What Makes an Expert Consultant in International Development?

I decided to explore the prevailing views of the International Development community by posing a question to the 40,000+ members of the in the DEVEX Group on LinkedIn. The results I received from the survey, and the discussions that followed, were both surprising and revealing.

I asked this simple question: “When hiring a consultant in the field of International Development, what are the most important attributes?” a) Practical knowledge and field experience? b) Academic qualifications in Development? c) Cultural familiarity with the country? d) Professional experience in related field? e) Affinity with your organisation's values?

Perhaps this is a question that crosses the mind of consultants and recruiters from time to time. It’s certainly a question that’s been on my mind as I’ve sought to offer my services as a freelance consultant. What skills are most needed? What are the priorities of potential employers? What areas of personal and professional development do I need to prioritize? How do I best communicate my skills when applying for advertised contracts? What should I emphasise most when I prepare a resume?

I decided to explore the prevailing views of the International Development community by posing a question to the 40,000+ members of the in the DEVEX Group on LinkedIn. The results I received from the survey, and the discussions that followed, were both surprising and revealing.

I asked this simple question: “When hiring a consultant in the field of International Development, what are the most important attributes?” a) Practical knowledge and field experience? b) Academic qualifications in Development? c) Cultural familiarity with the country? d) Professional experience in related field? e) Affinity with your organisation's values?

The Results

Practical knowledge and field experience romped in as the clear winner well ahead of the field with a whopping 66 percent, followed by Professional Experience trailing significantly behind at 22 percent. Next in line was Cultural Familiarity at a mere 5 percent with Affinity for Your Organisational Values next at 3 percent. Academic Qualifications come in a very surprising last at only 2 percent. Yes, 2 percent!

The surprise for me, especially as someone who has been considering further study, is just how low academic qualifications rated as a priority among ID professionals. The second thing that surprised me was the commanding margin that practical field experience held over all of the other attributes.

The Apparent Contradiction

Anyone who has scoured the internet looking at job ads may already see something in these results that I quickly noticed: There appears to be an inverse relationship between the attributes that are most valued by ID professionals and those attributes which are most often requested in advertised positions.

There appears to be an inverse relationship between the attributes that are most valued by ID professionals and those attributes which are most often requested in advertised positions.

If you do a survey of most job ads, academic qualifications usually feature high on the list of specified minimum requirements. Organisations also often seek staff who share affinity with their organisation’s particular values – the second least valued attribute in the survey. So on one hand, job ads are emphasising academic qualifications and values-alignment, but seasoned professionals see these as the least important and useful traits of all.

So why this dichotomy?

I’ll try to suggest some possible explanations for this. Perhaps not all readers will agree with me so, by all means, please feel free to contribute your own thoughts.

Possibility 1: Recruiters are Simply Too Busy.

Recruiting agents have indicated that they frequently get so many applications for a position that they simply do not have adequate time to examine all of the details of an applicant’s resume. Some say that 30 to 60 seconds per resume is all that they allocate to initially decide whether an applicant is a possible candidate worthy of further consideration, or an applicant who will be rejected. So it’s clear that recruiters are looking for the fastest and most objective indicators that flag a candidate as potentially viable. Minimal academic credentials may be the simplest, albeit perhaps the laziest and most unreliable way, to screen a candidate’s suitability for a role.

However not all recruiters screen applicants based on academic credentials. One US-based International Development recruitment agent admitted to me that when screening candidates academic credentials barely come into play at all. She suggested that prior experience, proven capability, and other performance indicators were way up higher on the list. She advises job seekers to prioritize those on their resumes. In fact, she admitted that she often recommends an applicant to her clients even if they don’t meet the minimum academic requirements specified in the position description. I wish all recruitment agents were so thorough in their assessment of candidates.

Establishing a candidate’s real suitability for a position can be a detailed process that actually requires some specialist knowledge. The big lessons here for organisations using recruitment agents is to choose an agent who is prepared to take a little more care to thoroughly examine applications with the real requirements of the role in mind.

Possibility 2: Passing the Buck

Some recruiters looking for short cuts in the selection process may also be looking for ways to mitigate their responsibility in the selection process. Choosing the most apparently qualified candidate based on their academic achievements, regardless of whether or not they are the most suited to the role, may provide a plausible safeguard against backlash later. If a candidate fails to perform and someone asks the embarrassing question, “Who made the decision to hire this person?!” then there’s always the plausible defence: “Well, he/she certainly looked suitably qualified!”

Possibility 3: The Recruiter May Not Understand the Importance of Field Experience.

