Rome wasn’t built in three years

This is a follow-up post to my previous one over the lack of adequate diagnosis by Engineers Without Borders in determining the cause of failures they have admitted. Here I turn my attention away from the admitting failure process to address the substance of EWB’s failure. It is also specifically a response to Erin Antcliffe’s question on Twitter and an expansion on my 140 character response:




However, this isn’t really about EWB’s volunteer-based business model. The mediocre achievements of the development industry over the past 50 years suggest that all the development experts in the world don’t amount to very much, at least not if they’re working in the wrong framework. As such I applaud EWB’s intentions and efforts to “search for new models for development impact” (Erin in comments on David Week’s post).

My top tweet above might come across as harsh, but I think is fair. I’ve been working where I do for over 10 years, and I’m still very much learning about the country and its people. All the really effective NGOs I know around here have staff who’ve equally stayed around for the long haul, many longer than me.

And yet expatriate development programme staff the world over typically stay for only 3-5 year posts at maximum, with many doing shorter stints. I had one friend who had worked for 3 different UN agencies in 3 different countries doing 3 different jobs, each for only one year. He wasn’t a senior consultant brought into to lend his advice for a set period, but a junior officer who was presumably good with spreadsheets. But why would the UN seek to foster such wasteful career management?

I can guess at two ‘inspirations’ for this myopic approach to HR management:

  • Many aid projects, equally myopically, last only 3-5 years.
  • Diplomats tend to get rotated quite regularly, and donor bureaucracies generally evolved out of foreign ministries.

But it doesn’t really matter how we arrived at this ridiculous situation, we just need to get out of the rut. Rome was not built in a day, or even a 3 year project cycle. It’s quite simple: if you are serious about tropical conservation or development then you need to make a serious time investment. We need staff who’ll stay the distance, not just lay a few bricks on an aqueduct then move on.

So to answer Erin’s question: obviously you cannot demand that staff sign up for 5+ years right from the word go (and especially not with volunteers), but you can orient your whole HR management to encourage long stays, with career development in situ. New recruits should understand that this is the organisation’s culture from early on, and learn the importance of continuity to achieving lasting results.

This would require a complete redesign of the architecture of bilateral aid projects (which certainly could do with an overhaul), but NGOs have greater freedom and could much more easily push this approach starting right now. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but then tropical conservation and development clearly aren’t easy. Time to saddle up for the challenge!

ps. The counterpoint to all of the above is that fossilised staffing is also not a great road to success. As such aid organisations need to balance continuity and long term management with regular injections of fresh blood. Again, not always an easy task.


9 responses to this post.

  1. I still think this is easier said than done. We already have many of these elements in place – a culture that supports longer stints, professional development opportunities, a yearly extension process to encourage people to extend their contracts and new offers of exciting opportunities if they do extend. And we’re not tied to a project cycle – EWB Canada does not do projects.

    So according to your analysis, we already have in place many of the elements that encourage people (volunteers or staff) to stay longer. So why aren’t they staying?

    I think most of it comes down to the fact that it’s a MAJOR LIFE DECISION for someone to decide to move to another country for 5+ years, especially when you’re in your 20s. This is not unique to EWB; it’s common across all of the short-term stints offered by development orgs.

    But that’s my hypothesis. I’d love to hear more about why people do or don’t stay in developing countries, working on international development, for long periods of time.


  2. I also want to comment on the idea in your first tweet – that one must stay in a developing country for 5+ years to achieve any impact. I agree that the longer you stay in a country, the more you’ll be set up for impact – you understand more and more of the culture, politics, history and what’s been tried (and failed). However, I don’t think it’s fair to write off a 1-2 year stint as an “extended holiday”. YES, this is too short for a project lifespan, but if you have an ongoing program (say 10 years) with staff cycling in every 2 years and a strong knowledge management system, I certainly believe those 2-year staffers can have an impact! As David Weeks pointed out in an earlier post, this is certainly not true if every new staffer is trying to “reinvent the wheel” – and certainly, if we said to each of our new volunteers, “go search for a new model for development impact” then we wouldn’t get anywhere in a year. But by having systems that try to mitigate turnover, “build on the shoulders of giants” and learn from failures. I think it’s definitely possible to make a positive (or negative… yikes!) impact in a 1-2 year placement. And, related to my above post, if that’s all you have to give, then go for it!


