Bureaucrats for Hire: The Profitable Consultancy Industry
Our country deserves an in-depth reflection on the growing development consultancy industry. The following effort is based on my observation, from both outside and inside, of the abundant fauna of consultants in today’s Nicaragua, though it probably wouldn’t be accepted as part of a consultancy study...
José Luis Rocha
The consultancy industry in Nicaragua is worth millions a year. The money spent on salaries and other remunerations for the studies and technical advice emanating from these passing posts represented a sizable percentage of the annual budget of many state institutions in 2003: 45% in the Municipal Development Institute, 38% in the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry and 27% in the Supreme Electoral Council. The situation is similar among the NGOs, universities, media and churches that are plugged into international aid in this era of transfusion.
So many of us are living in the foreign aid bubble. So many of us have some direct or indirect link into the long consultancy market chain. The fieldwork of NGOs or ministries must be evaluated by an adviser—best if he/she is Swedish, Dutch or Danish—who will “clean up” the ideas expressed by interviewed natives, add data provided by surveyors and statisticians and, with other support from a sociologist, present some notes to an analyst to whip into shape in some illegible report whose cracks will be plastered over by an editor before being presented by a good communicator in Power Point. It’s the same old story day after day all over Nicaragua.
Our permanent crisis offers Policy designers and editors, advisers and strategic planners, translators and logical framework specialists, presenters in suits and talk-givers in loose cotton shirts all sup from the foreign aid cornucopia, which appears to be endless and unrestricted. They all have a place, small or large, in the international cooperation pyramid. They all have their limited or extensive role to play in this comedy of the merry wives and happy husbands of consultancy. Many people in the world work as consultants, but not all of them understand it.
Consultancies are responsible for the only element of reverse migration in Nicaragua. Professionals return after many years living in Germany, England and other industrialized countries because there’s money to be made here. Whereas the 1972 earthquake represented a revolution of opportunities for Somoza, today’s ongoing crisis has turned Nicaragua into a land of opportunities for bankers to profit from the high interest rates on state bonds and private security companies to profit from the lack of police response in a context of poverty and anomy that encourages crime. Other beneficiaries include the judges who reap great dividends for their lack of morals and the powerful Pellas family, which only has to place a call to halt any audit threatening to reveal a tax evasion case by one of the companies in its economic group. At the end of the line are the consultants, continually offered an infinite and never obsolete range of subjects on which to advise and charge. Many suffer the current crisis, but some fat cats feed off it.
Fleeting posts of a “fly-by-night” bureaucracyIn a country like Nicaragua, this bureaucrat-for-hire system is like an equation with three variables; let’s name them Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom, a first world government or cooperation agency, hires Dick, that confident Jack-of-all-trades consultant willing to try his hand at any issue, to work for the benefit of Harry, almost always a state institution or an NGO.
In this system, Dick is the dependent variable: the more dramatic the country’s prostration the more consultants there will be, because foreign cooperation will provide more funds, state officials will be more ill-prepared and there will be greater cronyism in the consultancy market.
The consultancy system has ushered in a new kind of bureaucrat here and in other countries: the fly-by-night kind, completely mobile and flexibly loyal. The fleeting posts in this bureaucracy no longer impose any kind of specialization: today’s sewer inspector is tomorrow’s museum adviser, and to hell with anyone who can’t see the link. Generally speaking, consultants are formally and physically disconnected from both the institution that pays them and the one they work for, a situation that rather than guaranteeing ideological independence, actually forges other kinds of connections: string pulling, “there’s no other choice” inertia, prestige, marketing... all of which are sometimes blessed by real or fictitious application processes.
Postmodern bureaucrats working from homeThis system breaks with the traditional bureaucratic model. In conventional bureaucracies, according to sociologist Max Weber, the group of stable public officials, the work instruments and the filed documents corresponding to any particular jurisdictional domain were located in one office. In the current bureaucrat-for-hire model, these are all dispersed and there’s often minimal contact among them. There’s no office where the scribes are concentrated, or linkage between them and their files. There are as many offices and archives as the number of consultants contracted by a given institution.
The consultant’s temporary link with the institution is measured in the commitment to a block of days into which the task must fit rather than to a task that takes as many days as required. Each contracted assignment needs to be adjusted to standards and objectives, which are set out in terse terms of reference. In addition, consultants must follow certain tacit rules for managing their image in society and others on which their future in that market relies. But they are not rules of loyalty to an institution in return for a secure existence. The consultant sacrifices the future security that a stable job offers to the attraction of greater income today.
