Who protects Pakistan’s consulting industry? (Guest Blog)

Author: Nadeem Ul Haque, Former Deputy Chairman Planning Commission of Pakistan

consultant cartoon

Ghari Baqir* returned to Pakistan with a PhD from Harvard 3 decades ago: keen to use his new-found skills to contribute to policy and thought in his homeland. Teaching at university provided an opportunity to do research, write books and perhaps at some stage advise the Government. He had ideas and wanted to work hard.

Soon he realized that professors were at the bottom of the barrel. In a society where power and wealth is everything, he had neither. His counterparts in the bureaucracy had power and healthy perks and plots, whereas all he had was a measly salary, no power, no perks. His tiny filthy office did not even have a phone (in that era before cellphones).

Luckily, donors offered him paid consulting opportunities and eventually he made enough money to buy his own house. In the process, sadly, dreams of independent research; his bright ideas; those books he wanted to write, were buried. Donor consulting meant working on someone else’s agenda. He wrote long, lengthy and often meaningless reports on poorly thought out projects. He reported to junior donor officials as well as their contractors who controlled money with little originality. The terms were very clear: Ghari could only dance to their tune.   

Ironically he was discriminated against. He was always paid ‘domestic’ rates which usually were half of what international consultants who worked with him got. Even though the international consultants were often not as well qualified as him. “Discriminated against in my own country” he says, “but who do I turn to?”

“So hungry is the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and External Affairs Division (EAD) for donor money, that they do not even question donor practices, quality or agendas.” His concerns received a deaf ear from EAD.

10 years later, his growing business allowed him to create a consulting firm in Islamabad. The firm grew and became very close to two of the biggest donors, as well as a subcontractor for major US consulting firms. Money was finally coming in.

However, the growth soon peaked. Donors didn’t give him the opportunity to compete with their own consulting firms. He knew the heads of these firms well and was well aware he could do as good as, and probably a better job than them. But fine print in the rules prevented him from competing. So he remained the junior partner, sometimes even just a mere logistics supplier.

For example, when X Consulting from Washington DC won a 100 million USD contract, his firm received just 3 million USD, despite doing the majority of the work. But X Consulting’s costs were higher, their consultants flew in and lived in 5 star hotels from where they instructed Ghari’s team.

He thought about expanding overseas but he could not compete with Western consultancies who had huge support from their home regulatory systems, and were the favourites of donors in all markets.

When last we met, Ghari told me that there could never be a Pakistani consulting firm of an international level in this sector as the game is loaded against us. I tried to encourage him by using cars as an example of where our Government has provided protection for national companies. I also told him about the National Tariff Commission which guards all industry in Pakistan from dumping practices. Their website shows ongoing investigations into Polythene, Soda Ash and garments for allegations of dumping as well as successful historical investigations. Then there is the Competition Commission which looks into anticompetitive practices and has taken stands in sugar and cement industries.

Following our conversation, Ghari marched off to all these agencies to plead his case. He had a hard time explaining what an ‘intellectual industry’ was. Everyone can see and use cars, but not thought.

Ghari had come full circle—starting out as a professor in a society where education and research had no value to becoming a sort of ‘thought’ entrepreneur in an environment where intellectual work is routinely subject to dumping by donors.

Even his original ideas do not belong to him. Consultants and donor agencies get the citation. Ghari is merely the ghost in the machine. As he would tell you himself, “History and our country’s experience has abundantly illustrated that development is a direct product of better ideas arising from thought and research. Yet in Pakistan, the Government unintentionally facilitate dumping on our ‘thought’ industry. It would seem they are marching to the tune of defunct economists.” 

* The individual’s name has been changed to protect them.

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French Aid Worker reflects on Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo has polarised and monopolised public opinion. The events of early January in France have reignited debates about free speech, religious antagonism and access to information. And yesterday we saw an event about free speech attacked in Denmark.

The frenzy however, is not about Charlie Hebdo at all, but about what the magazine represents. It has been manipulated by media and political agendas alike.

Several contextual facts often left out of news reports are of importance. Firstly, Charlie Hebdo’s international fame comes almost entirely from the attacks that were made against it. It started with the firebomb thrown at their offices in 2011 and the attack against a German retailer selling the magazine. In their home country, the publication has always been on the fringe of French press, with a meagre 300 subscriptions/year. Right after the attack, it sold over 8,000 memberships within 48 hours.

Consequently, far from flaunting offensive cartoons, Charlie Hebdo was largely unknown and easily ignored by the wider population. The radicals that targeted it are responsible for making those images viral, not France, and not even the magazine itself.

Secondly, Charlie Hebdo is an anarchistic journal. They are anti. Anti-politics, Anti-Capitalism, Anti-religion, Anti-system, and most of all, Anti-symbolism.

Commentators who have used Charlie Hebdo as a platform to reignite arguments for or against free speech, civil liberties, or religious tolerance… have taken advantage of the momentum created by the event, but do not understand or care much what Charlie Hebdo is about.

Ironically, even the widespread I am and I am not Charlie movements have been using the magazine as a poster-child it never chose to be. Luz recently said in an interview*: “There is a symbolic burden that has been put on our shoulders, which doesn’t exist in our drawings and which is a bit beyond us. I am one of the people who has an issue with this”. He goes on to say the recent attacks have seen the magazine portrayed as either offensive provocation, or the “white knight of the freedom of the press”, when what they have always believed in is simply the “irresponsible nature of caricature work”.

The “Je suis Charlie” march was organised in the name of Charlie Hebdo, and supposedly in that of free speech, but saw some public characters condemned as “hypocritical” for their role in it. It was also a golden opportunity for Hollande to increase popular support for his party (which he successfully did). A political manipulation which aimed to foster a sense of solidarity but did not provide clear answers to important questions of taboos, social inclusion and anti-terrorism laws.

