Posts Tagged ‘expat technical advisers’

St Paddy’s Pifflery

Earlier this month the Irish celebrated St Patrick’s day. If you are an expat working in the aid sector posted to the capital city of a developing country you might well have received an invitation to a St Paddy’s day celebration at the local Irish Embassy. Or you might not. It really depends upon which circles you move in. Here is Bottom Up Thinking’s simple cut-out-and-keep guide to getting an invitation to this and similar soirées.

May be invited Won’t be invited
Has almost zero contact with aid beneficiaries Works directly with aid beneficiaries
Sits in endless meetings and workshops which achieve very little Attends as few workshops as possible because nothing gets done in them
Most meetings in air-conditioned offices Meetings often under a tree or in the local school house
Constantly harasses grantees/subordinates to comply with long lists of conditions Is constantly harassed trying to meet latest ridiculous donor demands
Lives in a nice big house, with maid and gardener, rent paid by employer Lives in the bush; cadges a bed for the night with friends when up in the big city
Job satisfaction from a big salary and drinking oneself silly with friends at the Irish Embassy Job satisfaction from actually helping poor people and sense of worthwhile achievement
Gives/receives large amounts of cash to/from drinking buddies at pet NGO/donor at end of each year when surplus budget needs to be used up Has to write ten pages of meaningless donorese just to get enough cash to pay themselves and colleagues

Sour grapes? Me? Am sure I wouldn’t want to talk to most invitees any way, it’s just I do like a touch of the black stuff every now and then …


South-south cooperation and the embarrassment factor

This just occurred to me. South-south cooperation can be more politically palatable to developing countries than the patronising tone that can come with technical advice from traditional aid givers. That’s old news. But what about further down the food chain? A big problem around here is that lots of civil servants cannot be a***ed to do their jobs properly, and require their palms to be greased before they will consider rousing themselves from today’s newspaper. Will they respond any better to technical advisers from slightly richer countries who are nonetheless seem in some ways as ‘one of us’? In short can officials be embarrassed into action by an apparent friend who is aghast at their lack of enterprise? Or will the inevitable divide between expatriate technical adviser and local staff prove more powerful?

Why expats bargain hard for their taxis

The Roving Bandit ponders the ethics behind bargaining down a taxi fare when one can easily afford to pay more. As the Bandit himself realises, this is hardly the most pressing problem on the planet, but, hey, us expats working in the Aid industry do like to agonise over these sorts to things.

I think can think of three legitimate reasons an expat might legitimately bargain down their taxi fare:

  • They may be a very junior intern / volunteer who really does not have any cash to spend, and has to eke out what little they have over the time they are here. The whole accounting for their life out in whatever far-flung place they have gone to depends upon the fact that life is significantly cheaper than wherever they call home. Quite simply they cannot afford to pay the rich white person’s fare.
  • Alternatively they may take this taxi on a regular day: over-paying today means over-paying forever, and that may have a more significant impact on their costs.
  • Finally they may be concerned about sticking out as a rich fool, and thus making themselves a target for thieves and other chancers. If they can bargain hard in the local lingo then that might signal they are not such an attractive target.

However, I suggest that the reason most expats bargain down the cost is that they think it is not cool not to bargain it down, and feel they would look silly to their friends and work colleagues (local and expat) if they paid way more than the going rate. And looking silly does decrease ones social capital which may impact upon one’s ability to get useful stuff done. But mostly I reckon folks just don’t want to be taken for a ride when they go for one.

(Not) Speaking on behalf of poor people

While I was away my long-ago written contribution to Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like finally came out. For those of you who missed it, here it is again (slightly edited to restore the original intended meaning of the final bullet point). Those sensitive to sarcasm should stop reading now.


“Please can you speak on our behalf?” (Image: Avatar – the ultimate white knight movie)

From time to time, every Expat Aid Worker will be asked to speak on behalf of their project, and, by implication, on behalf of said project’s supposed beneficiaries. This could simply be in a workshop, which is not such an issue. However, it may also involve fronting up to the insatiable maw that is the modern international media circus. It’s these circumstances that fill the newbie EAW with trepidation. Oh, the moral minefield through which she* will have to tread!