Modern civil service had separated the office from the official’s private home, with bureaucracy generally considering official activity to be independent of private life. In postmodernity, however, bureaucrats often work out of their home, with work life and private life sharing the same physical space. The consultants’ personal funds and equipment are always at the disposition of their labor obligations. Private and public assets, correspondence and even friendships are tightly interwoven. And just as private belongings and spaces fuse with those of business service and public utility, so the consultant’s public time and private time tend to become an indiscernible amalgam. All this means that consultants have opted for a way of life much more than an occupation.
From Fernández de Oviedo to disasterologistsConsultants are not new to Nicaragua, although in past eras there were fewer of them, they were generally cheles [light complected foreigners] and they tended to be a lot more efficient than the current crop. Perhaps the first was Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo—a chele, of course—who came in 1527 as an overseer for the Spanish Crown, long before the Spanish International Development Agency started up. He was followed by others who were less literarily endowed. Although they never formed a critical mass, they eventually did begin to flow more profusely. Nicaragua’s inter-oceanic canal potential had lot to do with this. First world governments sent dozens of engineers to the Río San Juan to assess the viability of exploiting this river that connects Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea.
One of the most illustrious consultants was W.W. Cumerland, contracted to study the Nicaraguan economy in the twenties. There has also been no shortage of consultants on the perennial problems with the country’s electoral law. As historian Knut Walter explained, “In 1921, Dr. Harold Dodds, a university social sciences professor, was contracted by the Nicaraguan government—under strong pressure from Washington—to analyze the electoral law in force at the time and propose necessary reforms to guarantee its impartiality. In April 1923, the Nicaraguan Congress approved a new electoral code, whose contents were adjusted to Dodds’ proposals, with a few minimal modifications.” That electoral reform represented the formal institutionalization of the two-party system in Nicaragua. Consultancies were beginning to bear fruit.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw visits from many political scientists, economists, engineers and naturalists. One notable difference between those consultants and the current lot is that the recent ones rarely produce even semi-digestible texts. In contrast, Karl Bovalius and Paul Levy had sharp analytical pens and could lucidly describe picturesque details. Another difference is that the former consultants tended to have more mundane professions: biologist, engineer, lawyer. Some of the new batch try to create specializations that verge on the ridiculous. After Hurricane Mitch, the United Nations Development Program contracted a consultant whose card announced that she was a “disasterologist.” We can only hope that rather than predicting disasters, she did at least know how to mitigate them. And though it may seem worthy of García Márquez, Nicaragua has even played host to an angelogist and a master in divinity. How long before local universities start producing “corruptologists” and “Orteg-ologists?”
A way of life more than an occupation The most obvious difference between the consultants of old and those of today is that being a consultant has become a way of life. The condition of being a consultant soaks into many spheres of existence because it carries with it multiple demands, such as attending any reception that gets organized, cultivating specific relations, hanging out at a particular bar, dining at a certain restaurant… Commercial life and family life become superimposed. Business is even better if the spouse is a chele and has ethnic-friendship-professional links with embassies, agencies and international NGOs.
The relations cultivated along the way can always be useful. The consultant has to sow, water, fertilize, earth up and fumigate such relations so they’ll bear fruit in the future. The instrumentalizing of human relations is a vice into which many slip, apparently unaware of how much hypocrisy reduces the quality of life.
Such exploitation is not the exclusive reserve of consultants, of course, but some have taken it to extremes of corruption with certain counterparts when they find themselves in positions of power. Four years ago, an official from the now rightly questioned Augusto César Sandino Foundation noticed that a top Oxfam America official who occasionally supervised operations in Nicaragua when he came from El Salvador on specific missions was fast-tracking friendly relations with him. Once he had prepared the ground, the official made his move: “I’ll hire you as a consultant for the next Oxfam studies and we’ll split the earnings 50/50.”
Dry, repetitive and insipid textsThe consultant’s lifestyle demands disguises and poses. Francisco Umbral rightly said that “thinking also has its tailoring.” And where there is little thinking, there has to be a great deal of tailoring. Consultants must look presentable, lordly and glamorous. They must be magnificent exponents of the “make an appearance syndrome,” hawking themselves at every opportunity. My best friend gave anthropology classes every Saturday and one of her students was a big fish in the consultancy world, as he felt the need to demonstrate in a footnote at the end of every exam. His work was a constant excuse for his absences. As youth gang members wisely put it, he wanted to pass the course “on pure impression.” But the most impressive thing of all was his absolute inability to write a single line without massacring the rules of grammar and running roughshod over spelling.
