another project that aims to replace the first one. It of course takes two to tango, so the mix of competing, uncoordinated external partners and weak local institutions can create this kind of very unsustainable project-mania.

    In the ebola crisis we saw all this playing our very fast. A lot of influx of external funding and projects that could potentially disrupt a lot of ongoing long-term engagements (which, if funded and done properly could have severely limited the outbreak in the first place). Luckily, a lot of attention was also placed on coordination among the projects. The legacy of this massive influx is yet to be evaluated though.

  11. Jimin says:

    For me, This is emphasizing onsite mentoring, hands on training and or on the job training broadly. The reason per diem may always feature is also for the fact that there are other factors that influence participation in training. My take is the two be balanced.

  12. Clarke Foster says:

    Let’s use an analogy here: local partners are plants, and external organizations offering incentives for participating in projects are gardeners who are letting light into the greenhouse from a very specific angle, looking to make the plants grow in a particular direction.

    If multiple gardeners are shining light on that same plant in three year increments, the plant will continuously shift from one direction to the next as the light shifts. The gardeners become upset that the plant no longer grows in their preferred direction once they leave; the plant, though, is still receiving light and growing, albeit it is developing all sorts of weird bends and outgrowths that would otherwise be inefficient, if not for all the additional light.

    Had it been left alone, the plant would have grown much slower, but also in an undistorted way that was appropriate for the environment.

    I could carry on, but you get my point – us ICT4D gardeners are interested in the plant growing *our way*. Our investment in the success of the plant is a tertiary concern when it’s not growing with our light.

    If one was truly invested in the health of the plant, there are two solutions here: shine your light on the plant forever, or leave it alone.

  13. Godfrey Senkaba says:

    Yes, the issue of paying per diems is quite challenging. I can only recall one project I worked with that succeeded in doing away with per diems esp. to local government technical staff. The project focused on strengthening community health monitoring, using the health volunteers to do disease surveillance, …generally health monitoring of households (data collected using mobile phones). At conceptualization and design stage, we worked with the district health department. The budget was cost shared in a way that part of the local contribution/government contribution was their staff time; effectively eliminating per diems. So joint design, implementation and monitoring builds ownership, and the would be per diems can be rechanneled to another project activity. Government officials will see the project as their own, rather than for the NGO, etc.