News that foreign consultants in Malawi are lavishly spending British aid money on hotels and meals has ignited controversy.
The British Broadcasting Corporation reported that over a period of four years, some £586,423 (US $1 million) of a £3 million ($5.3 million) donation by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) to a project aimed at strengthening Malawi's parliament and civil society was spent on hotels, while another £126,062 ($226,395) went on meals.
Malawi is one of the world's poorest nations.
The UK's National Audit Office was reportedly contemplating an inquiry into DFID's use of foreign consultants.
A US consultancy, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), had been contracted to run a training project to improve the parliamentary committee system in Malawi; another US group was hired to distribute £4 million ($7.1 million) to strengthen Malawian society, but the 'Tikambirane' programme was cancelled this year after six months, having spent £300,000 ($538,000).
Patrick Watt, senior policy officer at the advocacy NGO ActionAid, told IRIN "there are some general issues and lessons arising out of this about excessive reliance on foreign consultants - the costs tend to run away".
"A lot of the costs that are exclusively linked to hiring foreign consultants - the travel costs, the huge per diems, fringe benefits etc - are absent when you employ locals. You immediately make a saving where you appoint locally, but you also have the benefit of people who understand the local context in a way foreign consultants don't," he pointed out.
A DFID spokesman told IRIN that "for poverty to be reduced in Malawi, it needs an effective parliament and strong civil society organisations. This is why DFID has provided funding to parliament, civil society and election processes".
"We recognise that there have been some problems with the Tikambirane project. Where there have been problems, we have acted quickly to resolve them. The costs of the National Democratic Institute project were high, and we have continued to try to reduce them," the spokesman said.
Simon Maxwell, director of the UK Overseas Development Institute, told IRIN that "critics of aid, including many African critics, often say that any money spent on external consultants is wasted, and that is clearly not the case: every country and every government, including the UK, uses consultants, and that's because they bring expertise from the outside that make programmes better".
If consultants had travelled to Malawi and organised workshops, "then the people attending the workshops had to be put up somewhere," he reasoned.
But Maxwell cautioned that "you should spend money on consultants very carefully, because it's an expensive form of aid and you should monitor it very carefully".
Rafiq Hajat, of the Blantyre-based Institute for Policy Interaction, told IRIN that it was "ironic that the British taxpayer thinks their tax money is going to one of the poorest countries in the world in the form of aid, while it is inadvertently being used to finance organisations that come from one of the richest countries in the world".
He said the NDI programme had largely ignored local expertise in Malawi. "The work they do here can quite easily be done by local consultants and intellectuals," Hajat added.