Evidently, gestures and language are more important than grammar and spelling, even more important than clothing. Those who devote themselves to the consultancy industry have to become polyglots fluent in ECLA language, FAO jargon, politicking slang and dozens of NGO dialects, including the lavish use of the @ sign to replace the masculine “o” or feminine “a” at the end of gender-specific words in Spanish to suggest a trendy gender-neutral ending)… They have to know how to troll for fish in all waters, seduce with language, employ hallowed concepts and show off their mastery of the key terms, knowing which are valid in certain areas but not in others.
My work as a researcher, which I now do more as a consultant, has forced me to take note of the conventions and keep my literary urges under control. I generally come up against clients who want everything repeated a thousand times. I have to write in the most dry and inoffensive way possible, moderating and desiccating phrases, shriveling and crumpling them up. The text has to be meticulously gone over to extirpate rash adjectives and names that should remain anonymous and to employ a vocabulary restricted to about a hundred words that, like a Lego set, constitute the only bricks in the verbal architecture of consultancy reports.
In the effort to castrate the texts, it becomes almost essential to use an abundance of the kind of impersonal reflexive verbs that we liberally employ in Nicaragua when we want to avoid mentioning the guilty party, particularly if it’s us. So just as in everyday colloquial speech we say “it fell” instead of “I dropped it” or “it broke” rather than “I broke it,” consultancy reports use “it is intended…” rather than “here we intend...” This is perhaps Nicaraguan colonial language’s most notable contribution to the professional development cooperation idiom.
A consultancy report should be dry and turgid to give the impression of being serious. All the better if it is situated at the opposite extreme to the “pleasure of text” described and analyzed by Roland Barthes. This particular sphere employs a stiflingly leaden and reiterative prose. Four concepts are endlessly repeated in a limitless succession of combinations and permeations, because in the happy universe of the consultants, as in Huxley’s Brave New World, a phrase repeated again and again finally becomes truth. The basic work mechanism is cut and paste. Repeating the same topics in the same tone with identical concepts somehow makes consultants look more competent.
It’s not in the blood,Consultants, particularly those who have achieved certain renown, have developed gradually. Rookies who throw themselves into the ring with no real credentials find it hard to triumph. Being a good consultant isn’t in the blood, you have to work at it. Since I’ve gotten a close-up view of this system I’ve been wondering about the formation of these eminences always sought out by journalists for interviews when a subject they are supposedly experts on hits the limelight, or are repeatedly contracted by the institutions themselves. Although the answer would involve a whole new study and reflection, there are certain indications of where they came from and how they were formed.
You have to work at it
One type consists of those manufactured in US universities, be they nationals or foreigners. They are the preferred choice of state institutions and some multilateral organizations because they have the right academic and ideological curriculum. Another type is made up of the crafty old foxes dedicated to a certain area, who fossilized into a field where nobody else was at the time and now couldn’t muscle in. Competitors do emerge these days, but tradition and inertia is an immovable comparative advantage.
Then there are those who were molded in the eighties: top officials from the Sandinista government, including certain revolutionary comandantes, both male and female. First they were radicals who wanted to turn the world on its head. Then they became platonic Marxists, if that, and soon flushing down the toilet all the Konstantinov they had lapped up in the seventies or eighties, either directly or through Martha Harnecker. They went from Marxist fundamentalism to technocratic fundamentalism, crossing over from revolution to a happy adaptation to the given conditions, sometimes vacillating, emotionally ambivalent toward the FSLN, but always with resigned pragmatism or underhanded opportunism.
Privileged freelancers feed off miseryAll of these different groups contain both talented intellectuals and mediocre professionals, with the wheat and the chaff mixed together. Unfortunately, they have all opted for a fictitious freedom, a quick buck and individual adventure instead of feeding themselves to the famished national institutionality. Many institutions could use their dispersed energies, but a university will never pay its lecturers, a rural municipal government its officials or a media company its journalists what the UNDP, the IDB, DANIDA, SIDA or the SDC pay their consultants. And these people share an overwhelming, almost unanimous desire to improve their own personal economic situation.
