Can Consultancies Sustain a Long-Term Research Strategy in Developing Countries?

1 October 2012

The mushrooming of consultancy firms and NGOs drawing on a large number of social scientists amounts to an internal brain drain, which is no less problematic than the external brain drain, even if it is less talked about. Mweru, 2010

In Bolivia, as in most other developing countries, there is very little government support for scientific research and even full-time university professors are not generally expected to do research. This means that the small amount of research that does get done in these countries is the product of consultancies and other commissioned work, financed mostly by international institutions.

This situation has been thoroughly criticized by many scholars. Although the following quote from Mahmood Mamdani refers to Africa, it sounds just like Bolivia:

Today, intellectual life in universities has been reduced to bare-bones classroom activity. Extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels. Workshop attendance goes with transport allowances and per diem. All this is part of a larger process, the NGO-ization of the university.

According to Mamdani, the problem with consultancies is that they are seeking answers to problems posed and defined by a client. But university research, properly understood, requires formulating the problem itself. A similar analysis is followed by the study by Maureen Mweru: “Why Kenyan academics do not publish in international refereed journals”.

I was recently asked to give a talk on this topic at the Canadian Government International Development Research Centre‘s (IDRC) Think Tank Initiative (TTI) Exchange in Cape Town, and as always, I tried to attack the problem from an unusual angle.

I have personally experienced the two most extreme cases possible. At my old university in Denmark we had lavish, unrestricted public funding to do whatever research we wanted, whereas at our little NGO in Bolivia we depended (until recently) 100% on consulting contracts. I found that I actually prefer the latter. My former classmates at my old university are still analyzing the asymptotic properties of increasingly obscure estimators, while at INESAD we are at least working on real problems with the potential to have a real impact on real people. I find that much more satisfying, even if the problems are often defined by donors.

I believe it is perfectly possible to use consulting contracts and other commissioned work to sustain a long-term research strategy, and at the TTI Exchange I presented the following six criteria for selecting consulting projects so as to support a long-term research agenda in the absence of lavish government funding for research:

  1. Synergies with other projects: Make sure new projects complement ongoing projects and fit well within your long-term research agenda.
  2. Publication potential: Avoid projects that result in confidential reports. Instead aim for projects which dedicate at least 10% of the budget to publication and dissemination. You want your work to be known and contribute to the global pool of knowledge.
  3. Relationship building: Prioritize large projects involving many different institutions rather than individual desk work. This is more complicated, but it is an excellent way of building relationships and trust with policy makers and key stakeholders, a necessary condition for achieving real impact on real people someday.
  4. Project duration: Choose projects of at least 6-12 months duration, as short consulting projects tend to disrupt the long-term research agenda, because they always tend to become the most urgent, even if they are not the most important.
  5. Knowledge transfer: Choose international, collaborative projects where you will learn new research tools from cutting-edge researchers abroad.
  6. Financing: Choose only projects that pay the full opportunity costs. No need to subsidize development banks.

For this strategy to work, at least some donors should think in the same way. In order to limit the internal and external brain drain in developing countries, they should design their projects with the abovementioned criteria in mind: give room for developing country researchers to define the problem to be investigated; ensure wide dissemination of research results; encourage highly interactive projects; finance projects with a duration of at least one year; facilitate international collaboration; and be willing to pay the full costs, including overhead.