  • On the one hand this could be a great opportunity for the EAW to get her name out there. It could be just the career break she needs. Plus the oxygen of publicity can be great for Field Cred!
  • Except that all EAWs are justifiably wary of White Knight Syndrome. Being called a White Knight (or Lady!) instantly reduces the EAW to some totally insensitive boor.
  • Moreover, except for those EAWs who have utterly succumbed to the Dark Side, there is still a kernel of idealism that EAWs like to nurture inside their hard candy shell of cynicism. Falling into the White Knight trap is simply terrible for one’s idealist karma.
  • The veteran EAW will thread this needle by prefacing her points with the disclaimer that she really has no basis on which to speak for her project’s beneficiaries, but here’s what she thinks any way.
  • Unfortunately this will be cut by the film editor, and the EAW will have to tell everyone she knows how she hated being portrayed as the White Lady she is not. This makes a good excuse to let everyone know that she was interviewed by the media, even if it was only featured for 5 nano-seconds on an obscure piece put out during the graveyard shift on Crap Network News.

The smartest EAW, however, will realise that all of the above is utter tosh, and will instead write a snarky blog post about it, explaining the Lewis Carroll-esque contradictions of her position: that frequently in such situations there is nobody else in the room in a position to speak on behalf of her project’s beneficiaries, so if she doesn’t step up to the plate, they’ll be left entirely unrepresented.  Anyone agonising about such issues are therefore just spouting self-indulgent pretentious BS.

And who needs karma any way? If her project’s beneficiaries had even a fraction of their fair share, they wouldn’t need the EAW to speak on their behalf in the first place.

*All male EAWs are honoured to be called she or her, as nothing else quite demonstrates our gender sensitivity than not objecting when others get it wrong.

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.

Good for personal development, bad for economic development

Ranil Dissanayake has written a perceptive elegy to his time in East and Southern Africa.

“I will miss the constant obstacles, challenges, fights, compromises, small victories and major changes that come when working in a developing country Government here. There is no such thing as a simple task in Government: a photocopy could take an hour of begging or a day spent searching for the magical combination of a machine, electricity, printer toner and paper in one place. … It can be frustrating, but when you finally start seeing all these small things coalesce into something bigger, you begin to thrive on the little challenges.”

I recall one of my early visits out here I was searching for a job (any job) that might keep me here for a bit longer: talking to a boss of a small company, I said that I relished dealing with things like regular power outages. He cut me off dismissively complaining that these were incredibly bad for business. Even worse, he was massively frustrated at being constantly undercut by competitors who slip a bung to procurement managers rather than competing squarely on service and price.

Many years later, I can see both sides of the coin. Every single power cut and episode of slippery business is individually immensely frustrating and sets us back. However, like Ranil, I also thrive to a certain extent on the knowledge that I can cope and that we have the robustness in our approach to deal with these challenges: not in the way that embassies and big businesses will just throw money at a problem – insulating their staff from vagaries of life out here – but because we built up our NGO from zero and have overcome many obstacles along our way. We are proud of what we have achieved, but also one gains an individual sense of satisfaction of having adapted to a challenging environment.

On my visits back to UK I am sometimes struck by the apparent banality of conversation, e.g. the latest good wine found down the supermarket, rather when was the last power cut. Both topics are equally parochial, and talk of power cuts may seem equally banal to people who live deep in the bush – off-grid – and have to generate their own power. Nonetheless, one feels toughened up living out here, and though many years ago I might have sounded a bit wet behind the ears with my talk of relishing such challenges, now I’d far rather hire someone with a bit of gung-ho like that than someone who will fall to pieces when faced with sheer number of things that just don’t work as straightforwardly as they do back home.

All of which is to say that, for all the nonsense talk you hear sometimes about people coming out here to find themselves (and it is utter tosh), there is no doubt that if you’ve got the right personality in the first place then this is a great place for personal development; you will be challenged in so many ways you’ve never been before.

Unfortunately what is great for personal development, is absolutely **** for businesses and economic development. I decided to come here, and so have to accept the rough with the smooth as part of the life I’ve chosen for myself. Locals and local businesses merely despair at the dysfunctionality of  their country. Things are getting better, but there are so many other things which could so easily be so much better still if  important government institutions just worked a bit more like what they should do.