Setting up a consultancy company is the in-trade formula for closing ranks against competitors. This is the temptation for many new professionals who launch themselves into the stormy waters of the labor market. But it rarely gels in this country. The memory of a group of friends who started up one such company is still fresh in my mind. They were all—and still are—well positioned in foreign cooperation: one spoke German, another had been an FAO consultant for over a decade and yet another had worked in a number of organizations. But despite their enviable social capital, they were at each other’s throats in less than a year. Consultants prefer to go freelance and seek temporary alliances. At the end of the day, other consultants are rivals after the same funds rather than colleagues with whom to share ideas, exchange information and plot a better Nicaragua.
Their main rival, however, is necessarily their main ally. The historical confrontation between the interests of professionals and those of workers and peasants has occupied the attention of generations of sociologists, but has never before reached such colossal levels of cynicism. Never before have professionals so parasitically lived off the poor. We have become a new aristocracy feeding off the misery we research, quantify, diagnose, analyze and dissect, with a prosperity that is in some cases directly proportional to the poverty of our fellow citizens.
Cut and paste, paste and cut... This subterranean conflict of interests would not be so harmful if the bureaucrats-for-hire system guaranteed quality and continuity in the consultants’ products. On the contrary, it favors mediocrity and repetition. Consultants are offered up to US$10,000 a month, which in practice can be whittled down to 15 working days or less because consultants are often involved in several jobs at the same time. In this record time, the contracted consultant has to honor terms of reference that look like a grocery list, everything about everything, requiring the consultant to know more than the experts who have worked full time on the subject under study. There’s no time to get to know the place being studied; no time even to think.
no time to think
If absolutely necessary, the consultant subcontracts low-paid assistants with little experience to do the “dirty work” (read “field work”) and even part of the other, cleaner work, with an inevitable effect on the overall quality. But another solution relies on a more providential factor: the system also foments repetition—I would love to write Bosawás, the reserve of a thousand studies—so consultants cut and paste, thus recycling their old studies—or even other people’s—to get out of a tight spot. This rehashing is completely legitimized by the system. In fact, many “original” pieces of work are a recycling of stale phrases, a hodgepodge of patched together idea snippets from the same ideological scheme. And their friends in foreign cooperation allow this. Employers who are not their friends will never know everything previously written about a subject or place because there is no single national information clearing house containing the thousands of consultancies that have been conducted.
Unnecessary experience and cronyismCronyism is one of the Nicaraguan cultural institutions that has most contaminated the consultancy market. It’s part of our contribution to the national configuration of the consultancy model, not the only one or the most visible one, but the one through which we have managed to contaminate even foreigners. Or is it rather a universal feature that we have merely updated in Nicaragua, as the audacious unmasking of French corruption by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would suggest?
Around eight years ago, a haughty Swiss official met up with a bright French consultant in a well-known Managua bar. The Swiss official represented the official Swiss development cooperation and the Frenchman was heading up a group of researchers in a well-known Nicaraguan university. Both enjoyed each other’s company at social gatherings, dinners and wine and cheese dos.
Over drinks, they negotiated US$250,000 as the fee for ten research studies on Nicaraguan finances: bank spreads, savings in micro-finance companies, institutional consolidation and other more or less vague issues. Even the clockwork-precise Swiss and the very Cartesian French can go tropical and slide towards the delicious laxity of our laissez faire and dolce far niente codes. It’s not often mentioned that cultural insertion has its price.
What was so light-headedly negotiated had almost hallucinogenic results. A full year after the glittery stuff was disbursed, Swiss cooperation received a collection of studies of the most diverse quality and subject matter, including reforestation, fair-trade coffee and agro-ecological zoning, among other even more striking fare. The institute belonging to the rather un-Pascalian Frenchman had interpreted the agreement and assigned the money with gay abandon. Although the Swiss official subsequently acted in the best tradition of a Swiss army knife, the damage was done and couldn’t be put right.
In the consultancy market, the same people entrust consultancies to the same people. Simulating bids is such a well-worn mechanism that it offends no one anymore. Consultants only have to be hip to the new issues in vogue to transmogrify themselves or adapt their old refrains and specialties to them. Specialists on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast thus now offer the following catalogue: identity and gender in Bilwi, migration in Kukra Hill, local governments of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, deforestation in Bocana de Paiwas, ecotourism in Pearl Lagoon and the environment in Bismuna, among many others.
