New Internationalist

What do expat experts do for development?

February 1981

Wherever development experts go they take privilege and power with their skill and knowledge. Christopher Sheppard asks whether they are more of a hindrance than a help to the poor.

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DAY one. Straight to the Ministry. Past the man at the door - black and uniformed, nodding at first, then smiling when you greet him in his own language. Upstairs and down long corridors, walking slowly past the open doors. A sign reads Typing Pool - a bevvy of young black women sit chattering, giggling, easing headed notepaper through big old-fashioned machines. Filing-sullen young men read newspapers behind a pile of tattered manila folders. The Administrative assistant - a solitary, besuited man sits rigid at a large empty desk: black face, black pen, black telephone.

Onward, and the spaces between doors widen. On the left, Planning Officer - white man, early twenties, shirt open at the neck, one hand spreading the pages of the Fifth Development Plan, the other stabbing at a calculator. On the right: Project Co-ordinator - mid-West accent, talking excitedly into the phone. Mental note to see him later.

Three more strides to Economic Advisor - thinning hair, safari suit, leaning forwards to confer with a big pale-faced man, his briefcase open beside him. On the walls plans for the new airport; in front of them a thick contract. They look up briefly. But the last door swings open.

Gold lettering proclaims the Minister. Polished shoes dark suit taut waistcoat gold pen, black face, he reaches out his hand. 'Welcome my dear friend. How are things in Geneva?'

The parade of black administrators, with a thickening seam of white faces as you approach the top, It's a familiar scene for the visiting consultant. Many Third World countries are still heavily staffed with expatriates. All are experts.

Speaking to the Minister, calling a top-level meeting, sending black and white officials scurrying, is the leader of the gang - the short-term consultant. Sharp-shooting, hard-talking, high-flying - often he holds the purse strings of an international aid agency or his own government. But a developing country may have only three weeks to prise these strings from his hand. His own purse is well-lined - $300 a day plus expenses in the case of the World Bank.

Still a rare sight: visiting expert in close consultation with his clients. Photo: OXFAM
Still a rare sight: visiting expert in close consultation with his clients. Photo: OXFAM

The white faces behind big desks are expatriate civil servants `on loan' to the Third World government. They are the aid policemen who make sure money is spent properly. They are aid itself - a gift of expertise - like a set of encyclopaedias. Or they plug that skilled manpower gap - with teachers, nurses, technicians, administrators.

Theoretically they constitute a `holding operation'. `One day we won't need them', say government leaders. `When our people are trained, when they have gained experience, then we'll take over.'

But knowledge has a built-in obsolescence. Development fashions change fast, and technology advances faster. The foreign expert, with his international experience helps a country keep abreast of the times. And he is hard to replace. It is a rare government that is willing to sacrifice its white ambassadors from the North to the cause of self-sufficiency.

Successive revolutions have ousted their occupying army of expatriate colonialists, only to call them back again as experts when the fighting is over. The reins of the country may be in black hands, but it is a white man's voice that whispers in the driver's ear. And his advice can never be objective.

He is a foreigner first and foremost - an American, or a Russian - with corresponding ideals and experiences. A neo-colonial cold war is being waged in the hot sunshine of the developing world as the big powers carve out spheres of influence amongst sympathetic or pliable Third World governments.

The experts are their soldiers - an occupying army of 22,000 from the US (in 1970 - there has been `no demand' for figures since then, according to a USAID official in Washington) matched by 32,500 Soviets and 24,500 Chinese in 1977. There's nothing quite like a revolution to send superpower money and advisors flooding into neighbouring states. In the middle of 1980, driven by fear of a Russian invasion of Pakistan from Afghanistan, Western donors pledged a $980 million aid package - a dramatic increase on the previous $700 million deal. And beggars can't often be choosers. The expert is aid. A Third World government usually gets him just as it gets Land Rovers - on the donor's terms. Mozambique was the first to insist that incoming expatriates had political sympathy as well as technical skill.

Most countries just accept their experts as part of the aid package - without the aid policeman there can be no aid. As with the `conditionality' of IMF loans, a price must be paid because the donors don't trust local administrators to spend their money carefully.

USAID prefers a different language. Their experts are merely `filling in' while local people are 'trained-up' for high-ranking positions. Most training, of course, takes place in the US. Similarly, refugees from South Africa are receiving training by the Soviets, while a large slice of British aid is spent on training students and officials from the former empire.

The paths are well-worn between Third World ministries, international agencies and foreign universities. African and Asian civil servants arriving to take their PhD's bump into their economics professor at the airport, wearing his consultant hat and waiting for the outbound flight.

Along the way a common language is learnt, a common understanding achieved, and the development songs are sung in unison - to the bewilderment of those that stayed at home.