    • Hi Erin.
      Not everyone needs to stay for 5+ years. Someone visiting for 1-2 years can contribute a lot … if well guided by people who really understand the problem at hand etc etc, i.e. people who’ve been there rather longer. A lot of development is about social change, and social change does not happen quickly. Building trust relationships is important. If the main staff keep on rotating then you will lose the trust and not achieve the social change you seek.


  3. Are you talking mostly about expat staff in donor agencies? I would argue that some NGOs address the problem by decision-making being in the hands of local staff, and the expats are there as a source of new ideas or particular technical advice – which can be rejected if it’s thought inappropriate by local management. I’m simplifying in order to give a counter-example, and also talking from limited experience, so maybe what I’ve seen is not very representative.

    The other question is how much the length of time is a factor and how much other aspects such as willingness to learn local languages (by which I mean the ones spoken as a first language the population if this is different to the official national language) and wider level of engagement are important. I don’t want to start saying that anyone who wants to work in development should spend years and years in a Peace Corps-style environment, but I wonder if EWB could argue that their approach (of stressing language-learning and working very closely at local government and community levels etc) could mean that 2 years doing that gives a better insight than 5 years in a very desk-based capital-city job.

    Very interested to hear different views!


    • I am mostly, but not exclusively talking about expat staff. Clearly they have rather more work to do in coming up to speed with local culture etc.

      But I have skated over the reality that expat TA roles come in may different hues. Some really are just advisers with actual project management firmly under local control. If the management is good then obviously you can cope with TAs who are less experienced in that particular country. However, many TAs play important strategic roles and are powerful voices in decision making. To treat them merely as advisers rather misses the point.

      Also your point contrasting a field posting and a desk-based jobs in the capital is an interesting one, but I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion. Desk jockeys in the capital tend to be more aware of national politics and such like (but also a lot of less relevant donor and NGO politics) and have less understanding of actual stuff happening on the ground. But even in field postings, experience counts for a lot. One rule I might be tempted to make though: would be desk-jockeys should have a min of 2-3 years worth of field experience in that country. That would cut down on the number of facile ignoramuses we have to deal with, see Emma.


  4. I completely agree that 2 years is nothing as far as project development and impacting change goes. I am currently a PCV with a little less than a year left, and I feel that I have only been scratching at the surface with the work I’ve been doing. My experience living in a smaller community with fluency in the language has definitely provided me a much deeper insight into the needs of and how the system works than if I were to work an office job in the capital city. I also feel that Volunteers could have a much stronger impact if:
    a. They could extend long enough to see projects through (unfortunately not possible in PC due to administrative policy and budget cuts) or at least provide adequate follow-up to monitor its progress.
    b. There was a stronger knowledge management and project structure in place so that the next volunteer to come along would have no trouble picking up where one left off (supposedly we’re finally turning the gears to transition into that)

    Development takes a long time. If you’re running an organization with a high-turnover rate (i.e. most volunteer-based orgs) there needs to be a fortified, well-developed knowledge management system in place if you expect to be effective.


    • Ah yes knowledge management. See Ian Thorpe’s blog for more thinking on that. Overall it is something that I have noticed is done terribly badly here. I think it is generally expected that should be the responsibility of the recipient government / grantee organisation, but few of them have a clue about such things. Data loss is shocking, whilst the equation knowledge = power encourages people to hold on to their knowledge tightly.


  5. Maybe I am stating the obvious, but shouldn’t international NGOs focus on using more local people in their work? Because clearly for local people 5+ years contract in their own country is not a problem, but it’s quite a commitment for expats? This way international NGOs will also be creating work places in poor countries. That’s good. But on the other hand, I agree that expat development workers might not be getting enough experience working on the ground to go back and start drafting developmental programs. Another suggestion would be to use local people on all leves of implementing aid programs. The most sustainable way is, of course, for Western experts to transfer their knowledge, give the tools, and let local people and governments help themselves. But there we have corruption and many other problems…

    Considering, separation of desk and field jobs, Color Me In! founder (working in Zambia) just wrotethis post, very much in line with your thinking. I agree with you both.


    • NGOs should employ local staff where they can. Some NGOs regrettably rely too much on expat staff: while this can make it easier and quicker to achieve certain deliverables, it fails to build local capacity. However, equally I have seen other NGOs move too quickly to ditch international staff before local capacity has been fully built. Such NGOs either then struggle or rely too much on international consultants. In particular I think there is a big difference between just training local counterparts in technical skills and building management ability and self-confidence in dealing with new issues. As with so much in development it is a balancing act. If your organisation is going to employ some expat staff, then the above post applies. Conversely, if your organisation does not need expat advisers then great!


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