“Going on Mission,” Per Diem, and Other Cardinal Sins

Global Integrity
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Last night I Tweeted that describing work-related travel as “going on mission…was lame. Just lame.” This quip engendered some interesting responses out in the Twitterverse, by which I mean that people who are much smarter than me with many more Twitter followers (Todd Moss, Chris Blattman) retweeted it.

Naturally, and because I needed another excuse to procrastinate on more important work, I though I’d elaborate on the comment.

“Going on Mission”

The reason I (and others, apparently) find the use of the term “going on mission” so self-important is that it sounds, well, self-important. Only in the Diplo-Development Universe™ does a trip to a boring industry conference in Toronto turn into a breathless, dramatic “mission.” Really, it’s Toronto. Good sushi, I’ll readily admit, but not a mission of any sort.

What’s a real mission?

Anything else should be described as “a work trip” or “business travel.” Full stop.

Per Diem

Now that I’ve worked myself into a lather over going on missions that aren’t really missions, let me vent about another pet peeve — per diem. Per diem is a system of travel advances where large bureaucracies pay their travelers a fixed sum before they depart for incidental expenses and rarely/never ask for receipts or refunds of unspent funds. The fixed sum for each destination is calculated based on the following process: a large team of economists closely monitors a common basket of goods across geographies, calculates the cost of that basket in local currency, and then apparently multiplies the result by thirteen.

Really, have you ever not had enough per diem to cover expenses in any city? Not me. When I worked in the State Department, I was once given more than US$300 per day for per diem in Rome, excluding hotel costs. Even I can’t eat that much pizza.

Why This Matters

There’s actually a point (I think) to this ranting. Habits like “going on mission” and fat per diems perpetuate a mindset of process trumping outcomes in international diplomacy and development. International travel becomes the whole point of some people’s jobs, especially in large international organizations and governmental agencies. Achieving actual outcomes (reducing poverty, reforming institutions, promoting peace) somehow gets swept aside in the frenzy to upgrade to business class (I’ll save my thoughts on the airline status arms race for another day).

This might seem trivial, but I think there’s some truth to it. So the next time you’re fighting with your boss over whether you’re allowed to fly first-class to a talk-shop event in Sharm el-Sheik, just think: what would Gary Sinise do?

— Nathaniel Heller

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

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