`Infrastructure' was the catchy ditty at the Top of the Development Pops in the 1960s. Next they were singing `integrated development'. Today it's `basic needs'.

Projects are set up by local and foreign experts together. A shared point of view is part of the deal. When the World Bank says it wants to `put money into basic needs', then the experts have to go and look for them. Out on tour in the countryside they keep a keen eye open for a clear need that is easily met. Their hosts try to oblige: the result- toilets in remote clinics to flush away scarce water - for three weeks, until they break down and breed more germs than a score of pit latrines.

The `green revolution' is a good example of expert thinking dragging massive finance in its wake and overwhelming development policy in poor countries. High-yielding seed varieties can triple harvests on model farms. But for peasants with meagre resources they don't work. The poor farmer simply doesn't have the necessary fertilisers and abundant water, and can't spare the time needed to care for the miraculous new seeds.

There are few shortcuts to success. But still the experts look for them. The Ford Foundation sent a group of US agricultural experts to India in 1959. They agreed it was impossible to reach all India's half a million villages so recommended a plan that covered only well-irrigated farms. The result: a national agricultural development programme based on these miracle seeds, serving only one tenth of the land, and reaching mostly rich farmers.

The desk-bound expert means top-down development almost by definition. First think of a cure for poverty in a well-sanitised office. Next a quick bedside visit to the patient in the shape of a village tour. If the poor take their medicine according to the directions, they will be cured. If they refuse, then they only have themselves to blame. The patient gets no choice of medicines. He can only co-operate with, but never participate in, the treatment.

Faced with boycotts of their projects experts have tried to manufacture 'participation'. Farmers' committees and self-help groups are now considered vital components of good projects. But still the poor are excluded. A World Bank expert working on a Bangladesh tubewell project admitted he had given up investigating the landholdings of co-operative chairmen: they were always the big farmers. And, he admitted, `100 per cent of the wells were going to the big boys'.

Still a rare sight: visiting expert in close consultation with his clients. Photo: OXFAM
Seeing things from the same perspective. Photo: OXFAM

The local elite on their farms, the government elite in their offices, and the foreign experts in theirs. A big club perhaps. But an exclusive one. In the town they share the symbols of `expatriate life' - creating islands of privilege surrounded by lamentable poverty. The foreigners bring a taste for food and consumer comfort that needs to be specially met - or they won't stay. Air conditioning, fresh vegetables, imported gin, special schools for their children. Fees and airfares are standard contract perks, while tax-free salary cheques thud monthly into home bank accounts to meet morgage repayments and soften the hard realities of Western recession.

Up to 25 per cent of Western aid budgets is spent on experts. After salary, airfares, school fees, various perks, and home-based overheads are covered, the average British expert costs $150,000 a year. And that's considered cheap on this circuit. The money creates a lifestyle that is difficult to sustain back home. Yet this is the carrot dangled in front of the local community - driving government salaries up to satisfy the ever present hunger for consumer goods, and at the same time creating an even bigger gap between the urban rich and the rural poor.

The expert is a necessary evil, perhaps. But can he be an agent for constructive change? Certainly the cards seem stacked against him: divorced from the poor once by his profession, twice by his culture, and a third time by the rules of the game. Information about poverty is channeled through the local administration. Occasional visits to the village may add colour, but are unlikely to provide an alternative view-point. The expert who seriously challenges his host's interpretation of local problems is quite likely to be shown the door. A Western sociologist working at the University of Malawi circulated a paper criticising the showpiece Lilongwe Development Project - President Banda's pride and joy - and soon found himself packing his bags. The threat of being `PI'd' (made a prohibited immigrant) by an angry government hangs over every `guest worker'.

But what about the good expert? Champion of the poor, shunning luxury, living in a mud but among the people, heroically exposing exploitation wherever he finds it. He doesn't exist. Some experts live in villages. Some do their best to focus attention on the plight of the under-privileged. Some stand on principle and lose their jobs. But alone, they can never effectively challenge the local structure of power.

The expert's power is restricted. It is rooted in the economic muscle of his own government or agency. And economic power has its own imperatives and priorities - such as returns on investment. The committed expert is unlikely to get much support from his boss at home for his efforts to organise the landless, or in a campaign against vested interests among government officials.

This importance of the `alternative' expert is slowly dawning but the realisation is still confined to a handful of non-government organisations.

Yet a world without experts is hard to imagine. They are the human interface between the North and the South. A vehicle for perverse and inappropriate values - yes, often - but if the rich world has anything to offer the poor, it must pass through the hands of experts. And there is much to be learnt. Internationalism is built on an understanding of shared and related difficulties. The problem is that experts learn from experts. The only way to break the charmed circle is to return to basic principles - to people planting sorghum, digging ditches, tending sick children, and hawking their produce in the market place.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 096 This special report appeared in the wisdom from above - but do experts help the poor? issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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