Posts Tagged ‘consultants’

Fat cats make good accountants

Amidst all the kerfuffle arising from the  revelations last month about supposed ‘fat cats’ of Aid gobbling up too big a portion of DFID’s budget (and that led to the line by line review of DFID’s budget I blogged about yesterday), I have yet to read any analysis of why this has happened. Those stony hearts on the right want simply to reduce the aid budget, whilst those on the left lament that more money should go to the intended recipient countries.

I’ll give you the answer in one sentence: many would be contractors from developing countries do not generate reports to high enough standards nor keep good enough accounts to keep busy aid bureaucrats confident that money is being well spent. This, of course, is a sweeping generalization, and ignores elements of culture (sharing a common culture can greatly increase ones sense of confidence in a contractor). I have no doubt that many people and organisations in developing countries are capable of this, and the fact that at least one Indian company apparently got a big contract is testament to that. However, in the least developed countries (often the biggest aid recipients) this capacity is likely to be lowest.

The Daily Fail may well rage at these ‘fat cats’ of Aid, but imagine their scorn if they were to read reports written in mangled English by people for whom this is not their first language, and/or who just did not get good enough schooling in writing proper English. (A skill which is quite distinct from analytical thinking and empathy with poor people that are two of the most important abilities in doing practical development work.) And this whole storm in a teacup would quickly be recognised as such if it were instead discovered that significant corruption had occurred in DFID-funded programmes. If there is one person the Daily Fail hates more than a fat cat it is a corrupt foreign official!

If, as seems apparent, the proportion of DFID funds spent on UK-based consultants is going up, then I would suggest one simple reason: DFID’s own budget is rising quickly while staffing levels have been reduced. In such a situation DFID’s remaining staff will naturally look for good ways to get rid of big chunks of money at once. As I have previously noted, I think this is a false economy: at some point larger transaction overheads (as a proportion of funds disbursed) will have to be incurred if you are going to achieve high quality results in countries where government capacity is low.

For this reason, although I disagree with their reasoning (e.g. see Terence Wood’s demolition of Lord Ashcroft’s ill-informed ‘golden taps’ diatribe), I actually agree to some extent with the aid critics. DIFD should drop its misguided focus on the entirely artificial target of spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid and development, and instead simply seek to generate the best development outcomes that it can. If DFID can demonstrate that a budget increase will effectively deliver more good and the British Treasury can afford it, then it should spend more, but if not then it should not spend money just because it has it in the department budget (the standard donor failing). If development aid is a ‘race’ then it is not a sprint to 0.7% of GDP; it is a marathon, and the finish line is elimination of widespread poverty, which despite significant progress in recent years regrettably remains a distant target.

My conclusion from two years ago still stands:

“Few people would disagree that the aid system needs serious reform. Many say we need both more and better aid. I think that’s too much to deal with at one time. First make it better, much better, then add more if the absorptive capacity really is there.”

The Aid Effectiveness Officer

During my Xmas break I was able at last to put flesh to what, for me, was a mythical creature: the Aid Effectiveness Officer. The lead character in John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener is an Aid Effectiveness Officer, but I’d never previously encountered one. I had thought / hoped that they might only exist in legends designed to keep aid recipient bureaucrats on their toes lest they get a visit from the Aid Effectiveness Officer ghost. I even wondered whether they came in tripartite form: the ghosts of Aid Past, Aid Present and Future Aid. (Although, given the course of Aid history, maybe the Ghost of Aid Present would be the scariest; an IMF inspection team of headless wraiths?)

But now I can reveal to you the truth: yes Aid Effectiveness Officers actually exist – I’ve met one in the flesh. It was the season of goodwill and we were all pretty merry, so though one’s trusty blogger’s ears perked and nose twitched, the impassioned tirade had to be put to one side. “An Aid What Officer?” I wanted to ask. Are other Aid Officers not effective? Of all the things the Aid industry has sought to mainstream did they somehow forget effectiveness? … Cos if there’s one thing you’d think you might want to mainstream, surely that would be it?

In fact the guy talked some reasonable macro-economic sense and decried the dysfunctional government systems of the country where he worked. It’s maybe not fair to blame the guy for the job he does; we should blame the idiots who pay him instead. And, let’s face it, Aid often isn’t terribly effective, and could do with someone who could improve its tarnished record?

But, I’m not sure he should get off all that easily. He no longer works in the UN system, but is now a consultant. This may be as much to do with the UN’s own lack of effectiveness, but consultants are usually limited to short-term work, whereas in my book  one critical ingredient of aid effectiveness is long term engagement. So he’s raking in the money, advising his former employers, other donors and recipient countries how to be ‘effective’. One is tempted to wonder whether they might not all get better value for money if some kindly fellow would just point them the way to the self-help stand in their nearest airport bookstore?

Yes, alright, this is something of a rant, but I do have a problem with a system in which effectiveness is not required to be built in right from the start but which somehow has to be bolted-on on top. In business, if you’re not effective you’re fired, the company goes under, or both. And if you tried suggesting to your boss that you need a Business Effectiveness Officer, you might well be fired too.

