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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Is there a better way?


At the beginning of the week I completed an updated version of the critique I have been making for some years about the EU’s Technical Assistance programmes in ex-communist countries. These have paid people like myself for the past 20 years to live in places like Baku, Beijing, Bishkek, Bucharest, Prague, Riga, Miskolc, Sofia and Tashkent; write reports; and organise training – all in the name of institutional development and better governance. Before I get to the sands of Varna in May, I need to sort out the basic question of whether there is in fact a better system for helping transition countries improve their public management than that currently on offer from the EU. But let’s cut to the chase with 3 basic questions –
• What is the EU system?
• What’s wrong with it?
• Is there a better way?

1. The elements of the system. The EU system of technical assistance to countries not yet members of the EU is based on principles of competition and project management. These govern the operation of two distinct programmes; one for private consultancies; the other (“twinning”) for state bodies. Don’t ask me how the split is made – I have never seen an EU paper which discusses this but I sense that twinning is more to do with the effective implementation of the legal norms of the European acquis than with institutional development per se.

1.1 Twinning with equivalent member state bodies. In principle “twinning” brings the promise of institutional rather than mere individual support – although, when the idea was first mooted in 1997 (when I was actually working in TAIEX), I for one was highly sceptical. My reservations were as follows –
• A good manager does not make a good adviser
• Public officials know only the system of one country
• A state body is highly unlikely to make its good people available – rather those it can afford to lose eg just about to retire

Basically a form is completed requesting twinning – which, after local assessment and approval, is circulated to EU member states whose bodies then make bids which are selected by the local European Delegations. A normal twinning will last 12-18 months – and will consist of a resident national adviser and study visits.

1.2 Consultants from private companies. National programmes are developed by countries – which set priorities for institutional development. Terms of Reference are developed by consultants and sent to a short list of 6-7 contractors which are selected by European delegations on the basis of “expressions of interest” they make and their suitability for the particular projects. Projects would typically consist of 2-3 foreign experts who would stay in the country for 18-24 months and have a budget for employing a mix of local and international experts; study visits and equipment. About 5 years ago, the life of the projects was supposed to be lengthened – but I have seen little sign of this.

2. What’s wrong with it?. It’s not easy to find assessments of either type of programme. I know of a couple of articles about the twinning experience - in 2002 and in 2007. I’ve written a fair amount about the private consultancy part of the business over the years – and suggested that the project design and procurement process is rather haphazard; that projects are too inflexible (arriving 2 years after need was first articulated); projects too short; and too many beneficiaries not sufficiently interested in change. The need for what the jargon calls “local ownership” has been recognised by donors in recent years – but it remains a meaningless slogan if the locals don’t have the experience to know what’s available; how to select priorities and to separate good from bad practice. In fact the critique of Technical Assistance goes back a long way – and was usefully summarised in 2002 by Peter Morgan in one of the few historical treatments of the subject. This was part of a major UNDP initiative entitled Reforming Technical Cooperation which was critical of the weak contribution of technical assistance to capacity development. Morgan's paper backs up my hostility to the logframe -
An organisational device of the North American construction industry – the project – was adopted to organise most TA. From the beginning, this process stunted IDO capacities for creative experimentation, for process facilitation, and for incremental discovery
3. Is there a better way? I have not really thought too much about the options - since I don’t sense that many people share my concerns and are actively seeking for alternatives. In my approach to training, I have suggested “balance” as a key principle. And perhaps this is also the key here.
Para 7 of my paper sets out some options which I will look at in more detail in my next post.
Right now I'm in Ploiesti - on my way to the mountains.

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