Should the voices of senior consultants feature more prominently in public debates on international development?

It has probably happened to you before as well: Every so often I receive a short facebook message or email by a senior development consultant – women and men with probably 15, often 20 or more years of paid professional employment inside the ‘aid industry’ – they basically started before it was even called an ‘industry’!
The messages are usually short, sometimes straight from ‘the field’ (i.e. really uncomfortable, dangerous and complex
locations) and often along the lines of ‘little do you/that researcher/this journalist really know about organization X or the crisis in region Y’.
But with very few exceptions, these voices rarely make into the development blogosphere, let alone find their way into virtual, classroom or policy discussions. The proverbial ‘I will write a book about my time in the industry once I have retired’ approach only works for very few and even if they manage to write that book, the distance of a few years between what happened in, say, Rwanda and the publication creates a safer, but often also less relevant story.

Why are senior consultants
There are some more obvious reasons why senior consultants are often not very visible in public debates:

  • They tend to be very busy: they have carved out their niche and are on the go to the next assignment in ‘their’ country, region or area of expertise
  • They tend to be older and may not have been socialized in the digital culture of sharing, being online and maintaining a digital presence or even a brand
  • They actually have something to lose if public critique leads to fewer assignments for a favorite organization or they are perceived as ‘difficult’ (many freelance senior consultants have quasi-employment status with some of the largest bi- and multilateral organizations)
  • They know development is a job; after decades of work, every profession, job or calling has been met with plenty of reality checks; even if you are not cynical or burned-out it is difficult to have similar discussion regularly or get excited when the latest ‘participatory bottom-up community design project’ turns out to be just like any other project with a budget, log-frame and quarterly reports
  • They do not really like the academic reflection business and prefer to get an assignment ‘done’ rather than reflecting on an industry that may not be responsive to critique anyway (see previous point)
On the other hand, their detailed and nuanced insights would be beneficial in many discussions on why certain organizations do what they are doing, who was resisting an idea and how difficult and political consensus building really is; they could also shed light on many realities in the field, the grey areas, the trade-offs, the secrets of the industry of how to get positive change going and how to avoid bureaucratic pitfalls etc. Or how they maintain marriages, families, well-being and gruesome travel schedules.

How do we get access to senior consultants and get them to share their wisdom, stories and experiences (if they want to…)? Traditional formats, like inviting them to (academic) conferences and workshops, usually fail or are limited to the context of one event.
Humanitarian Affairs Think Tank is an interesting approach that connects researchers and humanitarian practitioners in an academic framework with support from Save The Children. And there are probably similar projects that I am not aware of and that you are most welcome to share with me so I can add it to this post.
So what other formats can we think of? 
Writing retreats that aim at producing a publication through a book sprint rather than going through traditional publishing channels?
Or do we need more traditional, multi-sited research that works along those busy schedules and may include interviews in unusual locations, e.g. airport lounges, R&R hotels or organizational debriefings?

At this point in time, I am thinking out loud really and I am grateful for comments, suggestions and ideas!


  1. I'm sorry you've had no responses to this post. I've just posted a short piece about my 20-odd years as a consultant in ex-communist countries - which links to two major papers I've done on the subject. The post is at -
    Ronald Young

  2. I have been thinking of doing the same. Maybe Ron's piece will inspire me.


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