Should a comic, a cartoonist, a novelist or a movie writer be curbed in her/his creative rights so as not to offend some or part of the public? And if so, where does the censure end?

Should the moderate French Muslim population be unwillingly put under the spotlight to denounce the attacks perpetrated by the Kouachi brothers and Ahmed Coulibaly? Do they have a right to condemn those attacks but also refuse to condone the cartoons? Or simply to stay silent because they do not see themselves as more involved than any other non-Muslim French citizen?

The lawyer in me wants to scream that freedoms are, by definition, whole – which does not preclude self-imposed limits and consideration for people of different cultural backgrounds. The attack has already led to some new restrictions placed on civil liberties. For example, in France, 54 people were detained for “defending or glorifying terrorism”. The potential restrictions on civil liberties justified by the attacks open Pandora’s box, potentially leading to ‘…a new way of living – much closer, ironically, to the terrorists’ fantasy – without the rights, freedoms and values on which our society is supposed to be built and which in the darkest of times more than ever we need to guide us”.**

These attacks have succeeded in creating more visibility for the magazine they were trying to silence; but they have also highlighted questions of policy with serious legal ramifications which have yet to be answered.

* Luz is one of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He owes his life to being late to the targeted meeting the day of the attack.

** Shami Chakrabarti “On Liberty”

Why Don’t We Ever Learn?

I spent this New Years Eve in a pub with an old friend. We’d covered the normal topics of conversation – the love-lives of mutual friends, why our nostril hair is sprouting, how everything was better when we were young. Conversation shifted to our work, and I started rambling about my life as an M&E consultant.

“It’s all so pointless,” I said. (I’d had several pints at this point.) “I spend my time helping charities to collect high quality monitoring data – and then they just ignore it.”dilbert managing for results

“Why is that?” my friend asked. “That seems completely stupid.”

And I was stumped for an answer. Development charities are full of bright, enthusiastic, often very nice people, doing amazing things with limited resources. Why are they so slow to use monitoring data that could improve the effectiveness of their work? I spluttered a bit, then changed the topic and we spent the rest of the evening trying to balance a pint glass on a spoon. But it is an important question, and I’ve spent some time since then thinking about why we are so slow to learn from monitoring data. Here is a short, non-exclusive list of reasons that I’ve encountered through my time in the sector.

1)      Monitoring frameworks are useless. One reason why many programmes don’t use monitoring data effectively is that the monitoring data they collect is rubbish. Too many monitoring frameworks are geared towards measuring a small number of quantitative indicators, sometimes of little relevance to the programme. If the monitoring framework isn’t encouraging programmes to gather and think about a wide range of relevant data, it’s no surprise that they don’t learn much from it.

2)      Pressure to spend. Incentives are generally set from the top, whether this is the donors, board of trustees, or senior management of an organisation. If these pressures are primarily to spend money or conduct activities on time, it is no surprise that there is little interest in learning about whether these activities were successful or not. I worked in one humanitarian organisation which was spending money too slowly – a terrible sin in the aid sector. I remember the team leader strutting up and down in a meeting, waving a folder of paper above his head. “You need to spend, people!” he yelled, like a bearded Gordon Gekko. “Get out there and move some money!” Not exactly calculated to inspire thoughtful, reflective practice.

3)      Short projects. Even without the clear management dysfunction described above, short term projects often leave little time for staff to really learn from monitoring information. Imagine that you’re implementing a three year project. You probably spend at least a year setting up, finding teams, and running through an initial cycle of activities. If you find that this initial cycle of activities wasn’t particularly effective – perhaps you used the wrong partner, worked in the wrong place, or were targeting the wrong problem – this doesn’t leave you much time to fix it. Revising the programme could take another six months, which would mean that you’re half way through the project without having achieved anything. In this situation, most programmes prefer to ignore any evidence that things are going badly, and plough on regardless.

4)      Complex change processes. Sounds obvious, but learning from monitoring data requires some kind of process to allow organisations to feed this learning back into performance. This learning loop is often dysfunctional, and so revising plans and strategies is so much work that it’s easier not to bother. A prime example of this is DFID’s use of the logframe, a document which sets much of the strategic direction for their programmes. Although DFID guidance allows for – indeed, theoretically encourages – revision to the logframe, in practice it’s a massive pain to revise. By the time any changes have gone up through the organisation, been reviewed, argued over, and reviewed again by more senior people who give completely different advice, it just isn’t worth the bother. So although staff on the ground may be learning from monitoring data, there is no real process for this to feed back into the overall programme strategy. (Although this may be changing.)

5)      Not having a clue how to make things better. Finally, one of the key reasons development programmes don’t improve based on monitoring data is that they genuinely don’t have a clue how. Development is a tricky business, and programmes typically aim to do ridiculously ambitious things. Developing health systems, promoting economic development, and providing decent educations are all issues that developed countries have wrestled with for centuries – and they don’t do a great job of them. So if your monitoring data shows that the health system isn’t strengthened at all, then it could well be that the programme just hasn’t a clue what to do, and so continues doing the same thing that they know isn’t working.

Ultimately, good use of monitoring data comes down to strong leadership. Senior management needs to understand the importance of monitoring, and put resources and time into it accordingly. They need to resist organisational incentives to spend money, or to run projects badly, and actually care about what they’re doing. And they need to have a clear idea of what they can do, or inspire others to get a clear idea, and not be afraid to close down projects when necessary.

See a great response from Elina Sarkisova: “Could Paying for Results (finally) Help us Learn?” (and if you’re a real aidleap fan, then scroll down to the bottom to see our our response to her response…)

And also see our previous blog in this series: What have indicators ever done for us?