June 26, 2019

How The ‘Expert’ Consulting Complex Keeps African Governments Stagnant

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During the one year in which I’ve served as Chief Innovation Officer for the Government of Sierra Leone, it has become clear to me that “expert consultants” and “technical assistants” (local and especially international experts) might be one major reason why institutions of African governments have remained stagnated. 

In the last year, I have worked closely with several heads of international NGOs and granted audience to dozens of “technical experts” representing those organizations. Dozens of other independent consultants have also engaged with either myself directly or with members of my team. These consultants either come as part of an aid or loan package to the country or as independent agencies who have found a way to promise the government ‘a how to solve its problems’ for a stated fee.  

I often say that my job in the government is to ask questions. So I do – much to the chagrin of the experts. 

“I am sorry, did you say you built those 10 solutions over the last 5 years? How many of them are currently working and being used by citizens?”

“Can we please go back to slide 17? Here it shows that you will do big data analytics- which algorithms will you use? What error rates are we aiming for?”

Questions like this are often met with the answer “I don’t want to get technical right now,” or “Can we take this offline?” 

“No,” I often insist, that’s actually why I am here- to be technical. I had conversations like this so often that I had to include as a rule in my office: “Let’s Get Technical.” It’s written on a whiteboard explicitly for all to absorb.

As I have dug deeper and peeled the layers behind words like “big data analytics”, “end-to-end solutions”, “system architecture”, or even “innovation,” I learn that there’s often no technical depth underneath. Many of these experts have never written code in their lives, yet they talk about how blockchain might change water supply systems in Africa. They have never touched a drone, yet they have opinions on our aerial vehicle policies. They wouldn’t be able to draw up a single architectural framework for data structures, yet if you read their reports, you’ll find those words there. 

The technical experts who get sent to us, dare I say, are in fact generally not “technical”. However, a combination of them using the right words, and the lack of technical expertise within our own governments is why most of the aid money gets spent back externally on human expertise as consultants instead of building the institutions. It is also why no actual human capacity is built locally even though this is always a stated goal in these engagements. 

To be able to teach, one has to fully and wholly understand a concept. 

So what?

For development partners, I strongly encourage them to recruit the right technical people to engage governments. That includes people who write code and have Computer Science degrees and not just those with a Policy degree. My sense is that many of these experts like to ‘copy and paste’ programs that have worked somewhere else. So I would recommend that they approach each project and each country with a unique sense of possibilities- from first principles. 

For government institutions, capacity building is about investments into technical expertise. This means that the right set of people need to be hired- young, inquisitive, technical minds; given the resources to grow and the freedom to learn by doing. If it means bringing foreign technical experts for a while- that’s great but the long term solution always has to be internal and local.

For the current employees of State, particularly civil servants- it is your duty to solve your country’s problems for you and your children. As such the motivation and drive to learn and grown must be intrinsic. I imagine we all join the public service to have an impact on society. To amplify that impact, we must remain hungry to learn and thirsty for knowledge in order to solve our perennial societal challenges. 

The country expects each of us to ask questions. And the people of expect us to get the job done. So let’s get technical and be the experts who will solve our challenges.

David Moinina Sengeh is the Chief Innovation Officer at Government of Sierra-Leone, Senior TED Fellow, Nat Geo Emerging Explore, Obama Africa Leader. This text was adapted from his LinkedIn page

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