A rant about gender (and other) consultants and how we can avoid them

May 1, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Guest rant from CARE International’s Elizabeth Cowan

Ask a group of international development people about external consultants and the conversation that ensues resembles group therapy. Everyone has a story of pain and frustration, of feeling cheated, misunderstood and unsatisfied. Sometimes we cry.

There was the external evaluator we paid $60,000 to tell us our project was “doomed from the start”. The proposal-writer whose work was so poor that I completely re-wrote the 40-page document while arrested by dengue fever sweats. The baseline assessor whose recommendations for a conflict-sensitive area could have triggered inter-ethnic war (if we’d followed them). Or the consultant who said our project didn’t have enough budget for a ‘proper’ baseline assessment (i.e. following his firm’s extractive quantitative approach), triggering an existential crisis: “we never have enough budget to do anything properly => what’s the point of development work at all? => I should leave the sector => but one must do something meaningful with one’s life => WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?”

Not helpful for effective programming.

But let’s be fair, it’s not only external consultants who provide unhelpful “advice”. HQ gender advisors with titles as inflated as their grounded experience is limited can be just as problematic. They have a tendency to deliver recommendations like, “The project should empower people of diverse and marginalized sexual orientation and gender identities to actualize their ambitions for individual agency through endogenous strategies for self-determination”, leaving project staff scratching their heads and wishing they’d never asked for “advice” in the first place.

Duncan has some useful tips for getting better results from consultants. This is helpful, but at CARE we are trying to kick our addiction to gender consultants. CARE’s Global Gender Cohort is harnessing the great gender expertise that exists within CARE to meet our high demand for gender technical assistance (TA). Our Global Gender Cohort is a peer-to-peer model of gender TA, with CARE gender specialists (mainly based in Country Offices in the ‘global south’) providing TA to other CARE offices for cost recovery, helping make our programming more gender transformative. The Global Gender Cohort does include a small number of external consultants, those wonderful ‘free radicals’ who share our values and work with us as members of our community, but we only call on them when CARE staff members are unable to meet demand.

I can hear you scoff, “That’s just a roster. My agency has one of those.” But CARE’s Global Gender Cohort is a bit special. Here are a few reasons why:

  • It challenges hierarchies of expertise: The Global Gender Cohort recognises that a gender specialist from Nepal with 20 years of implementation experience is just as qualified – if not more qualified – to provide gender TA internationally as an Australian with a fancy gender Master’s degree*. In this way, we’re de-colonising gender TA.
  • It values skills & experience, not positions or passports: Global Gender Cohort TA prices are the same, whether the Cohort member is from USA or Uganda. This puts equal financial value on members’ expertise regardless of which country they’re based in, which part of CARE they’re employed by, or what passport they hold. This is no small thing given the norm of salary inequity that exists within the development sector.
  • It meets demand for TA and creates professional development opportunities: Out clients are CARE offices which previously relied on a small pool of HQ gender advisors or external consultants. The Gender Cohort provides access to a larger and more diverse pool of gender experts AND provides gender staff in Country Offices with exciting opportunities to work outside their own countries, giving them unique and practical opportunities to broaden their skills and experience.
  • Consultant budgets are reinvested in CARE: In the 15 months that the Global Gender Cohort has been providing gender TA we’ve channeled around $130,000 back into CARE – money that would otherwise have left our organization.
  • It contributes to gender equality: By making gender TA more readily available, CARE can better meet our commitment to put gender equality at the heart of our work everywhere.

Like any new initiative, the Global Gender Cohort has not been all fairies and rainbows. Just like our work to promote gender equality in communities, use of and appreciation for our Gender Cohort requires organizational cultural norms change that we’re still working towards.

  • Quality content vs perfect presentation: Most Global Gender Cohort members are not native English speakers, meaning that the presentation of their great gender work is not always “polished”. Few of our CARE clients are prepared to share a gender product externally if the written English is not perfect, even in countries where English is not an official language. (Of course, this raises the issue of language privilege that is beyond the scope of this post.)
  • The straw consultant: As one colleague said, “there is some kind of ‘aura’ around consultants… there is a myth that they sit on ‘pure’ expertise”. Some staff are wary of gender TA from their peers and continue to see consultants as a safer bet, despite the high calibre of our own gender specialists.
  • The consultant ‘twitch’: The way we reach for consultants for some types work is like an unconscious nervous twitch. Of course, there are valid reasons for using external consultants – when we want an external perspective, when we need expertise we don’t have in-house, or when CARE staff can’t be released from their full-time gig to provide TA to another part of CARE. But the aim is to get to a point where using CARE staff gender specialists is the norm and drawing on consultants becomes the exception.

Despite these challenges, the Global Gender Cohort is generating lots of interest and enthusiasm within CARE, with other sector teams interested to learn how they can adapt the model to provide TA on advocacy, WASH or monitoring, evaluation and learning.

What do you think? Is our Global Gender Cohort just another boring roster, or are we quietly doing something revolutionary with this new approach to meeting demand for gender TA? And would this model work in your organisation?

May 1, 2019
Duncan Green