Value for money and presidential trips

"Sorry Kah-El, your field trip to earth has been denied - instead we're going to channel the funds into more schools on Krypton."

“Sorry Kah-El, your field trip to earth has been denied – instead we’re going to channel the funds into building more schools on Krypton.”

Michael Kevane grumbles about the cost of Obama’s upcoming ten-day trip to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa, which is projected to cost a hefty $100 million, pointing out the money could be put to better use:

I always like to do the basic math.  We (FAVL) set up village libraries for about $15,000 and that covers about five years of operations until the office of the mayor can take over.  Let’s say there is no book renewal or much maintenance afterwards… still you get about 10 years of 500 villagers reading a lot.  How many villages?  Well, 100 million divided by $15,000 is 6,666… so village libraries could be established pretty much across the entire Sahel, for this one ten day trip… What do you think about that?  Maybe President Obama can just make a Skype call instead?  Oh wait, those are tapped by NSA.

I sympathise with Kevane’s argument here and find it difficult to swallow that a presidential visit should cost $10 million a day. That said, it’s very difficult to assess the value of diplomatic trips, and using a strict “we could have spent that money on my favourite intervention X”, might not be the most appropriate way to judge every single policy decision. This may be an entirely useless bit of PR (and I would guess it it probably will be), but it could also pay off in unknown ways for both the US and for the countries Obama is visiting. For example, some have suggested that Obama’s visit to Ghana several years ago boosted tourism (although these things are, frankly, pretty hard to pin down). Actually, given that someone has already done research on the effects of papal visits, I’m surprised that no one appears to have done any work on the economic impact of international presidential visits on receiving countries.

It’s also worth pointing out that budget ceilings were probably set a long time ago: this exorbitant trip is likely pulling a money away from other State Dept/intelligence budgets (strongly suggested in this Washington Post article also highlighting the price tag on the trip).  However, if we’re going to be moving into fantasy territory, I can think of more reasonable targets than establishing closer ties to African countries: why don’t we pull out of fucking Afghanistan right now and spend all that money on development aid?

Hat tip to Roving Bandit for the link.

Quant wars

Every submission to the secretary of state has to be accompanied with a value-for-money calculation. This is taken to absurd lengths; nonplussed civil servants had to find a measure of value for Mitchell’s recent visit to the UN summit on the millennium development goals, so they resorted to adding up column inches of media coverage and calculating what that would have cost as advertising. Many crucial issues in government can’t easily be measured in monetary terms.

That’s Madeleine Bunting on the general silliness of DFID’s value-for-money requirements. Hat tip to Duncan Greene.