Any human system is ultimately made up of the people within it. Awhile ago I asked: “Did you turn up to work today to alleviate poverty … or to claim your pay cheque?” I challenge any Aid Effectiveness Officer to answer that question without caveats.

Proposal Prepostery

We recently got a consultant’s report appraising a project proposal in which we’re a partner. The good news is that the donors are going to fund it, but they want a revised proposal. Apparently some fairly important issues were not clear to the donors which is fair enough. However, appraising consultants clearly believe they’re not earning their (very generous slice of) daily bread if they don’t write a long, involved report. So we’ve got a loooong list of issues to respond to, some of which are plain daft*, some querying things we were asked to do by the donors after they received the first draft, and others just go to show the consultants didn’t spend enough time checking issues, rehashing old concerns that were addressed a while ago.

But the biggest problem we had with the consultants’ approach was that it is VERY BUREAUCRATIC. We are constantly being told that they sense potential, innovative thinking amongst the partners etc., but then complain that it is not fully reflected in the project proposal. This seems to me to miss the wood for the trees. Surely, the point about this exercise is not to produce the perfect proposal, but to get the best project possible. If they think the partners have the right ideas who really cares about the project proposal? The consultants’ approach was exemplified in the following recommendation:

“Writing proposals for funding, and delivering to donors requirements, is an acquired skill, requiring recognition of the donors’ needs for accountability and monitoring. This proposal has clearly worked hard to achieve the necessary standard but some gaps remain. External support appears necessary to complete this proposal, and would also help [the  lead partner] and the partners to better manage future donor applications, reporting and partner relationships.”

Eh? Let me just get this right: you’re recommending we spend further lavish sums on you and your ilk so all the donors can wow themselves at our amazing use of the latest jargon and buzzwords? There was plenty more along these lines, e.g. suggesting one of our partners lacks the wherewithal to chair a meeting neutrally (so the consultants could do it for us!) which is just utter tosh.

On the other hand, we do have reason to be concerned as to the consultants’ expertise. One has negligible previous experience of the country in which we work whilst the other has never been involved in a project remotely like the one we were proposing.

So let’s be clear about this: if we want someone to give us some money then we need to explain clearly what it is for, that is self evident. Furthermore they have the right to hire an independent external evaluator to check on their behalf for any red flag issues. But, if a project has taken us months to plan, and incorporates lessons from a previous pilot phase, funded by one of the same donors, then in one week’s running around the country you are unlikely to understand every aspect sufficiently to offer detailed criticism. And it’s just plain rude to try making extra work for yourself when you’re paid so much more than the real innovators. Advice is welcome, self-promotion  and unfounded criticism not.

However, an equal responsibility lies with the donors who are responsible for the context in which said consultants are operating; if they didn’t demand such ridiculous levels of paperwork the consultants wouldn’t write reports like this. Donors could give more freedom and responsibility to in-country (i.e. embassy) staff to approve and support projects which they know are good without endless proposal tinkering. (Though for this to really work well, said embassy staff would have to stay for longer stints than 2-3 years.) They should also stop trying to influence small details in such projects (the consultants advocated a role for the donors on the project steering committee which is absolutely not going to happen), and instead have greater confidence in those they have chosen to fund. (Give them the rope to hang themselves if so be it.) No wonder developing country officials get so exasperated with donor meddling.

Sadly, I cannot imagine this situation changing very fast, so it’ll be back to that proposal in the new year …

* I’ve previously written about gender mainstreaming and conservation. Now, apparently, we have to mainstream health issues too despite the complete lack of relevance to the proposed project.

What’s wrong with ICDPs? (Part Two)

Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) were discredited a long time before I took aim at them, and so you won’t find too many proponents of them today. However, they haven’t entirely gone away, they’re just not called ICDPs any more. In order to understand why one needs an insight into project design as practised by donors and BINGOs (Big International NGOs), and quite a few smaller NGOs too. They will identify a conservation problem, either that has been specifically highlighted by others, or which has come to their attention through strategic mapping of biodiversity values and threats to highlight priority areas for intervention. They will then note that the location of this conservation problem has lots of poor people living there. These days the big operators probably have a policy which says they have to consider local livelihoods etc, and, as I noted in my previous post, local people and poverty may well be root causes of the conservation problem.

So the donor/NGO decides ‘something must be done’ about poverty in the area. Indeed this stems almost directly from their decision that ‘something must be done’ about the conservation problem. Richer protagonists will, at this point, commission one or reports from ‘expert’ consultants to assess local livelihoods and what are the options for intervention. Such consultants know very well who is paying their bill, so will almost always propose at least one way to try to tackle the problem. (Entirely negative report = no future business.) And thus it is determined what ‘something’ must be done.

Unfortunately, in this problem driven process, the priority is on doing something, rather than identifying a solution that is actually feasible. This is a difficult paradox to resolve since prioritising conservation funds on the severest and most urgent problems most definitely make sense in a world of limited resources. Sometimes the problem may be so big and/or urgent that it is reasonable to argue that ‘something’ is at least worth trying.

