I referred in the last post to the tens (if not hundreds) of billions of euros spent in recent decades by international bodies on what we might call the “development industry”. That translates into thousands (if not hundreds of…) individuals like myself who transit the world’s air terminals and hotels working on projects designed to build organisational capacity in countries receiving technical assistance.
For almost as long as I remember, I’ve written reflections on my endeavours and published them
In this venture, I seem almost to be unique….Robert Chambers – a much more exalted figure than I could ever claim to be – is someone who, from his institutional base, has been able to combine practical work with theoretical reflections in the manner I aspire to. Albert Hirschmann is perhaps the real doyen of the genre.
This morning I was delighted to encounter a new blogsite with the wonderful name Aidnography with a post – Where are the consultants hiding? - which is the first I’ve seen to deal with this deficiency
Every so often I receive a short email from a senior development consultant – women and men with probably 15, often 20 or more years of paid professional employment inside the ‘aid industry’ – they basically started before it was even called an ‘industry’! The messages are usually short, sometimes straight from ‘the field’ (i.e. really uncomfortable, dangerous and complex locations) and often along the lines of ‘little do you/that researcher/this journalist really know about organization X or the crisis in region Y’.
But with very few exceptions, these voices rarely make into the development blogosphere, let alone find their way into virtual, classroom or policy discussions. The proverbial ‘I will write a book about my time in the industry once I have retired’ approach only works for very few and even if they manage to write that book, the distance of a few years between what happened in, say, Rwanda and the publication creates a safer, but often also less relevant story.
Why are senior consultants ‘hiding’? There are some more obvious reasons why senior consultants are often not very visible in public debates:· They tend to be very busy: they have carved out their niche and are on the go to the next assignment in ‘their’ country, region or area of expertise
· They tend to be older and may not have been socialized in the digital culture of sharing, being online and maintaining a digital presence or even a brand
· They actually have something to lose if public critique leads to fewer assignments for a favourite organization or they are perceived as ‘difficult’ (many freelance senior consultants have quasi-employment status with some of the largest bi- and multilateral organizations)
· They know development is a job; after decades of work, every profession, job or calling has been met with plenty of reality checks; even if you are not cynical or burned-out it is difficult to have similar discussion regularly or get excited when the latest ‘participatory bottom-up community design project’ turns out to be just like any other project with a budget, log-frame and quarterly reports
· They do not really like the academic reflection business and prefer to get an assignment ‘done’ rather than reflecting on an industry that may not be responsive to critique anyway (see previous point)
On the other hand, their detailed and nuanced insights would be beneficial in many discussions on why certain organizations do what they are doing, who was resisting an idea and how difficult and political consensus building really is; they could also shed light on many realities in the field, the grey areas, the trade-offs, the secrets of the industry of how to get positive change going and how to avoid bureaucratic pitfalls etc. Or how they maintain marriages, families, well-being and gruesome travel schedules.
How do we get access to senior consultants and get them to share their wisdom, stories and experiences (if they want to…)? Traditional formats, like inviting them to (academic) conferences and workshops, usually fail or are limited to the context of one event. The IRIS Humanitarian Affairs Think Tank is an interesting approach that connects researchers and humanitarian practitioners in an academic framework with support from SaveThe Children. And there are probably similar projects that I am not aware of and that you are most welcome to share with me so I can add it to this post. So what other formats can we think of? Writing retreats that aim at producing a publication through a book sprint rather than going through traditional publishing channels? Or do we need more traditional, multi-sited research that works along those busy schedules and may include interviews in unusual locations, e.g. airport lounges, R&R hotels or organizational debriefings?
At this point in time, I am thinking out loud really and I am grateful for comments, suggestions and ideas!