Incentives and Development Conferences

A few days ago, I started studying for the GRE.  Needless to say, my dormant procrastination skills have awoken with rancour.  Today these skills are being put to blog use. 

Policy makers and development programme designers seem to love incentives.  Want women to deliver babies at accredited health centres?  Give them a cash reward for doing so. Need health counsellors to enrol more people for tuberculosis traetment? Try cash incentives.  Malawians don’t return to clinics for their HIV test results?  Give them some $.

Everyone loves a good incentive (source:

Humans do respond to incentives. So why not use them on ourselves?  More specifically, I’m thinking about international development conferences.

A few months ago, I went to a development related conference in Colombo.  It was hosted at a beautiful hotel on the coast and attended by people from all over the world.  A bilateral aid agency paid for my tickets and conference fees, and gave me a very large corpus of cash for other expenses (accommodation, local travel, dinner, alcohol, shopping, laundry, etc).  Without being in any way thrifty, I saved a few hundred dollars.  I did not need to submit any receipts and was allowed to keep the excess money.  I wonder if having an incentive to spend less could reduce the overall costs of such events.  Perhaps reimbursment based on actual expenses and a cash bonus to the person who spends the least?  The amount of the bonus would need to be precisely calculated, and there would have to be a mechanism to ensure that people don’t just say “I spent $0”.  So the bonus would have to be less than the actual expected expense, else everyone would just say “I spent 0”.  There would also need to be a cap on expenditure.  The admin costs of this system may negate the benefits, but I would be interested in seeing some experimental data – randomly assign some conferences to be fully lump summed, some to be have half participants on lump sum and half on incentive scheme, and some to have only the incentive scheme.  This could also give us some interesting insight into how much development professionals value these conferences…

The second similar area where incentives could be used is choosing locations for conferences.  I am not sure how this is presently done, but surely there should be an open bidding process for the larger events.  Recently, the 10th International Conference on Aids in Asia and the Pacific was held in Busan, South Korea.  It is unlikely that Busan, as wonderful as it may be, was the most efficient venue for this event.  Korea is one of the more expensive countries in Asia, and getting to Busan is not nearly as convenient as hubs like Singapore, Bangkok, or Hong Kong.  In addition, Korean is not widely spoken in the region, and I don’t know how many Busanese speak English.  To be sure, there are advantages of hosting in a wealthier city – it’s likely that Busan has more stable water and electricity, as well as access to other facilities, than Ulan Bator or Port Moresy.  But either way, an open bidding process, where potential organizers in different cities can bid for larger conferences, could incentivize more tightly managed international development events.  Big agencies should also publish data on how much these events cost.

Coming soon:  a series on auto economics.  That’s not doing economics on oneself.  It’s the economics of auto rikshaws in Delhi.  Should be fun.