An Australian-based NGO recently advertised a senior management role for a facility processing asylum seekers in a Pacific Island location. Although it was a $70 million Australian government contract, the job description was poorly written and was actually a little misleading about the responsibilities of the role. An applicant applied for the position based on his prior experience in IDP camps in Africa and during the interview expressed the view that one of the highest priorities should be the care and emotional wellbeing of the detainees. The interview ended somewhat abruptly and he left feeling that the interviewers themselves didn’t have a realistic grasp of the real challenges that particular mission was likely to face. A few months later he learned that the detainees at that centre had rioted and the compound housing several hundred asylum seekers had been burnt to the ground. Fortunately no one was killed, but it could very easily have been another story. The following week it was also reported in the news that physical and sexual abuse had been taking place at another offshore processing centre run by the same organisation. It was reported that management had failed to take action to protect the victims even though they knew about what was happening.

What lessons might we draw from this? It’s impossible to recruit staff for complicated and demanding missions abroad without practical knowledge and understanding of the real challenges that are likely to be faced on the ground. In that particular instance the hiring organisation appeared to be looking for someone with senior management skills who also knew something about humanitarian aid. But what they really needed was an expert in humanitarian aid who knew something about management. In fact, I would argue that the most qualified people for senior management roles and recruiting roles in International Development are not actually managers who have acquired learning about development work, but experienced field workers who have acquired learning about management. Such people are far less likely to make policy and management decisions from lofty ivory towers and are far more likely to make good and sound management decisions based upon what they know and understand will be effective in the field.

Possibility 4: The Culture of Academia in International Development

Of course all International Development initiatives should be fact-based and informed by adequate research. However, there seems to be a tendency within large organisations to theorise at length about issues and to expend disproportionately large portions of the budget on endless studies, talk-fests, lengthy meetings, international travel and seminars. And often what’s really most needed is a few phone calls, some consultation and some decisive action.

Academics have a valuable contribution to make to International Development, but the biggest myth about higher education is that it reliably certifies an individual’s intelligence and capabilities. In my view, far too little value is placed upon field experience. The cross-cultural nature of International Development and the unique demands and challenges that are often encountered in the field, require knowledge and skills that are often not acquirable through formal learning.

Possibility 5: Unhealthy Corporate Culture and Political Pressure

Assessing an applicant’s suitability for a cross-cultural international mission can be detailed process and international ventures are often very expensive and sometimes high-risk initiatives. Consequently there are often political implications that come with success or failure – particularly when dealing with large organisations and government funded initiatives. When multiple “stake-holders” are watching with a critical eye, it can be very easy in those in management to be influenced by the pressures of their expectations – especially if there is a chance of a political backlash.

When staff selection processes become clouded by political considerations it’s possible that more qualified candidates are passed over in favour of candidates who come with more impressive academic credentials or the right connections. If that’s true, it’s not good management. In my view that can also be an indicator of an unhealthy corporate culture.

Possibility 6: The 2% are Right & Sometimes the Most Academically Qualified Applicant IS the Right Choice.

Of course it very much depends on the nature of the role, but there are some areas where academically qualified expertise is quite legitimately the highest priority – such as in structural engineering or medical professions. But even in these categories experience in very demanding field environments can also be critical to mission success.

Possibility 7: The Survey Results are Flawed.

Whilst that’s always a possibility, I very much doubt it. To test the results I also hosted the same survey in a different development group on LinkedIn and got very similar results.

So… What Really Makes an Expert Consultant?

Based on my 17 years of experience, these are the attributes that I believe should be high-priority considerations for appointments in the field of International Development:

1. A mature and well-developed philosophy on International Development.

You may think that this sounds academic, but it’s entirely practical. Most of what I’ve learned about effective international development is what I have observed in the field in Africa and comparisons that I’ve made in different projects in different locations. I’ve concluded that most international development initiatives that fail do so because they were ill conceived from afar and had no real chance of success even before they were initiated.

One of the main reasons why foreign aid and development initiatives fail is because they don’t achieve even the most basic benchmarks for sustainability. Some have been implemented without adequate research or consultation. In others there has been no consideration of the local social and economic context. In most there is an appallingly low level of accountability and monitoring. In some cases development initiatives have even caused harm to local communities and economies.

By very definition, development initiatives should assist communities to develop. Sadly, many do not. Often they cultivate debilitating foreign aid dependence and foster unrealistic expectations that leave individuals, whole communities (or even whole nations) disempowered, disappointed and in despair. And many initiatives fail completely to address the root causes of poverty and suffering, such as regional governance, corruption, justice and security.

