October 30, 2012

International Development Consultants: Divide The Good from the Bad

Map of Afghan Sheep Distribution 1998 using AIMS data, available at UC Davis.
Ultimately a good international development consultant should give more than he/she takes away.   But does this always happen?  No.  I would say it is even uncommon.  International Development Consultants are frequently detested by company staff and equally unliked by communities.

In fact, just the other day, I heard a great Afghan joke on this topic:

A western man walks up to an old shepherd in rural Afghanistan and says "If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have, will you give me one?"

The old man said yes, and the westerner walked back to his car, pulled out a laptop, turned on Google Earth and some fancy GIS software then after a few minutes said "You have exactly 872 sheep."  The old man agreed this to be the correct number, so the westerner walked into the pasture, picked one up and loaded it into the back of his car.

The old man then said "Now, if I tell you the name of your profession, can I have that back?"  The foreigner agreed and the old man said "you are an International Development Consultant."

Surprised, the foreigner said "Yes! I am.  How did you know?"

The old man replied, "Well...You showed up when no one asked for you to be here.  Then you told me something I already know.  And lastly, that creature in the back of your car is my dog."

While hilarious, there is unfortunately a lot of truth to this.

International development consultants  were held as the great answer by institutions such as the World Bank in the 1980s and after a couple decades of actions, are today often regarded with absolute disdain by those who work the daily-grind.  Yet big organizations constantly hire them.

I can tell you from my own work experience, nothing is worse than the expert who parachutes in, gives a bunch of irrelevant advice, then disappears leaving behind a busted budget (for the cost of services), empty wallets (from the bar tab), and a frustrated community who is still wanting something to change. Sometimes the company is lucky and the consultant is insightful and genuine, but to be honest, I've met more bad ones than good.  Too often its a combination of irrelevant information, a poor understanding of local issues, and an oversized ego.  Ugh.

Yet consultants can be great because they can supply detailed technical knowledge, an outside perspective to help improve the robustness of current projects, and they can supply a demand for innovative solutions that is not being met by the local market.  If a consultant is simply providing the same quality of insight, than can be locally obtained, then they are not worth the high price.  But if they provide something more, its worth considering.

But the work of an international development consultant can be priceless.  

A good international development consultant will do the following:

a) spend time with the local community to get in touch with local values and knowledge

b understands the legal and political framework which dictates the viability of solutions

c) listen to locals experts on the problem (not explain the problem to them)

d) introduce concepts that are uncomfortable  because the combination of accuracy and honesty 

e) infuse new energies, resources, and opportunities into a given scenario

A good consultant, no matter the price, will provide concrete changes to a situation so that any observer will note that the situation is remarkably different and in a positive manner.  

A good consultant will not arrive with "the answers" but will arrive with enough knowledge so as to ask the best questions.  

As an International Development consultant with Sutika Sipus LLC, I also provide a service that is different from among all other practitioners in the field.  I believe that to be a excellent international development consultant, it is my job to become unnecessary to the client and the community.  If I am tasked with a problem and 5 years later am still working in the same place on the same problem, then I must be doing it wrong.  

It is my job to create the conditions so that my work is no longer needed.  I don't charge as much money as my competitors, but I also know that I am not the lowest bidder.   I am however able to consistently provide viable solutions for radical change in a given project on behalf of multiple stakeholder interests.  That takes a lot of work and sacrifice.  It also isn't something you can just find anywhere.

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