As one consultant who worked with her husband told me, “We cover everything.” And, as far as I can tell, she wasn’t exaggerating. There’s no need for experience in bureaucrats-for-hire, no need to bring on board the right people for a given issue. It’s more profitable to create and cultivate a network of social relations adequately distributed in key positions. Specialization tends to be improvised, as in the case of an economist friend of mine who soon became an expert on masculinity and was contracted by a national NGO for US$2,500. One of his colleagues and fellow graduates is still looking for work after stubbornly insisting on being an economist.
Ephemeral + anonymous + routine = low qualitySo, does the bureaucrat-for-hire model represent a gain or a loss? That’s the million-dollar question. Like all changes, it has its pluses and minuses. Although not a lot seems positive to me, one apparent virtue does spring to mind. Although the principle of “he who pays the piper calls the tune” continues to enjoy unquestionable validity, the relationship between consultants and their employers is more democratic and is not determined by the rigidly structured hierarchy that characterizes traditional bureaucracy.
But then, how, or to whom, can one appeal if the work is not up to scratch? Is there no chance of rectifying it? This is hard, because the consultants’ relationship to beneficiaries tends to be very distant, ephemeral and weak. Sometimes their work develops with very poor knowledge of the reality they are writing about or, even worse, acting upon. The brief period they are contracted for doesn’t allow them to delve deep, and they end up with no possibility of following up at the end of the consultancy; both the post and the function disappear when the contract expires.
The consultants’ anonymity reinforces these weaknesses and creates others. As there are consultants for all occasions, those who get their hands on some funds become contractors. Thus monks and nuns, intellectuals, businesspeople and state officials stop doing their work to become financial managers because they believe that this position in the pyramid is closer to the pinnacle and shines with dazzling intensity.
If there are many defects, there are also many possible remedies. Foreign cooperation understands that the problem is not limited to the fraud, chicanery, crookedness and other undesirable animals lurking among the consultancy fauna. The system is intrinsically perverse and its perversion is consubstantial.
As none of the consultants know when the next consultancy will come along or how much it will pay, they have to accept anything that comes their way, working flat out and subcontracting professionals with limited experience to the detriment of the final product’s quality. If they get a juicy offer, it seems silly to let it go. They face a lot of pressure in the circles they travel in to maximize their income, whether to match their employers’ consumption level, send their kids to the best school, buy the latest computer, organize parties to cultivate milkable relations, or simply, and more wisely, sock something away for the lean times. Such are the daily weaknesses that pave the way to big-time corruption.
The fact that consultants are disconnected from institutional time and spaces makes it difficult to guarantee their full working capacity. Some are linked to institutions where they have a fixed job and a regular salary, but they obtain their greatest income from consultancies, which often eat into the time they should be dedicating to their institution. The main problem is that many institutions have no policy for handling consultancies, or if they do it’s hardly compatible with the aspirations of workers who want to be well remunerated for their extra efforts. That weakness multiplies their susceptibility to outside offers and damages the labor culture. It’s preferable to reach an agreement to guarantee quality.
The remedy: Some minimal actionsIn the case of Nicaragua, a country with such weak institutionality—improvement of which is supposedly a goal of international cooperation—it’s outrageous that funds earmarked for consultancies aren’t used to strengthen the institutions themselves. If these consultants are so good, why not invest in keeping them for long periods in municipal governments suffering financial difficulties?
How can we invest in doing real research instead of that devalued substitute represented by the prepackaged cut-and-paste analyses, the supposedly scientific investigations spattered with androgynous “@” endings and subculture phraseology rendered meaningless by endless repetition? Why not invest in permanent posts in key state sectors that are compatible with a long-term vision and subject to participatory evaluations?
The metamorphosis of the public servant into a professional service provider ethically changes the concept of work’s motivation and execution. Although this change isn’t necessarily reflected in worse practices than before given that what passes for public servants are often wolves in sheep’s clothing, it is worth defending the principle that foreign aid should be put to the service of Nicaraguans as a whole and not fought over by bureaucrats for hire.
Finally, there is an urgent need to create a clearinghouse of consultancy reports so as not to continue paying for more of the same. Everything has to have been explored by now in the Bosawás reserve, right down to the last pebble, endangered beetle and neighborhood scuffle since it has been the subject of numerous studies, each of which ignores the contents of others and therefore actually adds very little. It is the responsibility of foreign cooperation to keep an archive of all the reports and make them available to the public. Many benefit from the current disorder, but many more are harmed. These are just a few possible actions, although it is admittedly a minimal contribution because the system will need many reforms before people stop having to choose between losing work or losing their souls.
José Luis Rocha, as well as being a consultant, is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial committee.