The villagers of Chorkate in Gorkha District recently had a first hand experience with a development consultant and are not ready for another one soon. A foreign expert decided that Chnrkate needed to upgrade its livestock and so he flew in a strapping bull from the United States. The bull was too big for little Nepali mountain cows, which collapsed from the weight of the beefy American import before consummation could take place. Shunned by the frightened cows and unwanted by the villagers, the stud today paces the banks of the Daraundi River, alone. The consultant, meanwhile, has handed in his project report and returned to the United States.
Development consultancies are a fast-growth industry in the foreign aid haven that is present-day Kathmandu. Large foreign firms make off with the big dam, airport and highway projects while homegrown consultants do quite well nibbling the tidbits. Most consultants, foreign and local, are upright and professional, but due to the shenanigans of a few, their image by and large is one of carpetbaggers out to make a fast buck. Today, consultants build dams, build roads, plan irrigation, do soil tests, train civil servants, advise ministries and advise those who want to learn how to advise.
Swiss geologist Toni Hagen was the “proto consultant'”, who set an example with his diligence and creativity. Hagen crisscrossed Nepal in the early 1950s and made the first comprehensive physical and economic survey of Nepal for what was then known as the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration. Just as Nepal needed Hagen’s advice in 1954, there continues to be a genuine need for outside expertise to fuel social and economic progress. Indeed, specialized one-time duties are often best conducted by a consultant. But today consultants are engaged in every stage of a project: from pre-feasibility to final evaluation.
A Development Racket
Awarding a contract has become a racket in Kathmandu as well as in donor-country capitals and agency headquarters. There is featherbedding, keeping the “national counterpart” happy, or deliberate delay to keep the stipend flowing. Most national consultancies have learnt to play by the local rules. When a construction project is approved, for example, the project manager who signs the papers for the Government normally expects a five per cent commission, the engineer receives four percent and the accountant one per cent. Only someone blind to local reality would hesitate to give the poorly paid Government staffer his cut, says a consultant.
Aid agencies are insisting that projects they support utilize consultants from abroad. Foreign consultants, unaware of local conditions and often unwilling even to learn, can turn needed projects into failures. One good example is the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank funded Second Hill Irrigation Project, meant to provide simple upgrades to existing irrigation systems in four districts of West Nepal. The feasibility survey was conducted by Louis Berger, an American firm, which submitted a positive report and was appointed a principal implementing consultant for the project.
To fill the project’s pivotal post, Louis Berger assigned an agri- engineer, instead of a civil engineer, a young man who did not have the required field experience. The engineer worked from distant Kathmandu and, according to a 1 March -ADB evaluation report, his designs were “too sophisticated (expensive) and did not take adequately into account the existing irrigation systems and the actual requirements of the farmers”.
Concerned by the runaway costs of the wayward project, the Department of Irrigation terminated the consultancy on 9 March, but by then NRs400,000 had already been spent by each of the four local consultants that had been hired by Louis Berger. Perhaps ten times that amount was spent by the principal consultant. “For the amount wasted, they could have helicoptered the water to Doti in Jerry cans,” says an irrigation expert.
The Resources Conservation and Utilization Project (RCUP, which imported the bull to Gorkha) is another example of how consultants can waste money and achieve little. Funded by USAID, RCUP was meant to be a “multifaceted integrated watershed project” for central Nepal. It began work in 1980 and was implemented by the Southeast Consortium for International Development (SECID), an American firm, which brought in a forester, a soil scientist, three “catchment advisors”, one training specialist and a social scientist.
At the very outset, there was rancour amongst the consultants themselves. Then the advisor in Myagdi was withdrawn by SECID after problems arose with the local community. The overall insensitivity to local feelings and needs was exemplified by the catchment advisor in Gorkha, who secluded himself in a sumptuous “durbar” up on a hill, rarely deigned to mingle with the folks he had come to help, and reportedly treated his Nepali co-workers with condescension and disdain. Some of the RCUP buildings designed for the upper Kali Gandaki Valley required long beams that sweep majestically through the length of the construction. RCUP was hardly conserving resources as its title proclaimed: it was cutting down the tallest trees from the alpine forests.
An evaluation report prepared by the International Science and Technology Institute in 1985 gave RCUP failing grades. Among its findings: “No model for watershed management has been developed…the concept of the watershed as an integrating unit has not been used…too many components were tried over too large an area too quickly”. Thus, RCUP’s grandiose plans have amounted to very little. $27.5 million was a lot to pay for a project that has left behind 174 empty buildings scattered across the hills and little else. The RCUP consultants were “terribly underused and overpaid”, says a Nepali expert. But much of the blame, he says, rests not on the shoulders of SECID, or USAID, but with the Government, which has allowed consultancies, good and bad, to flourish.
Many contrast Nepal’s experience with that of India, where the Government dictates the terms to multilateral and bilateral donors and invites the participation of foreign consultants only where absolutely necessary. Because of strong technical expertise that exists within Indian departments, there is also little hiring of local experts. In January, a group meeting in New Delhi urged the Government to promulgate regulations to ensure quality in the profession. There is no such move in Nepal, even though every dilapidated doorway in Kathmandu seems to hang a consultancy shingle. A survey by the Center for Action Research in 1983 found 146 consultancy groups in the Valley, and there are obviously many more today.
Most master plans, evaluations and reports by consultants are written to be shelved and gather dust in the respective ministries. A few years ago, the Director-General of Tourism could not even locate his only copy of the Tourism Master Plan when challenged by a reporter.
Who Reads Them?