2. Experiential knowledge of the environment in which you will be working.

Or at the very least, comparable field experiences. It’s very hard to hit the ground running if you are completely unfamiliar with the environment. Knowing the country, the culture, the local politics, knowing your way around and knowing what local resources are available to draw upon, is all a vital part of being able to function effectively. Being aware of the common scams and frequently practiced methods of corruption is also vital to survival and staying out of trouble.

3. Adaptability, patience and tolerance.

Can you endure the heat? Can you endure sleeping in hotels where there is noise throughout the night? Can you deal with the mosquitoes? Can you work with patiently with people who are uneducated? Can you send reports from your laptop when all you have is a hard wooden chair, no desk and 35 minutes of electricity a day? Are you happy to abstain from drinking alcohol, smoking or cursing in places where that’s not considered acceptable behaviour? Are you capable of respecting other people’s cultural practices and religious beliefs if they are not aligned to your own? Will you respect the dress code?

4. Commitment, Compassion and a Genuine Desire to Help People.

And I would also add to that, ‘the ability to disconnect’.

People who don’t care won’t do their jobs with dedication. And people who don’t know how to disconnect themselves will get burnt out. Aid and development workers need to learn the art of involvement and detachment. They need to strike a balance between being involved with people in what are often heart wrenching situations, and then detaching themselves as they re-enter their own lives at home. That takes some maturity and some practice and having a supportive family can assist in that process. Detaching doesn’t mean that you switch off your humanity or your compassion. It just means that you have acquired the maturity to accept that there are practical limits to what one person can achieve. At the end of the day, whatever tragedy you may be dealing with, it’s not your sole responsibility to fix. When you have done all that you can, you can rest in that knowledge.

5. Character and Integrity.

No matter what qualifications may appear on a resume, or be lacking from a resume, there are no greater credentials than the testimony of co-workers. These are the people who know a candidate, who can testify to their capabilities and provide an employer with the most reliable picture of how that person is likely to function in their new role: How they will perform under pressure, how they will respond to criticism or correction… and their essential character. Absolute integrity should be a minimum requirement when it comes to employment in development initiatives: Adherence to high standards of conduct, refusal to pay or accept bribes, fearlessness when faced with corruption and a preparedness to report it when it is uncovered. These should be minimal requirements for all contracted personnel.

6. Specific Expertise.

Highly technical tasks obviously require specific expertise and this is an area where suitable qualifications are the most important. However, recruiters need to be able to draw a distinction between academic qualifications and actually capabilities. It’s here that you look for a proven track record. Remote fieldwork often presents unexpected and unique challenges to even the most suitably qualified candidate, so a broad range of practical skills will also be a great advantage.

7. A Broad Range of Practical Skills.

Are you a problem solver and lateral thinker? If your laptop locks up on you or if your email just won’t send, do you know how to trouble-shoot and solve the problem by yourself? If you accidentally drop your cell phone in water, do you know how to repair it? If your vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere can you do have the skills to make a temporary repair and then work with local mechanics (and not get ripped off)? Do you know how to avoid common dangers that may present risks to your health? How are your people skills? If you find yourself surrounded by five unfriendly guys with guns at night, do you know how to talk yourself out of that situation? Do you know how secure meetings with senior political leaders to intervene in critical situations? If you’re in danger of being arrested for a crime you didn’t commit, can you think on your feet and walk away free? If you have valuable and irreplaceable data stolen are you clever enough to trick the thieves into returning it? Some of these may sound like ridiculous examples but all of these things are situations that I’ve actually encountered working in Africa.

Other desirable skills would be ability to communicate well, first-aid training, the ability to relate well to the locals and to quickly pick up local languages, the ability to write well, to take photographs and video for documenting and promoting projects, having local contacts in the area, etc. I’m fairly sure that none of these things would be considered in a 30 second scan of a resume, but perhaps they should be. These kinds of practical skills can spell the difference between the success or failure of a project.

There’s another valuable piece of information that has come to light as a result of my surveys. 55% of all survey respondents identified this as a major factor in their ability to secure employment in the field of International Development. I would be very happy to share that information with anyone who is willing to participate in my more detailed survey at http://www.viacare.com.au/survey

Allan Weatherall
Consultant, The VIACARE Initiative
Alternative Concepts (Australia) Pty Ltd

About the writer:
Allan Weatherall is an Australian-based freelance consultant with over 17 years of experience in project design and monitoring in Africa and more than 25 years of experience in delivering design & communications services to small business and the non-for-profit sector. The VIACARE Initiative is a consultancy service that focuses on fostering project integrity, deploying anti-corruption systems and training field workers in the use of mobile app technology to create fully compliant and verifiable project documentation.

Go to top