Monday 11 May 2009

Expenses -- Who's the worst?

OK so we now know about our elected representatives. What about other professions?

Bankers, of course, are suitably secretive. It would be interesting to find out the things that Fred Goodwin didn't believe he should have to pay for out of his salary. The city crowd are but one example of those who feel they have scaled the heights - can we count MPs amongst these? - to Master of the Universe status. They believe, once there, they shouldn't have to pay the normal costs of life like the rest of us -- all those boring things like non-work travel, food, drink, parties, restaurants, laundry and clothing. Salaries are for banking, expenses for living. It is a strange irony that the more you get paid the less you have to pay for.

Journalists had a terrible reputation but I think the days of cleft sticks and collapsible canoes are over. Much like MPs they used to see it as an entirely honourable supplement to their "meagre" salaries. I had a mate who started on a Murdoch national in the 1980s and in his first month was taken aside by one of the editors and told his expense claims were far too low. His colleagues didn't want management thinking you could do the job on so little. I heard stories at the BBC about the glory days in the 60s and 70s and there were suspicions about some of the star foreign correspondents but I never saw it myself. The BBC chose instead to waste licence payers' money on management consultants and daft celebrity salaries.

There is one professional group, though, with an obsession for maximising expenses and fringe benefits that has shocked me. Not just shock with the egregious way they go about it but -- perhaps like MPs -- a further dose of horror because one had imagined said profession to be driven by vocation rather than pocket-lining. You may be surprised. I was. I talk of aid workers or development workers or whatever the current buzz name is. They are the sort of people you bump into in Africa, ususally in brand new 4x4s.

Now I realise Oxfam, UNICEF, DFID et al probably employ lots of wonderfully committed people putting up with great personal hardships to make the world a better place. I just don't seem to meet them. I meet a parasitic cadre -- usually self-styled consultants, economists or other "experts" -- living in some luxury (servants, long holidays, tax free salaries, colonial style accommodation ...) who write reports in air con offices*. Their "hardship" postings are in capital cities or at least large provincial towns, they socialise with other expats and most of the contact with the people they are "helping" comes from issuing orders to their African servants. With this bunch there is one subject you can always guarantee to launch an animated discourse... discussion of their allowances, expenses and perks. They will talk for hours about per diems, one-offs, hardship grants, education subsidies, air miles and club class travel. They will spend more time concocting elaborate expense maximisation wheezes than ever actually work. And boy do they go on about it. Ask about poverty and they will tell you off for talking shop.

Now when my coins clink into the collecting tin I also hear the business class champagne softly fizzing and the muffled click of laptop keys as another weary consultant labours over another expenses claim.

*Graham Hancock labelled them "Lords of Poverty" in his book of the same name. It is quite an old work now but if anything what it describes has got worse rather than better.

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