However, the reality is that I see far too many conservation projects that are ‘working with local people’ but achieving precious little development or conservation, and where the link between the two strands of the project are not clear. Talented and imaginative project staff may, to some extent, be able to overcome this problem, but even then there can be serious concerns about overall sustainability. Elsewhere such projects simply descend into box-ticking exercises devoid of a coherent strategy. ICDPs are unfortunately far from dead.


For my first post I want to talk about one of my pet issues, and something which is likely to become a recurring theme in this blog; sustainability. Sustainability lies at the heart of many of the issues dear to the environmental movement; climate change, biodiversity loss, overexploitation of target species. Forestry and fisheries policies are, in essence, studies in ecological sustainability, which are then subject to varying degrees of political subversion. There’s a lot that I could talk about there, and probably will in some future blog post. But for now I want to discuss the issue of project sustainability.

In other development sectors, e.g. health or infrastructure, it is possible to supply a developing country with a particular good, e.g. AIDS vaccines or building a new road, which, to a degree, can be treated as a one-off donation. Donors may reasonably conclude that providing longer term assistance, e.g. in vaccine management and distribution or road maintenance, may improve the efficacy of the original donation, but even without these the initial donation generally has clear value. (Or at least as long as the donor has done their homework first, and checked the donation is actually needed.)

However, conservation is ultimately a social process aimed at achieving behavioural change. Whilst in well-functioning states a lot of conservation aims can be realised by achieving change in government policy, developing states rarely have the resources to enforce properly new regulations, particularly in low priority areas (which, regrettably, appears to include many environmental rules). Hence the need to support policy aims with substantial field projects, many of which must perforce work with the local people who live around site of interest. Thus it is that in tropical countries, in which the great majority of biodiversity is to be found, much conservation work has a strong social development element. Personally this appeals to me … so long as it is done properly!

A typical social development project in the tropics last for 3-5 years to fit with donor funding cycles. It may be that subsequent phases may also be funded, although often with some kind of a gap between, but eventually, having been established as a ‘going concern’ the project is usually handed over to the host country government to manage thereafter. This is known as the Exit Strategy. Unfortunately, the management capacity of the poorest countries often just isn’t up to the task, and the field of social development is littered with failed projects. Five years after the project ended often there can be very little evidence, except for the odd tatty poster, that there was ever a project there in the first place. Bill Easterly has this to say about the issue in his book White Man’s Burden:

“Besides the visibility bias towards new construction [e.g. roads, schools, clinics], the underfunding of maintenance reflects the elusive goal of ‘sustainability’… Donors envision the local government taking over the project, which they think is necessary to make it last. This intuition was once appealing, but the decades of evidence show that that dog won’t hunt… trying to make the project ‘sustainable’ usually guarantees that it will not be ‘sustained’… But donors keep flailing away at this infeasible but inflexible objective.”

A classic reason for this failure is the withdrawal of project resources such as a project vehicle and funds to pay per diems. I once visited an old trial tree plantation project which had fallen into disrepair since the original funds had run out and no tending or thinning had been carried out. Except that the plantation was right outside the local forestry office, who presumably had all the necessary machetes and spades, but just did not expect to continue to do work for which they had previously been paid extra.

The donor’s rationale in all of this is that if they fund a given project into perpetuity that stimulates aid dependency and is thus, by definition, not sustainable. It is up to host countries to determine their budget priorities; if they do not subsequently allocate resources to a project for which they have been handed responsibility then, the argument goes, they cannot have been that interested in it in the first place, even if it was demonstrated to represent clear value for money etc. This problem is particularly acute in the environmental sector, which generally has much lower priority than health, education and economic development, and this is one reason some conservation theorists have suggested that if the ‘West’ wants to achieve conservation then they should expect to pay for it, pure and simple.

Some payments for environmental services type projects (REDD is the latest example) are an attempt to move in this direction, but still most donors are stuck in their existing model of aid delivery in 3-5 year cycles, and seem unable to contemplate longer time horizons. A friend of mine recently showed me a draft consultancy report which had come into their possession. The consultants had been asked to advise on the suitability for a particular way forward for a community-based conservation project that was coming to the end of its 13 years of donor funding. The consultants were greatly concerned about the future for the project under local government management. This is what they wrote:

“If … sustained support is to be realised it will be necessary to deal with the inevitable donor fatigue that is unfortunately likely to set in. [The donor] have been supporting activities at [the project] since 1997, and all the indications are that they expect to phase out support very shortly; indeed the [last three years] can be seen as the principle manifestation of this thinking. We believe this would be a grave mistake, surrendering all the important gains made [by the project] up to this point, and effectively writing off [the project] as a waste of money. Presumably this is not what the tax payers in [donor country] have in mind when they pay for development support to poor countries such as [host country].”

The consultants were advised by the managing consultants (consultants, consultants everywhere!) that this would not be helpful, and the paragraph was deleted from the final version of the report. The rest of the technical consultants’ report was generally pretty positive; they clearly did not think the project had been a waste of money. In fact the project had won an international award for its achievements.

If long term (ideally 20 years plus) support to social development projects is not politically palatable in donor countries then so be it, but why on earth do they keep throwing money at shorter term projects which are doomed to fail?

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