The Moral Hazard of Budgets

Budgets are boring, right? Excel spreadsheets, numbers, formulas. Overheads, supplies, travel. But thinking of budgets as nothing but numbers and line items skates over the real-world implications they have. If we assume that the work we do matters (which I believe it does) then how we allocate our money matters to health outcomes, and that has impact on people’s lives. The downstream impacts can be pretty abstract, though. Putting more money into this activity or that, or saving some money on vehicles and generators so you can spend more on clinical supplies still feels a bit like playing with Monopoly money.

It all gets real when you start looking at budgeting salaries. Those line items are people with faces and names and families. Our staff, our employees, our colleagues. I was recently working on a budget that needed to be cut deeply. There was the usual balance of headquarters costs, activities, local staff, and partners. There was no fat in this budget, nothing extra. And the work is important – working with tremendously vulnerable kids impacted by HIV. If we do this work well, people will live who might otherwise have died. So it matters. But still, we were over budget and we needed to cut, and the last remaining place was salaries. There are two salary sections in most of my budgets, one for headquarters staff and one for local country staff. And as I scrolled through the budget, looking at names and roles and percentages and salary amounts, I had to decide: who to cut?

Do you reduce the percent of headquarters time, colleagues who share my hallway and my daily life, but who are one step removed from the work? But the work will slow down (and stop) without them moving paper, moving money, moving approvals.

Do you reduce or remove really expensive people from the budget? But these are the leaders and the visionaries and the technical thinkers who make sure the project has the impact we know it should.

Do you reduce the local staff, the foot soldiers in the districts and communities? But these are the people actually interacting with the kids and families we serve, and they are often almost as poor and vulnerable as the program beneficiaries. A layoff is devastating beyond anything I can imagine.

Do I reduce myself, spending less time doing what I do? Is it arrogant to think I can be useful and should stay, or am I shirking responsibility if I take myself off and go do something else?

A budget is a moral document. It shows where our priorities are, where our investments are, where our hearts are. Changing a budget line item is a practical daily activity, and not every keystroke needs to be weighed on the scales of justice. But if we treat budgets as nothing more than spreadsheets we are blind to the fact that they do have deep moral implications. Do I value the life and livelihood of a community worker in rural Malawi more or less than I do the life and livelihood of an office worker on my hallway? Should that even come into consideration, or should my decisions be driven only and entirely by “program effectiveness,” as if that could be precisely measured down to the individual staff member? These are real questions. Wrestle with them.

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