The main task of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) officials is monitoring and evaluating projects, but on the excuse of a manpower crisis, they outsource their own jobs they are responsible for. What is more, they receive hefty amounts against their "expert" opinions in virtual workshops on projects evaluated by third parties.
Even though the government is advising on belt-tightening in the current period of economic crisis, when it comes to the IMED spending, such a notion of austerity appears to have fallen on deaf ears as its secretary receives more than Tk50,000 in honorarium per day on his or her "expert" opinion.
Yet, they think the remuneration is still lower than what they deserve for their "valuable" remarks offered even within working hours.
An examination of an IMED budget for outsourced projects shows that from a secretary to their personal officers, at least 118 officials give expert opinions on 73 outsourced projects in 73 online workshops in 12 days – six meetings a day and each with one hour duration.
But the reality is – most of them reportedly skip the meetings but still get the honoraria. At least 20 officers take part in every meeting though they are in no way related to project evaluation.
Contacted, IMED Secretary Abu Hena Morshed Zaman told The Business Standard, "Such workshops of outsourced projects require intellectual labour. So what they get as an honorarium is logical. In fact, they are getting lower than what they deserve."
Referring to meetings of the World Bank and other development partners, he noted, "Participants there get amounts several times higher than ours."
However, a former IMED secretary, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TBS this is a way of lining pockets. "Outsourcing project evaluation is a kind of business. I took initiatives to stop this but failed because of internal resistance."
State Minister for Planning Shamsul Alam expressed his surprise after coming to know of such high spending on online meetings but refused to make any comments.
On 22 May, the IMED started online workshops to give expert opinions on 73 projects evaluated by third parties. Some 30 such meetings have so far been held in five days. The remaining meetings will begin once the IMED secretary returns after completing his training in England and the United States on 12 June.
The total budget for outsourcing project evaluation amounts to Tk23.2 crore and one-fourth or Tk5 crore of it is spent on paying honorarium to IMED officials.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly directed different government agencies to cut down on unnecessary spending at this time of economic uncertainty globally, but the IMED appears to be paying no heed to it.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director at Transparency International Bangladesh, told TBS that taking remuneration for doing their own job is not a new thing. Such practice of collecting honorarium and other allowances exists in other ministries, divisions and agencies as well.
They always look for opportunities to get hefty honorarium in the form of meetings and training, he also said.
It is part of their duty to participate in workshops and meetings but they receive huge amounts just for their own tasks, which should be stopped, especially in the present situation when Bangladesh's economy is at risk because of the global uncertainty.
"I urge the highest echelons of the government to look into the matter and take necessary measures," he added.
Who gets what
The IMED outsourcing budget document from 19 May shows that IMED officials get Tk5.5 lakh in honoraria per online workshop. The money is allocated in the following way, IMED documents show: The IMED secretary usually gets Tk8,000 per workshop, additional secretary Tk6,000-Tk7,000, director general Tk6,000, director Tk5,000, deputy director Tk4,000 and class-2 officer Tk3,400.
Each participant also receives Tk500 in food allowance and Tk1,800 in bag, pen and folder per meeting. Of the 73 workshops, six are held a day.
There is a steering committee to look into progress on outsourced projects. For this, the committee holds 146 meetings. The secretary as the president of the committee gets Tk2,000 per meeting, Tk2,92,000 in total.
The secretary gets over Tk9 lakh in honorarium from all of his opinions on evaluation of 73 outsourced projects – Tk12,000 from six project selection meetings, Tk2,92,000 from 146 steering committee meetings and Tk6,20,500 from 73 online workshops.
In a similar fashion, an additional secretary gets over Tk8 lakh, director general over Tk7 lakh, class-1 officers get more than Tk6.5 lakh and class-2 as high as Tk2,80,000.
In May this year, the IMED hiked his honorarium by Tk1,000 by amending the outsourcing budget.
Are such workshops necessary?
IMED officials are tasked with providing guiding opinions on projects, but they are taking hefty honoraria for their job during their regular office hours.
They arrange online meetings between 10 am and 5 pm and they do not have to work extra hours for that. Moreover,there are allegations that most IMED officials do not take part in such online meetings.
Seeking anonymity, an IMED official said such workshops do not add value to project evaluation as most officials just join the online workshops using a software and get busy with other work.
"I do not think there is any necessity of such workshops where there is no presence of technical experts. Most of those who participate in the meetings do not have the necessary expertise to provide any opinions," he pointed out.
In the pandemic year of 2020, the IMED officials collected a huge amount of money from the government in the form of allowances for participating in those online meetings organised to do impact assessment and intensive monitoring of 72 projects.
Later, TBS ran a report titled "Zoom meetings with zooming expenses" that drew flak from different quarters.
In the face of much criticism, in 2021, the IMED cut the number of projects outsourced to 32 from 72. But the number again increased to 73 in the current fiscal year.
Many participate in workshops with no link with project evaluation
Personal officers of additional and joint secretaries and personal secretaries of ministers and state ministers also get honoraria although they are not entitled to join such workshops that require expertise on various technical matters related to project implementation.
Their honorarium amounts to around Tk2,80,000 per person.
Asked about the logic behind their participation in online meetings, IMED Secretary Abu Hena Morshed Zaman said, "As a secretary, it is not my responsibility to monitor everything. Nevertheless, I will look into the matter."
Does outsourcing benefit project evaluation?
The IMED started its journey as an independent division in 1977. Its officials' main task is to monitor and assess projects. In 2010, it started outsourcing its own job to third parties.
But there are doubts over the capabilities of the third parties they employ for project evaluation.
Seeking to be anonymous, an IMED official said the firms appointed by the IMED are not capable enough to do impact assessment and intensive monitoring of projects. That is why many IMED officials themselves help the firms prepare evaluation reports in exchange for a hefty amount.
So the outsourcing of project evaluation brings no benefit, rather it is a waste of public money.
A former secretary suggests that the IMED come out of such a way of project evaluation gradually by increasing its own manpower.