The need to reform technical assistance

Santigie Kamara writing in yesterday may be overstating the case, but only a little:

Reports reaching this press indicate that the consultant at the Ministry of Agriculture is a "square peg in a round whole" and yet still he is there, receiving thousands of dollars while our brothers and sisters who are more qualified are earn less than a million leones per month.

The objectives of technical assistance are noble; the execution is dismal.  Even before Elliot Berg's landmark report in 1993 we have known that the expert-counterpart model of long term ex-patriate  technical assistance is generally neither effective nor good value for money.  In no other walk of life do we try to train people by parachuting in an expert to do their job for a couple of years. You do not learn skills by watching over someone's shoulder: you learn through a combination of on-the-job training, coaching, mentoring, and formal structured training courses.  So why is that not the way we should provide technical assistance?

A fifth of all aid – some $20 billion a year – is currently spent on technical cooperation of various kinds (though much of it may not be spent on this sort of technical assistance).  About 40% of US aid is spent this way.  Some – perhaps a lot – of this money is wasted.  We know that this approach to technical assistance is not generally effective, and yet we go on doing it, presumably because the development-industrial complex is too powerful for us stop. 

The transfer and sharing of knowledge and skills is a very high priority for development.  Technical cooperation has an important role to play.  But we need to do it much better.

Full disclosure: I myself was an ex-pat technical adviser in an African country for two years.  I know of what I speak. 

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