Monday, August 2, 2010

Training Workshops and the Culture of Sitting Allowances in Africa

Participants at a Training Workshop In June 2010, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), of the Netherlands, announced a training workshop on Web 2.0 Learning Opportunity to be held in Nairobi, Kenya from 5 to 9 July. During the same month, the Institute for Scientific and Technological Information (INSTI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Ghana also advertised, in two national dailies, three similar workshops to be financed by the CTA. One of the workshops was also to be held from 5 to 9 July in Kumasi, while the remaining two were planned for Accra in August. The workshops were targeted mainly at participants from institutions in the host cities.

Of interest to me were the sections of the advertisements/announcements that indicated that accepted participants would be responsible for all costs related to their subsistence, travel and accommodation, and in the case of the Nairobi workshop, for bringing their own WIFI-enabled laptops. It may look strange that I was interested in this piece of information. Well, I have very good and genuine reasons.

Since 2004, I and colleagues from ITOCA (Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa) have conducted over 45 national and regional training-of-trainers workshops in over 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa on access to online information resources in the agriculture and related sciences, medical and health sciences and from 2007 in the environmental sciences as part of the Research4Life initiative. All together, over 1,500 participants - research scientists, library and documentation officers, and policy-decision markers, have taken part in the workshops. The main challenge we face when organizing such workshops in some countries has to do with requests from workshop participants to be paid sitting allowances (money paid to individuals for participating in a meeting or a workshop). In some cases, the requests come from the institutions hosting the workshops. They include sitting allowances for participants in the budget for the workshop which is submitted to ITOCA.

ITOCA does not pay sitting allowances to participants at its workshops. However, like in the case of the CTA workshops announced for Kenya and Ghana, ITOCA takes care of the costs associated with the workshop venue, tea/coffee breaks, lunches, hire of computer equipment, training materials, and the coordination fee which is paid to the institution hosting the workshop and accommodation for upcountry participants. All that is required of the participants is for them to turn up at the training venue and gain valuable knowledge for free. Participants at these workshops are nominated by their institutions which surely should take care of any associated costs.

Considering that most institutions in Africa, especially university libraries and research institutes, cannot afford to subscribe to international scholarly journals, participating in Research4Life workshops where participants are introduced to more than 5000 journal titles offered to qualifying institutions in developing countries at no cost or at very reduced cost should be a very attractive proposition to researchers, information professionals and policy makers in Africa. The wealth of knowledge at hand is several times worth more than some meager sitting allowances that have made some individuals decide not to participate in the workshops.

Why should participants at training workshops held within their city or institution ask to be paid an allowance to take part in the workshop?

On a continent where salaries of public servants are extremely low and in some cases can be as low as less $100.00 per month, training workshops organized by international organizations and NGOs are sometimes being seen as sources of extra income. This is fuelling the request for all sorts of allowances when people are asked to participate in such workshops, even in cases where the workshops are held in one’s own backyard.

Unfortunately, in Africa, a culture of sitting allowances has found its root in most capacity development activities being conducted by international and national NGOs, and is also being used to induce participation in the activities of the NGOs. As stated by the Malawi Financial Mirror:

Everywhere in Africa the donors, especially the NGOs, have nourished the culture of ‘sitting allowance’ paid to induce Africans to attend the endless ‘workshops’ that have become the staple of NGOs. This is supposed to ensure ‘participation’ by the locals.”

This is a sad development in the sense that it is slowly creating a culture of dependence on workshops for extra incomes. The situation is not helped by most governments in Africa which are also paying sitting allowances for participating in meetings, and in some cases even to individuals hosting the meetings in their offices or departments. This is all done to motivate staff to be “present” at the meetings. For some organizations it looks like the number of people participating in a meeting or workshop is more important than the outputs of such events. After all statistics don’t lie but statisticians do.

One aspect of sitting allowances, which is also worrying, is the question of the amount paid to participants. Different organizations and governments departments pay different amounts. The “size of the envelope” is dependent on who is organizing the workshop. International organizations are known to pay more than local organizations and governments departments. This creates its own problems. You get cases in which participants complain if they are paid less than what the other organization pays. Dr Kalua had a nasty experience when at his workshop in Malawi he had planned to pay participants US$7.00, which was equivalent to what the government was paying as lunch allowance, but less than the allowance of up to US$50.00 which some Health Surveillance Assistants were claiming was paid by some NGOs. His workshop did not go as planned. In his words “the whole workshop turned into chaos with the HSA’s threatening to boycott the training and forfeit the highly needed skills if they did not get all their monies

I still have memories of a case we had in December 2005 in Butare, Rwanda when participants from Burundi refused to receive the amount that was given to them as diner allowance. They based their refusal on the fact that the banners announcing the workshop at the venue indicated that WHO, UNEP, FAO, Cornell University and CTA were supporting the workshop, and therefore, in their view, there was a lot of money available. They even went to the extent of asking the local workshop coordinator to produce copies of the budget and other related documentation so that they could verify the amount involved in the workshop. These are participants who had the costs associated with their accommodation, lunch, tea/coffee and transport to Butare taken care of by ITOCA.

The culture of sitting allowances is slowly leading to a situation where genuine efforts of some national and international organizations to help the local populations are being ignored by government officers or counterparts when these organizations refuse to pay any form of allowances to participants at the meetings or workshops. Further attendance at such meeting or events is not always as expected. This fact was also highlighted by Max Ulupot from the Africa Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS) during his presentation at the AFAAS and Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) side event on 20 July 2010 during the FARA General Assembly held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Max indicated that NGOs come to Africa and pay money to farmers for them to attend the meetings. When theses NGO’s leave and others move in to assist the farmers and they are unable to pay meeting allowances to the farmers, the famers do not attend the meetings.

Sitting allowances in most cases motivates staff to participate in training workshops, seminars and meetings solely to supplement their incomes. Dr. Kalua illustrated this phenomenon very well when he indicated that - Health Surveillance assistants (HSA’s) take the invitations to attend the trainings as a privilege and look forward to the financial incentives that are associated with the training. There are instances in which allowances, whether subsistence allowances or sitting allowances, are paid on the last day of the workshop because if paid on the first day, some participants “would have earned their wages” and would leave before the end of the workshop. To most people, acquiring knowledge or skills at workshops are no longer their main motivation for participating in such events. The carrot is the sitting allowance.

In some case, the amount paid as sitting allowance determines who will be recommended for which workshops. Workshops by international organizations that pay more in allowances are reserved for the big bosses. If two different workshops are held at the same time and a potential participant has to make a choice, the amount of sitting allowance to be paid, does at times play a crucial role in deciding which workshop to attend.

About 25 individuals took part in the Kumasi workshop. Some came from as far as Wa, located about 470km from Kumasi. None of them was paid an allowance to be motivated to participate in the workshop. They must have had other reasons for participating the workshop. I am sure that they all wanted to learn about web 2.0 and social media.

Indeed, why pay sitting allowance when it is possible that participants will attend and benefit from the workshop?

See also: "Hunting for Per Diem..."


  1. Bwana Justin, muli shani mukwai? Very interesting blog post, it is such a big problem but few development workers speak out open about this malpractice. Because the show must go on... The example of the Kumasi workshop is encouraging!
    Kind regards, Job

  2. Justin, thank you for posting this!