Join the club


Chris Blattman asks a question that has long bothered me: 

[On my recent flight to Colombia] I passed the same sight I see on every flight to and fro a developing country: a business class full of World Bank and (senior) UN peeps… I seldom fly business myself, even on Bank and UN consultancies, mostly to conserve my project funds for research assistants and survey expenses. My incentives are just right: money I spend on me comes out of money I’d spend making my research projects just a little better. Not so the rest of the agency?

I also hold back from business for another reason: $6000 for a single ticket? When the purpose of your trip is to contribute (however little) to ending poverty, something about that price tag just doesn’t seem right.

The Bankers and UNers have a good response: I’m only there for a week, and I’m much more productive if I can sleep on the plane.

To which I reply: your productivity for a 0.5% of your time is worth 4% of your annual salary?

In some cases, I might add: what development assistance exactly is achieved in a week?

In an age of diminishing aid and global belt-tightening, now seems an opportune time to change this little practice. Mr. Zoellick? Mr. Ki-Moon [sic]? 

I think Blattman’s question is not an easy one to resolve. I’d recommend looking at the generally very perceptive comments that his blog post produced.

My friend Philippe Sion picks up the argument and equates it to a one-time French communist he knew. It’s not quite the same, for me, as what in Britain is called champagne socialism. There’s no reason why wealthy people shouldn’t be in favor of greater social equality, perhaps through redistribution of wealth. That may be against their “class interest”, but people are often in favor of policies that run against their narrowly defined economic interest. There’s nothing hypocritical to me in a highly paid executive supporting progressive political policies. There are limits, however. I think progressive values should be offended by the multi-hundred multiple of average workers’ salaries that CEOs pull down these days (to say nothing of wildly overpaid financiers).

The issue with development agencies is more nuanced. They are, in one way or another, publicly funded. They are not for profit organizations. As Blattman points out, the money for business class airfares (and, in cases I’ve witnessed, first class airfares) comes at the expense of development programs themselves. I think an economy-only policy, or some kind of restriction, would be a salutary tonic that would help better align the efforts of development agencies with the desperately poor nations they are designed to help.

2 thoughts on “Join the club

  1. Philippe

    Agree with the nuance, Lance. As for champagne socialism, the French call it “gauche caviar” which, in a true European approach, is close but still very different! (at least, food-wise)

  2. Brian Hughes

    The wartime question “is your journey really necessary” seems hardly ever applied today. This is odd given the huge improvements in electronic communication and cameras in the last sixty years.

    I guess planes have got a good deal more comfy also…


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