I recently read a very good article from WWW.DEVEX.COM predicting doom for International development consultants. According to DEVEX.COM, it is apparent that so-called national and regional consultants are giving their International peers hard time. The International consultants no longer command the near monopoly position they have enjoyed for so long.
‘’…. in Africa, “donors sometimes balk at paying full market rates for local researchers,” said Cheikh Oumar Ba, executive director of the Senegalese think tank IPAR. “We recently put in a tender that had an international team of researchers from various countries, worldwide, and the client complained about the price tag of the African researchers on the team and asked us to lower their rates. We refused. You have to remember, we all went to the same universities, we have the same degrees.”
Devex’s hypothesis is that given the increasing capacity of national and regional consultants, there is decreasing demand for services of their International peer. This typology of national, regional, and international consultants triggered many questions in my mind.
What is the definition of a national, regional, and so-called International consultant? When does a national consultant become international and the international one, national or regional? Are the consulting typologies by Devex reversible, depending on the location of a specific consulting assignment? For example, as a Ugandan would my consulting typology change from National to International consultant if I took on a job for a London-based charity? What if I decided to do the London job, over Skype and email, from my village in Nakabugu Uganda? I am not even asking any question about my colour, since that is not a factor in determining consulting typology, I hope.
I certainly do not want to sound cynical, but the DEVEX article avoids the obvious in the development consulting world. Consulting typology in development tends to be defined not even by nationality, but cultural fit. Of course, one assumes that cultural fit goes hand in hand with one’s nationality. However, even if I was not Ugandan, I can relate and comply with the requirements of Ugandan culture by virtue of the number of years I have lived in Uganda or with authentic Ugandans.
Therefore, from where I stand, there is no such thing as a national, regional, or International consultant. This consulting typology is a misnomer. Instead, there are national, regional, and international consulting markets. As we all know, markets behave like human beings: they have power holders, habits, and preferences. Consultants that wish to access any of the three market typologies must deliver to the needs of the market.
Using my development industry experience, let me define for you the typical profile of the so-called international consulting market:
- Comfortable around Western mannerisms (where did you travel to for your last summer holiday?)
- Subscribe to a near-perfect/perfect American and British accent
- Requires excellent writing skills
- Respects extroverts
- Those doing well in this market can sell sawdust to a lumber mill
- Networks and the gravy train a big part of the market
- It attracts both black and Caucasian but ‘caucasian’ is the ‘Rolls-Royce’ of the market
If you can deliver to the above, you are in business. We have to be honest and accept that it is a pretty tough market to crack. Tough to crack as some of your peer consultants would get a soft landing on many of the market factors above. As a Ugandan from Nakabugu village, with a lovely Ugandan accent, I cannot envy a British peer consultant whose native language and accent are British. It is that language advantage that makes them a good consultant and competitive in this particular market niche. At the same time, I have many other factors that make me a good consultant too. Again, it is a market, and you have to match your offer. The good news is that the market is not ‘stupid’, and it appreciates and exploits the diversity and pluralism in markets.
The market-fallacy in development:
I have written about the fallacy of the market in development. Reading the DEVEX article, I have to conclude that development continues to exhibit discomfort with respecting the theory of the market. A theory so simple, that I am ever surprised why we tend to focus on the secondary and choose to avoid the primary.
The shift in the international consulting landscape is purely down to market forces. The so called national and regional consultants, traditionally the underdogs of the consulting world, have mastered the art of effective consulting. They are increasingly becoming effective at their jobs and can honour commitments to their clients. When you explore the typical profile of an effective national/regional consultant, they are likely to exhibit many of the characteristics of the international consulting market above. Is it not true then that consultants operate in a global marketplace and what niche they occupy, is determined by their capacities or incapacities to service demand from the niche – simple!
As a Ugandan, I can win international consulting bids as long as my offer matches the demand from that particular market. In consulting markets where I have a demand/supply imbalance, it is incumbent on me to address the capacity gaps causing the imbalance. In the private sector, most successful global businesses started as national operators serving the local market, progressing to serve the regional and international markets. The successful shift to regional and global markets is a direct result of such companies addressing demand and supply imbalances in their value chains.
I cannot waste my mental energy believing that I have been denied a consulting job because I am Ugandan. If cultural purity is a requirement for a job, consulting or not, then I know that is not my market. In business, we make choices, and at times very tough choices!
My takeaway: As long as you rationally choose what you want to do and are effective at it, effectiveness meaning delivering high-quality outputs or outcomes, you will never fail.