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Geekcorps, and the economics of USAID

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.

5 thoughts on “Geekcorps, and the economics of USAID”

  1. Sad, really

    As one of your ‘original’ volunteers, i can only say, that geekhalla, and the experience of staying together with a group of other volunteers, eating at local eateries, and feeling like a volunteer, was critical for me. And even so, with the money we were paid, we frequently ate at restaurants, that most Ghanaians would never get near.

    I am sorry and addened every time I hear about the demise of the Geekcorps idea, because it was such a great personal experience for me, and because it was just right. And a lot of the work we are trying to do now in the developing world, is greatly inspired by the way Geekcorps ‘did its thing’.


  2. I just finished my official term for Geekcorps Mali. Since 4 months I’ve been living in this house, with fellow geeks, a house which also contains the office. It’s definitely considered expat housing, or “rich Malian” housing, but nearly any 2 story house in Bamako is expat or rich Malian housing. From what I gathered this compound costs about the same as the price you mention.

    The first month I did not receive the US State Department per diem rate. I received slightly more than the 550$ you mentioned. From the second month on that was raised 50%… At first I thought that was ridiculous, since with the 600 US$ I was able to get by easily, to pay some goodies, and to pay food and drinks for myself and for Malian friends.

    However, the extra money I was able to save allows me to stay a while longer, to see some more of the country (since unfortunately there wasn’t very much travelling for me…) and to spend more time on projects I personally endorse, such as the Bambara Wikipedia.

    After 3 months I was definitely “done” with the Malian style of always expecting the white guy to pay, and to even give money. And then, when that time comes you want to hang out with other toubabs, it’s handy if you are able to afford that “fancy” restaurant now and then.

    Also, Mali, being a landlocked country, is much more expensive than Ghana was up to a couple of months ago. Add inflation and the dollar that has been devaluated (especially against the Euro bound CFA) and the money I get here probably buys one less than the 550$ did in Ghana.

    It’s a sure thing that when you get money from biggies like USAID you will have to play their game. “In Cambodia, over half of the international aide goes to 740 ‘international consultants’ working in the country. In 2002 those 740 people were paid just as much as all the 160.000 people working in the Cambodian public sector.”
    http://www.liberation.fr/page.php?Article=299724 (in French)

    But, I think, at least in Mali, Geekcorps is still closer to its original idea than what I read in the article of Libération. Working with lo-tech, lo-cost solutions and employing (and thus training) local people, of whom one recently started his own company!

    Maybe Geekcorps should also try to look for funding at other places?

  3. As yet another former Geek (non-Geeks do read your blog…right?), I must weigh in on this issue, however stale it may be. It seems to me that you are muddling a few issues here.

    First of all, with regard to the cost-recovery system of USAID contracts, you’re right. It sucks, and produces precisely the perverse incentives you described. I am as sickened by it as the next person, if not more so; it has led me to shun USAID contracts in favor of the private sector.

    However, I was one of the Geeks who lobbied hard to increase the stipend. I want to make it clear to all that, even if Geekcorps charges USAID the per diem rates, Geeks do not receive the per diem rate. Geekcorps overhead now represents closer to 50% of revenues.

    Not all of us cashed out at the height of the dot-com bubble, which seems to have been the old paradigm of Geekcorps. In addition, the kinds of skills in demand in the field are the kind that one must go to school to acquire—skills in capacity building, entrepreneurial savvy, etc., and in this country, that means student loans. And yes, we also have mortgages, car loans, etc. It was for me a tremendous financial hardship to work for a pittance by US standards—which is not to say that it wasn’t tremendously worthwhile or rewarding. I think Guaka (with whom I served in Mali—hi Guaka!) had the right idea in suggesting that Geekcorps needed to diversify its funding base.

    It has been an uneasy marriage of IESC and Geekcorps; they are still trying to figure out how to put the pieces together. IESC represents the Old Guard of the development field and, as you know, Geekcorps represented something different. You can take pride in the fact that, in the field at least, Geekcorps is still different. It is among the best in terms of cost-benefit (again, in the field, at least), and recognized as such by others in the “development community” (a horrible term if ever there was one).

  4. I happened to being searching for some pictures of Ghana when I came across this posting. I find a lot of this very interesting. I was in the first Geekcorps group and this is the first I have heard of most of this –in terms of your goals and objectives with the Geekcorps program. I only found out later that there was much dismay that I did not live in Geekhalla –even though I had come to Ghana more for my wife than my own purposes.

    In the organization I work for currently, we spend a lot of time thinking about recruitment, selection and communication to potential participants in the program. Something to think about for both the existing Geekcorps as well as any future endeavors you might pursue.

  5. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » I want my CanTV!

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