To be continued

Learning by Doing

Kudos to Owen Barder who has no lesser a dignitary on his Development Drums podcast than Tony Blair. Some of his answers are slightly evasive, suggesting to me that you can take the man out of front line politics, but you can’t take the politician out of the man. But he has also got some interesting things to say about his African Governance Initiative, and Lee the Bandit’s unerring sense for the hidden gem was fully functioning on this roughly transcribed extract:

“People often say to me ‘you’ve got to train the civil service of the country in order to be able to do the things they need to do.’ I personally think you can spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars doing that and nothing much come out of it (Barder: and we do). What we do is different in 3 crucial respects, the first is we combine a political interaction … the second is we prioritize, this is about delivering programs … people have this view that if you train up the civil service then they can deliver the programs. My view is that if you work on delivering  specific prioritised programs, you will get out of that the capacity that you require and can work on for delivering other things, and that its in the practical prioritization and doing things that makes the difference. The third thing is that our teams live in the country, they work alongside their counterparts in the country, there is a very strong interaction.”

Later on in the interview Tony Blair uses the actual phrase Learning by Doing. Three cheers say I, for this is definitely something in which I believe, big time.

Traditional development approaches to capacity building tend to focus around short training courses. These can teach people technical skills but they fail to stimulate the critical thinking that is essential to solving real world problems. Instead we get dysfunctional institutions that superficially look capable of doing a job, but lacking the internal engine to make it tick. This problem applies equally to government institutions, local NGOs and even local branches of international NGOs.

Learning by Doing gets people to work through an entire process, and in doing so develops a whole host of soft skills. In practice this is achieved through mentoring and is inevitably a slow process that is not readily susceptible to rapid scaling up. Indeed this lack of scalability is, I believe, a major factor hamstringing attempts to transform pilot projects into large national programmes. Development agencies have attempted to get around this problem by the ‘Training of Trainers’ approach, but you have to have trained some really top notch trainers if this is not to suffer from the inevitable Chinese-whispers-style degradation of skills imparted. Any way, nobody I yet know has tried ‘Mentoring of Mentors’.

One big problem with this approach can be the receptiveness of the institution whose staff are being mentored. Tony Blair’s initiative appears to work at the very highest levels, and to be aimed at supporting African presidents who really want to get things moving (even if this is at the expense of democratic accountability). He takes an admirably realistic approach that focuses on just a few priorities over a presidential term of office. Elsewhere in developing countries, however, just about every institution of government has multiple sources of donor support, many of whom will be engaged in some kind of capacity building. It is far from clear that the staff from these institutions are interested primarily in delivering change, or more in the per diems and other ephemeral benefits. I gather that the ‘traditional’ Technical Adviser role is losing popularity in favour of short term consultants precisely because developing country institutions find these less intrusive.

So three cheers for Learning by Doing and Mentoring. And thirty three cheers for institutions who are open enough to genuinely want it!

Good strategies need good implementation

We’ve just submitted another funding application. As is usual in such cases I took on the lion’s share of the writing. Indeed this is one of the most important roles played by me and my peers in other small NGOs about the developing world.

We’re the rain-makers for three reasons. Firstly our command of English (or French) is usually better than our local counterparts: this becomes very important in condensing a 110 word summary of your proposed project into the 100 word maximum allowed by the donor on the application form. Secondly, the people making the decisions are usually quite similar to us (similar backgrounds etc.), so we have a better idea of what makes them tick, and thus how to hit the right buttons (succinctly!) in our proposal. Thirdly, expat technical advisers tend to be the key strategic thinkers / vision propounders: our local colleagues keep us grounded (extremely important) but the (elite) Western education that many TAs have enjoyed seems more effective at providing this kind of input than local ‘teacher always knows best’ rote learning. None of which is to say that there are not local counterparts who are extremely good in these skills, but usually they’ve had the benefit of a Western education, at least at university level, and hence are relatively rare.

Larger NGOs have realised this key role of the TA as rain-maker, and, following basic economic theory of the benefits of increasing specialisation, employ specialist proposal writers. The more junior of these folks are just there to do the translation of good ideas into donorese, but the more senior are brought in to actually provide the project conceptualization too. Other BINGOs habitually use consultants for this role, with a similar effect.