Not many consultants’ reports break new ground. Many opuses are duplications of studies carried out by someone long gone. The head of a prominent Washington DC firm is presently advising the Ministry of Finance on programme budgeting processes and is funded by UNDP. The same adviser was consulting with the Ministry on the same subject about two decades ago, at that time reportedly supported by the Ford Foundation. “The weakness is not of the consultant for wanting the contract but of the Government for giving it to him,” says a Nepali economist.
On occasion, consultants, both foreign and local, do stand up for principle and have been known to withstand pressure. A recent example is the firm of Electrowatt from Zurich, Switzerland, which was studying surface and ground water prospects in the Eastern Tarai. The development bank reportedly had the financing ready and the Irrigation Department was also keen, but Electrowatt was convinced that the project would be unfeasible and stuck by its report.
Ram Prasad Yadav, Deputy Director of ICIMOD, feels that consultancies in Nepal are too busy just keeping alive and are not on the intellectual cutting edge. “The problem with even the respected consultancies in Nepal, such as New Era, CEDA, APROSC and ISC, is that they do little or no research. Only research can provide the analytical ammunition required for giving good advice,” he says.
Externally funded projects generally run in five-year cycles. This leads planners to try to squeeze a proposal, regardless of actual time demands, into a five-year time frame. After identifying the hill districts of Tanahu, Syangjha and Gorkha as constituting a food-deficit area, an expert recently proposed an assistance programme for food-grain production, forgetting that there were highways to transport food from nearby surplus areas. Horticultural development would have been a much better option, but then orange trees, which grow well in the region, take more than five years to start producing.
Foreign or Local
Former Secretary of Finance Devendra Raj Pandey, a consultant known for speaking his mind, disputes the notion that foreign consultants are cut off from Nepali reality as opposed to homegrown consultants. “As long as they are alienated from the local people, what difference does it make whether they are Nepali or foreign?” he asks. “In the garb of native expertise, our experts are often as much outside the Nepali mainstream as the foreign expert.”
Local experts are getting lots of work in Kathmandu nowadays, but at the same time there is no drop in the flow of awards to foreign consultancies. The lenders and donors insist on their own experts. Nepal’s capability to design, administer and implement development programmes is declining even in the face of increasing financial flows. So donors say that they will implement the programmes on a turn-key basis,”which hurts the very core of technical assistance philosophy”, according to Pandey.
Turn-key projects also mean expensive long-term consultants, flights by helicopter to project sites, lots of to-and-fro between foreign capitals and Kathmandu, “R and R” in Bangkok, a spacious mansion and “house staff’ in Kathmandu, reports to publish and officials to keep happy. Some of the largesse is also distributed among local consultants and technocrats. The real estate market, the retailers, the airlines, the hotels, the gasoline merchants, the nanny and mall markets, all benefit.
There would seem to be few losers in the consulting game, at least in foreign capitals and in Kathmandu.
An Expatriate Consultant in Islamabad
“You don’t want Botswana. You want Pakistan!” The Korean man calling from Geneva had an explosive way of talking. “Pakistan. North-west Frontier. Beautiful place. Mountains. Never mind Botswana: you want Pakistan. Next week.” It sounded like a good idea. There are so many development-aid people in Botswana you can’t find anything to finance any more.
We are six on the mission to the North-West Frontier. None of us have been here before. None of us have previously met. A mix of people because this time its an international agency. We’ve got four weeks to come up with a project for, say, thirty million dollars. Routine.
We are all foreigners, but we are all Americans. None of us knows Pakistan but we all know what is good for it. I find the view sickening. In front of the veranda are mountain flowers, then the big river, then the mountains. If I look up, it’s all snow-capped peaks, like
meringue-topping. I don’t want it. It’s like deceit, a sneer. The people are poor, the mountains a logistical nightmare. Road building will cost twice the average. Thank God we are returning to the Intercontinental in Peshawar tomorrow.
“We want to do something for our people quickly. We don’t want your six-year project; we want two years, three years. The people up there hardly know the government exists. They see the refugees receiving all sorts of international aid and they wonder why they are not getting anything. It’s a restless place. You should join these people to the rest of Pakistan. Agricultural research and improved farming are not enough. We want results. The government is ready to move. We know what we have to do. Just release the money and we will do the rest.”
“Look, we want to lend you the money you are talking about, but one valley is not enough. One valley doesn’t have the absorption capacity. We need a minimum of two, and preferably three, valleys. We want at least a million people. Otherwise Geneva won’t like it. Frankly, they will say it was not worth the expense of sending out a mission. We want to give you a project but you’ll have to take away some valleys from someone else and give them to us.”
“We have decided we can give you two more valleys. We will give you an American valley and one which was going to the Germans. We want to reduce bilateral funding in favour of international donors. But we have to have assurances that you will release the money fast.”
“No problem. I’ll tell Geneva.”
So what we’ll do is this. We’ll keep the six-year concept but make a four-year first phase to satisfy the government. We’ll go for a small-farmer development package, with increased government staff and transport in the region, but we’ll include pre-feasibility studies for the large construction projects so they can’t say we ignored them. Logistically and socially the large-scale projects are bad news. We’ll include them in the total package but auction them off separately to co-financing agencies. There are plenty of development agencies who would be happy to pick them up. Pakistan is a success story, don’t forget: it can pay its debts. We’ll put in a good-size road component, but we can’t touch the ecological problems — too long-term. We’re getting there. We’re in business.
We’ve done the Himalaya, we’ve done the provincial government and we’ve cleared the federal government in Islamabad. After twenty-seven nights together, the mission has dispersed. I try — not very hard — to remember the names of the officials in Peshawar and I am pleased to find that already I cannot,
from “The Development Game” by Leonard Frank (Courtesy, Granta)