By Kate Newman

This blog is the third in our series on decolonising consultancy. For all the outputs from this theme, including a recording of our webinar on 21 September 2023, visit the relevant project page.

On 13 October, The Guardian published an article critiquing the fact that £2bn of UK foreign climate aid has been channelled through consultancies. These include KPMG, PwC and Adam Smith International. It argued that sending international consultants to developing countries creates little real benefit. It suggested that it is much more effective to invest this money at the local level. In INTRAC we have spent a lot of time developing our approach to consultancy. We argue that not all consultancy is equal. In reflecting on the value of consultancy it is important to focus on:

  • Who is commissioning consultancy and why,
  • who the consultant is,
  • what knowledge(s) are valued,
  • what values underpin the approach, and ultimately to ask the question:
  • how is this consultancy work enabling long-term sustainable, locally led, owned and determined development?

We are however concerned by the increasing role of consultancy in development. This is true especially when funds are spent in companies such as those mentioned in the article. This is because we have concerns about the level of ODA being spent on products and services from the donor country and question whether and how local analysis and expertise is valued when money is spent this way. But we also believe that consultancy itself is not the problem. Rather it is the nature of consultancy that is the issue. In our view, consultancy can (and does) play a crucial role in strengthening civil society. It can also contribute to efforts to decolonise development. 

The role of consultancy in strengthening civil society

The threats facing civil society are well documented – for example by the CIVICUS Monitor. One challenge is the oppressive regimes that restrict civic space. Another is extreme vulnerability to climate change. Power dynamics can limit local actors’ confidence in their own knowledge and experience. It becomes more difficult to deliver the agendas they know are crucial in their contexts.

In many contexts, CSOs cannot access the resources or expertise they need to flourish. These are the things they need to be impactful, to have resilience and legitimacy. When contexts change, they may need support to help them navigate complex environments. The health, sustainability and impact of CSOs depends on strong national ecosystems of support.

Consultants play a fundamental role in this ecosystem. They can be especially important in the role of a ‘critical friend’ to a local organisation. An external view can be important to look at the bigger picture, identify and ask the right questions. Someone not so involved in the day to day may find it easier to constructively challenge entrenched thinking.  Moreover, ideas which may have worked historically may not be so useful as contexts change. Consultants can help make links between local knowledge and experiences and the expertise developed elsewhere. Central here is the way the role of the consultant is understood and practiced. Who drives and defines the consultancy offer, and how power relations are established, are vital.

Contribution of consultancy to decolonising development

Individual consultants are key actors in the ecosystem of civil society support. But enhancing the strength and connections between national consultants is essential. It helps to shift the power and can also contribute to actions to decolonise development. Too often, consultants can become isolated. They have limited opportunity to share learning, insights and knowledge with others. And yet, these are often the people who could act as knowledge brokers. A consultant tends to engage with multiple contexts or organisations. This presents strong learning opportunities. They can bring direct experience into wider debate and learning around civil society action and support. A consultant may also have access to those who fund civil society, as these organisations are often the commissioners of consultancy work. This could include official donors, funders, INGOs or other global actors. Consultants can stand with local actors, and champion or amplify their  priorities. Through their role they can and shape the support and relationships that best enable inclusive, equitable and legitimate local action. Through integrating consultants into the wider systems of civil society support, and supporting their voice; they can  contribute to wider understanding and influence practice.

Not all consultancy is equal. INTRAC commits to developing consultancy that actively disrupts current global power dynamics. We continue to believe that consultancy can build an enabling civil society space.  But it must be appropriate to the needs of that space; and the behaviour and approach of the consultant is key.  If the knowledge, expertise, perspectives and aspirations of local actors is centred, then consultants – whether they are global or local – can have a core role in creating long-term sustainable impact and change.