The trouble is that even the best strategies turn out to have flaws. As the old military saw goes: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, you need to have a firm grasp on the big picture ‘vision’ for the project in order to work out how to address them. This becomes even more important when there is no big blow-out to tell you that things are going wrong, just a steady failure to achieve any impact: all those field visits may individually appear to be successful, but if the changes you are trying to instigate do not happen, then overall success is negligible. You need staff with good management skills to recognise these kind of situations, and adapt appropriately. You also need the management culture to encourage escalation of such concerns rather than just blindly following the agreed activity plan.

Unfortunately, in BINGOs, this often does not happen. “X came up with a great plan, but all the field team did was drive up and down the mountain a lot.” is one summation I heard. Mid-term reviews are supposed to help correct such situations, but the evaluating consultants only have so much leverage and are only around for a short period of time. On paper the BINGOs claim to follow all kind of best practice in planning and adaptive management, but the reality is that you need high calibre staff to implement this. At the end of the day, I think, there is no real substitute for having someone close to the field team with a clear understanding and ownership of the strategy; someone who can take responsibility when things go wrong and ensure the project gets back on track, and damn the work plan!

I recall once reading an interview with a multi-millionaire self-made businessman. The interviewer asked him what he thought made him so successful. The guy replied that he reckoned pretty much anyone could come up with a good business idea, the real trick is in making it work, the commitment and attention to detail that requires. I think the same is just as true of conservation and development (although it’s harder to come up with the good ideas): good strategies need equally good implementation.

SNAFU redux

When I first conceived of my previous post it had a rather different character than it ended up: a testament to the immediacy of blogging, and how one’s thoughts can take one in unexpected directions. Lindsay’s original post, which is far better than any of my analysis, had a powerful tinge of sadness about it. What are we doing when everything is so ****ed up?

I’ve never seen a war up close and personal, thank God, so can only rely on others’ reports, but one very powerful theme is that war is almost never noble or honourable, but is a terrible, ugly, de-humanising, tragic event. All adjectives that could be used to describe the sort of extreme poverty from which the aid industry seeks to rescue people. For the foot soldier forced to fight a war, some of  their biggest problems stem from blinkered generals fixated on a particular strategy (how many ‘big pushes’ did the Western Front see in WWI?) without due regard for the realities of the situation on the ground, and so it goes in development too. SNAFU. Of course, war and development both also have their heroes, who, against all odds, actually manage to achieve a truly worthy feat, and these heroes are rightly lionised.

My family and friends from my old life praise me for what I’m doing; the nobility of the sacrifice etc. But how noble exactly are we? Or are we just a peculiar bunch of adventure seekers practising poverty one-up-man-ship? The grim I-told-you-so satisfaction of the grizzled veteran who sits there and can say:

“Once again the donors and the recipient country government have ****ed it all up. There’s no chance of really doing what they expect, so we just have to try our best.”

What’s point of that? Because the donors would get someone else if you didn’t take the job? Because that someone else would be worse at it than you would be, so better you do it? Doesn’t seem very noble to me.

Fighting the system sure takes some courage, and it can take many forms, even, dare I say it, a blog. But what I find so sad and disappointing is that clearly the aid system could be so much better, and clearly a great many people within the system know and understand that, and yet the status quo seems to change so very slowly. Did you turn up to work today to alleviate poverty, advance tropical conservation, or to claim your pay cheque?

Here’s wishing for a nobler international aid system!


Lindsay Morgan also dispatched her personal thoughts from her trip Southern Sudan. The post had all the usual ingredients, grizzled veterans, impossible projects, crazy donor expectations, poverty that won’t go away and that might get worse when you leave, constant travel to uncertain ends.

One word summed it up for me: SNAFU. It was coined by frustrated foot soldiers in the Second World War. The parallels seem striking to me, and to Lindsay who remarked:

“Aid workers are like soldiers fighting in a war the public back home has forgotten about or doesn’t understand.”

The big bosses at HQ draw lines on maps / construct logframes without any real clue as to what it look likes for those on the ground. Nonsensical orders come through and someone has to make sense of  them. You never get the supplies you ordered; some logistics corps idiot / donor always has another idea. Then just when you’re finally about to make some progress they change their minds and tell you to do something else. No wonder green-behind-the-ears newbies turn into cynical veterans after just one campaign / project, and veterans compete with stories about just how bad it got for them. SNAFU indeed.

There is one important difference. In war there is a pretty severe feedback loop: lose a battle they shouldn’t have and the general responsible will be cashiered in an instant. In aid and development, it seems, it remains SUSFU.

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