- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

BLANTYRE, Malawi — Across the impoverished continent, aid agencies are doling out millions of dollars on “allowance” fees and per diems, financial incentives for people in countries hard hit by the AIDS epidemic to attend meetings and seminars to learn how to prevent it.

Although widely practiced, the custom is rarely talked about: Donors would likely be shocked if they knew their dollars were the only thing that can lure to AIDS seminars the very people who should be most interested in promoting development and battling the disease.

In Malawi, one of the world’s 10 poorest countries, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have created a monster.

“If you try to organize an event without [financial incentives], you will not see anyone,” said Enock Phiri, who has worked with World Vision and Population Services International.

“The ones to be trained are the people we’re having problems with,” added Jones Laviwa, director of Churches in Action for Relief and Development.

“The international NGOs all have money. They came here and spoiled the people, and now we have problems. An NGO like this one, we don’t have money to dish out to everyone,” he said.

It is difficult to get a sense of exactly how much money is being spent because almost no one will talk openly about issuing incentives, but the going rate in Malawi seems to be 1,500 kwachas, worth about $10.

More than three-quarters of Malawi’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Lyford Gideon, a financial officer with the Malawi Network of AIDS Services Organizations (MANASO), an umbrella group, said the per diems are not meant to entice or reward participants, they are simply good hospitality.

A recent training session hosted by MANASO saw 20 percent of the budget for the event go to per diems, amounting to nearly $500 for a three-day event involving 25 participants.

Multiply that by the thousands of HIV seminars or AIDS conferences across the continent, and the figure is staggering.

The practice of paying for attendance started innocently enough. Recognizing that they’re working with a population that struggles to simply survive, some NGOs began offering reimbursement for things like transportation, accommodation and food.

Some blame UNICEF, others blame Oxfam, but no one remembers who first offered envelopes of cash in exchange for attendance. The point, they say, is that now everyone does it.

“People say, ‘If you don’t give us pocket money, sorry, we’re not interested,’” Mr. Laviwa said.

The practice is certainly not limited to Malawi — in Uganda, it’s called “motivation” — nor is it confined to those in the development sector. In Ghana, journalists receive a little packet of cash at the end of press conferences, referred to as “soli,” and ostensibly meant to cover travel expenses.

Most infuriating are payments to government officials and civil servants, said Seodi White, national coordinator of the Women and Law of Southern Africa Research Trust.

Although they’re paid by the government to attend meetings that will help develop policy, many turn up their nose at seminars that don’t pay a little extra, she said.

“If you want a government person, you have to pay,” Mr. Laviwa said with a rueful shake of his head.

Mrs. White said government meetings usually close with an envelope containing a “sitting fee,” a payment for simply attending.

The result is that some HIV workers use training sessions as a lucrative source of income, floating from one workshop to another, shopping around for conferences where participants stand the greatest chance of making a bit of cash.

Attempts to end the practice have had mixed results.

For Rose Kumwenda of the Malawi Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS, the issue is a simple one: Participants in her training sessions pay the coalition, not the other way around.

“I’m giving expertise and materials. What are you giving? Why should I pay you?” she asked.

Mr. Phiri said there are dire consequences to paying people to attend meetings that could save their communities.

“You are killing development,” he said. “It was not Malawians who brought this, it was agencies from outside, and now our people are hooked on it.”

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