Boing Boing featured a recent call for assistance from the current administration of Geekcorps. Evidently a couple of volunteers for posts in Ghana were forced to pull out and the current team is anxious to fill these positions. (As I’ve mentioned before, I no longer am connected to Geekcorps or IESC in any way. I heard about the volunteer shortage when I started receiving comments and questions about the Boing Boing post…)
One aspect of Wayan Vota’s quote in the Boing Boing post caught my eye: “We provide international airfare, expatriate housing, and a nice per diem, with the beauty of Accra, Ghana as an added bonus.”
The “nice per diem” was one of the issues that finally caused me to leave Geekcorps and its parent company, the International Executive Service Corps, a little over a year ago. When we founded Geekcorps in late 1999, part of the thinking behind the organization was that we wanted to create an experience more like being a Peace Corps volunteer and less like a consultant. We knew we couldn’t pay actual Peace Corps wages to people living in Accra, but we tried to keep costs down, both for budgetary and conceptual reasons.
During the seven programs in Ghana Geekcorps ran while I was involved with the organization, we provided volunteer lodging in the same building that housed our offices – we paid $1800 a month for a walled compound that included six bedrooms, living space and three offices. Each volunteer received approximately $550 a month, $50 of which was earmarked to pay a housekeeper/cook who lived on the property. In other words, volunteers got about $100 a week, a lot of money in Ghanaian terms, but not enough to save, turn a profit or pay expenses at home. (This presented a real obstacle for some potential volunteers. It’s hard to spend three months working for $100 a week if you’ve still got car or mortgage payments at home…)
After Geekcorps merged with IESC in 2001, we received a great deal of pressure to pay our volunteers more – specifically, to pay USAID per diem. Set by the State Department, “per diem” is what all government employees receive when travelling, domestically or abroad, for each day on the road. It includes one fee for lodging and another for “meals and incidental expenses” – there’s invariably a five star hotel in any town the US government sends people that will provide a room at the “USAID rate” – i.e., one dollar under the lodging per diem.
The current per diem for Accra is $102 for lodging – which will get you a room at the Labadi Beach or La Palm hotel at a USAID rate – and $54 for meals and incidental expenses. That sum, which adds up to $378 a week, is a lot of money in Africa. It might be what a short-term business traveller spends, but it’s a lot more than a “volunteer” needs to live in Accra. The added money in the pocket makes it easier for a volunteer to to hang out at more expensive, expat-oriented establishments… and spend less time hanging out with Ghanaian co-workers, at neighborhood joints, etc.
So why was our parent company upset that we wanted to save some money? To understand, you need to understand the odd way USAID compensates its contractors. Every organization that does a meaningful amount of business with USAID has a NICRA – a negotiated indirect cost recovery agreement. This basically means that the organization has negotiated an overhead rate on the work they do for the USG. Whatever “direct costs” an organization experiences – plane tickets for volunteers, housing costs, field staff – are billed to USAID, along with an added percentage of those costs, which compensate the organization for administration, marketing and other “indirect” expenses. In other words, if we paid $2000 for a plane ticket to Ghana, we were allowed to bill the US government for the plane ticket and an additional $600 for our “overhead” in purchasing that ticket.
(IESC’s overhead rate was greater than 30% when I left the organization – it may well be lower now, as the rate is periodically renegotiated. Said negotiation usually involves telling USAID how much money you spent directly and indirectly in the previous year and calculating the percentage. If your NICRA rate increases, it may make it harder for you to win US government contracts, but you’ll still get paid for the work you’ve done. It’s very hard to lose money on a US government contract… which is why so many US goverment contractors move to doing business solely with the government.)
Why did my boss want us to pay volunteers more? Because the organization got paid more for spending more. And because paying Geekcorps volunteers less than other IESC volunteers raised questions: Were Geekcorps volunteers less valuable than other IESC volunteers? Or were they underpaid? Or were IESC volunteers overpaid? Better to be consistent and pay the Geekcorps volunteers at maximum per diem, even if field staff thought this was counter to the cultural goals of the program.
I’m still pissed off by this, a year after leaving the organization. As a taxpayer, I’m annoyed that US government contractors are incented to waste my money. As a supporter of international development, I’m angry that the modest amounts of money the US earmarks for international development get carved up by organizations skilled at playing the USAID game before reaching people in the field. But mostly I’m sad that the organization and model I helped build – which hoped to do international development a little bit differently – is now doing international development the same way all other USAID contractors are.
Does this mean you shouldn’t consider a Geekcorps assignment if you’re an experienced database programmer free from June through September? Not at all. But it might mean that you should think of it less as a volunteering tour and more as an overseas consulting gig. Geekcorps no longer maintains Geekhalla – our group house in Accra – and volunteers don’t appear to be recruited in “classes”, who travelled and trained together, as we did in Geekcorps’ early days. Worse? Not neccesarily, but definitely different.