Many years ago, two local university batchmates coincidentally happened to work on a project here with foreign funding. While one man had worked and lived in Sri Lanka all his life, the other had migrated, was earning a salary several times more abroad than his erstwhile university colleague. Both, however, were equally brilliant, capable and [...]

Business Times

Chasing foreign experts


Many years ago, two local university batchmates coincidentally happened to work on a project here with foreign funding.

While one man had worked and lived in Sri Lanka all his life, the other had migrated, was earning a salary several times more abroad than his erstwhile university colleague. Both, however, were equally brilliant, capable and efficient. The locally-based worker chose to remain in Sri Lanka and be in the public sector — perhaps to serve the country – while his colleague ventured out to greener pastures.

In the foreign-funded project, they happened to share the same work space in the Sri Lanka office. At the end of a hard, working day, the locally-based worker would collect his bag (typically used by public servants) and make his way to the railway station where he took a train to his hometown, about 40 kms away from Colombo. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan expatriate would make his way to a luxury hotel — where he was provided accommodation — later to laze by the pool, sipping a glass of chilled beer before having dinner and going to bed. He was also earning a fat ‘foreign expert’ fee for the assignment, being designated a foreign expert while his locally-based colleague was only paid his regular salary, far below what the other was earning.

The contrasting lifestyles of the duo played on the mind of the locally-based worker who felt he was cheated from earning a sum equal to that of his Sri Lankan expatriate colleague, although both were equally capable and brilliant. He also wondered aloud whether he had made the right decision to work for his country rather than live a high life like his colleague.

While the moral of this story is that sometimes you can be disappointed for choosing to serve the country if that country relies on foreign aid and foreign experts, these thoughts emerged when I received a call from Kalabala Silva, the often agitated academic, whom I hadn’t spoken to for a while.

“I say…….the IMF chief seems to have whacked foreign experts and their costly expertise in low-income countries,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why….…the other day, according to newspaper reports, she has criticised global consultants for contracts in poor countries which didn’t have the money to pay such high fees,” he said.

It was then that I recalled Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde’s comments at a recent meeting on this issue. After a long conversation with Kalabala, catching up on several past issues, I excused myself saying I needed to get back to work.

What did the IMF chief say? At a January 28 event on funding of sustainable development goals at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, this is what she said:

n    Poor countries must not contract global consultancy firms to write development strategies.

n    Poor countries did not have enough money to contract such firms.

n    Poor countries in the world should desist from using global consultancy firms to write development strategies.

n    Lagarde criticised global consultants, asking the representatives of ‘the McKinseys and Boston Consulting Groups’ and any other consultancy firms in the room (of this event) to listen to her even as she made the uncomfortable remarks about their work.

n    “I’m looking around to see whether there are any of the McKinseys and Boston Consulting Groups and if they are, please listen to me,” she reportedly said.

n    Many, many low-income countries and emerging-market economies spend millions of dollars commissioning consultants to build their strategic plan, when such costs can be cut down.

Sri Lanka, in recent times, has also chosen the path of hiring costly foreign consultants, some of whom come via foreign funded-projects which also provide for recruiting experts from the country-source of the funding while others are recruited independently.

Can we afford such expertise when the country has capable local expertise (like the case of the two colleagues who worked on a foreign-funded project) and need not spend millions on foreign experts?

Our economy is studded with foreign expertise. For example, we have a Japanese solution for garbage disposal; a Harvard solution for economic management and ideas; a Singapore solution for mass transportation; an Indian solution for peace and overcoming the labour shortage; a Chinese solution also for overcoming a labour shortage and to wipe out debt; and even an Oxford formula on how to market the country as an attractive destination for foreign investments. Yes, foreign expertise in areas which Sri Lanka lacks skills is required, but are we to be overwhelmed by foreign expertise in areas where there is enough and more local capacity and capability?

There are also claims that the economy is influenced by a neo-liberal ideology and organisations that promote such thinking such as the Swiss-based Mont Pelerin Society and that sometimes foreign assistance comes with a ‘liberal’ dose of these ideas.

In January 2016, with much fanfare, a conference was organized with the involvement of controversial billionaire George Sores and Harvard University academics. Amidst a lot of media attention and publicity , the process continued thereafter, with officials and local experts visiting Harvard in the US, two or three times, in a costly adventure to chart a course for Sri Lanka’s economic future.

What have we heard so far about the Harvard entry into creating a sustainable economic model? Very little, I’m afraid.

When I raised this issue in an earlier Kussi Amma Sera commentary, asking what has happened to the Harvard discourse, an embarrassed local advisor corrected me saying, “Many things have happened in a positive sense”. When asked why the public was not kept informed (through the media) of these developments while public money is spent on these foreign junkets and costly adventures, he then acknowledged that more public awareness should have been done on this work. As of now and several months after raising this issue, the public is still not sure whether a Harvard-supported economic policy discourse is on or not.

The IMF chief has hit the nail on the head in referring to costly, foreign-funded junkets by high and free-spending foreign experts in poor countries (it also applies to Sri Lanka though being in the bracket of a lower, middle-income country according to a World Bank rating) particularly when these countries have enough local expertise to handle projects with foreign aid or local resources.

Not unexpectedly today (this subject went way over her head), there was no input from Kussi Amma Sera who was chatting with her friends under the Margosa tree on another subject (relevant though) – how officials at local councils fleece the public demanding ‘santhosam’ (bribes) for work that they are already paid for! Let’s leave that discussion for another day.

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