By Rick James

This blog is part of INTRAC’s season on shifting the power through organisational development. The season is part of our celebrations of INTRAC’s 30th anniversary.

In my very first INTRAC paper 28 years ago, I highlighted the ‘acute shortage of Southern OD consultants’ and recommended that Northern NGOs needed to consciously support their development. It made sense – national consultants are grounded in the local context and culture; speak the mother tongue; and are on hand to provide valuable follow through. Sadly, almost 30 years on, the civil society sector still desperately needs more national consultants who can facilitate organisational change and learning, according to three recent sector-wide studies (Hewlett 2021, Ford 2021, Packard/INTRAC 2020).

So the challenge is not new. But now at least there is a new urgency. COVID-19 travel restrictions and the pressure to decolonise international development (encouraged by #BlackLivesMatter movement) have shone a searing light on the ongoing dominance of international consultancy by actors based in the global North. To shift the power we need to localise consultancy, but it is more complex than simply contracting any Southern consultants. We need consultants trained and experienced in catalysing change, not just writing ‘expert’, academic reports. We are hopeful that the next five years will see the sector finally getting to grips with addressing the bottleneck of quality local consultants. It is an idea whose time may finally have come.

Cartoon by Bill Crooks

Fortunately we already have a variety of experiences to learn from, improve and scale up. EASUN in Tanzania have run a programme for a number of years. Foundations like Oak and Peace Nexus have supported one-off projects in this field. As INTRAC turns 30, I reflect on my own experiences. Of all the work I have done at INTRAC, the initiatives I am most proud of and where I have seen most lasting impact, have been our efforts to strengthen the supply of quality local consultants.

What INTRAC has done in localising consultancy

From 1997-2007 we designed and delivered OD consultant formation programmes in Nigeria, Kenya and Malawi (where I spent 10 years). Together with CORAT (Kenya), PRIA (India), and CDRA in South Africa we reflected on our different experiences and co-authored the book OD Formation in Africa (2002). More recently in 2016 to 2018, INTRAC facilitated the Consultants for Change programme, training 40 consultants from Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania, Palestine, Lebanon and Indonesia. This training was later adapted for civil society consultants in Saudi Arabia. The online course we created has reached isolated places in Mali and the Gaza Strip. The Consultants for Change book and materials have already been translated into Arabic, Russian and most recently French. It is this latter version that Well Grounded use in their Facilitators for Change training in the Congo Basin.

We have learnt a lot about how to do it

Some of the main lessons we have learned include:

  1. The importance of recruitment. Much of the eventual success of any formation programme depends on the quality of people who take part. We know to look for people with some competence in listening, analysing, facilitating and communicating, but have learnt that even more important is their commitment and character.
  2. Modular face-to-face and online training over 12-18 months works well to give people the opportunity to put their learning into practice during the programme. Practical assignments can be extremely powerful learning moments particularly when supported by mentoring.
  3. Focusing on facilitating change, whatever the topic of the intervention, whether monitoring, evaluation and learning; strategic planning; safeguarding, or sustainable financing. Ultimately any consultant is there to inspire change, not simply pronounce expert opinions.

On-going challenges

We have also learnt how hard it is. Not everyone has the competence, commitment and character to be a genuine facilitator. To inspire change takes ‘consulting with soul’. To train people well takes a relatively high investment per head. Some donors baulk at this, as they do not consider the positive impact on the sector that a well-trained local consultant can have over many years. Others point out that you cannot guarantee that trainees will remain as consultants serving civil society. Certainly, some trainees found the life of a consultant was not for them with its short-term engagements and insecure income.. The majority of these have joined international NGOs and foundations – a loss to consultancy for sure, but still making a positive contribution to the sector.

To support training of local consultants therefore needs generous donors with the foresight to strengthen the whole civil society ecosystem, not just their direct partners. As the 2021 Packard report points out, there is no short-cut alternative to developing this ecosystem.

Looking back and to the future

As I look back over INTRAC’s 30 years, training national consultants has been one of our most important contributions to localising development and therefore shifting the power. As we look ahead, however, the same persistent bottleneck remains. INTRAC remains committed to addressing this issue. In 2022 we hope to launch a new initiative to develop local consultants in four regions, over four years with the support of four foundations. We trust that the greater attention to decolonising development will result in a plethora of different initiatives to localise consultancy in the aid sector. We are hopeful that in 30 years’ time, we will see civil society ecosystems brimming with a healthy supply of national facilitators. That, for me, will be a genuine indicator that we have truly shifted the power.

Rick James is an organisational change specialist with more than 30 years’ experience working with over 100 NGOs in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe. After working for a Honduran NGO for four years, he completed an MBA in the UK before joining INTRAC at its inception after 1992. Rick spent 10 years in Malawi with INTRAC, where he trained a team of Malawian OD consultants, facilitated change with NGO support organisations, undertook research into leadership change issues and consulted for international NGOs on the monitoring and evaluation of capacity building. He has a PhD in NGO Management and is a Senior Teaching Fellow at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), City, University of London.