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

“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 A similar analysis is put forward by Maureen Mweru in the paper: “Why Kenyan academics do not publish in international refereed journals”.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.

Do you think that think tanks and consultancies can sustain a long-term research strategy? Leave a reply below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.


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  1. I got attracted to this forum because of the concerns shown in the title ” Developing countries ‘ .With reference to my country,India ,the problem is complex .Even the four Metropolis DCMK (Delhi,Chennai ,Mumbai ,Kolkaata/ ) ,differ widely amidst themselves ,if the yardstick of ‘development’ is used to compare .Regional imbalances are there .The existing diversities are to be kept in mind while addressing the various issues .Micro-planning though much talked ,is not seen in reality .NGO-isation is more for self glory of the the persons involved in the TRADE rather mission (barring few exceptions ).If humanity is to be there ,then human beings must be respected first.We the’ think-tanks’ should take into account -tribal’s , ,rural , ,urban ,city populations our ‘ Solution Frame’ .Let us be honest enough to admit and fix responsibility for the chaos in ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION of all kinds which is a real threat to the humanity and human beings . I do not advocate for charity to anyone ,however ,strongly support the Non-Exploititive growth efforts by Governmental or Non-governmental agencies( NOT TO ADVANCE THE HIDDEN AGENDA UNDER THE GARB OF A PHILANTHROPIC FACE ).

  2. Dr. G. Willingham-Toure'

    This is a very important conversation. AframGlobal Organization Inc, an NGO concerned primarily with challenges in West Africa, is partnering with Nelson, Willingham, and Asociates Inc., a consulting firm, to build the capacity for success strategies and sustainable consultative agendas.

    Consultative work in a developing country must be part of a comprehensive strategy which often span periods of time aligned closely with political and election timelines. We have become increasingly mindful that prioroties and support for priorities change depending on who is in power. Those changes in priorities pose one of the greatest, though often unspoken, challenges to consultants. Political practices can stop or slow down a process and deter a long term relationship.

    Avoid becoming more concerned with being involved long enough to earn immediate money than you are with building capacity for sustainable initiatives. Relationship building is often ” not a paid experience.” However subsequent articles, speaking engagements, referrals, etc can provide “pay as you go” along the way to a long term research or consulting contract in a developing country. It takes patience to build and to sustain a long term research or consulting contract. It takes constant learning and informing processes in ways that are not taught in our Western Education systems. We must care. We must understand and respect the needs of the country from their vantage point.

    I look forward to other insights on these issues.

    I agree with Sergio’s comment. Thanks Lykke for your six points. However, as consultants we must develop a deeper understanding of what informs a long term commitment in a developing country. Research agendas must build on their existing research base. That existing base may not always be published nor acquired using research methods with which we are most familiar.

    I understand that in the developed world the role of the researcher is to find the problem. We seem less adept at seeing the problem that others have identified in the course of everyday life. The challenge is to find research agendas that inform the building of capacity in a developing country. It means developing multi-disciplinary and multi-level relationships that contribute to the research process.

  3. Dear Lykke. Based on my experience at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague I would like to say that it is difficult to follow a long term research strategy through consultancies. Consultancies are for specific, generally well defined problems, finding solutions to which requires practical experience in dealing with such problems. You, are as a consultant may not be paid if your analysis or suggestions are not found relevant and useful by the client. Whereas, acceptance of research output is only on the basis of peer group appraisal and subjects of which are often the hobby horses of researchers. Development is an inter-disciplinary phenomenon but rarely research even at institutions devoted to development studies is interdisciplinary. Also, I do not agree with your conclusion that in developing countries no research or very little research is done by the universities. In countries like India, Philippines, South Africa, Bangla Desh, among others higher level academics undertake relatively more research and consultancies specifically on major socio-economic problems of the country. Extent of research and consultancies depend upon the weightage which the institutions give to them in overall evaluation of performance of academics. In many institutions consultancies which bring in not only the badly needed extra-income but also important insights on development issues which can be good input in teaching. Vasant Moharir

    • Dear Vasant, thank you very much for your comments. I admit I was probably too hasty in generalizing the situtation in Bolivia to most developing countries. Bolivia is an extreme example, and surely most developing countries must be doing better in terms of supporting university research.

  4. Priyanthi Fernando

    Thank you for this interesting post, and for the interesting comments too. Our think tank, the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) was also represented in Cape Town, and I find the six points useful. Would like to share with you the institutional and financial concept that drives CEPA. This concept drives us to balance client services (client driven, consultancy type research) with programme work (our own defined research questions) – and the underlying rationale is that too much of client driven consultancies would diminish our independence as a think tank, while unbridled programme work could reduce the relevance of our research outputs in the market place. The concept also includes a core funding stream that enables the survival while seeking to achieve the balance. Over the eleven years of our existence, having sufficient core funding and achieving the balance between consultancy and own research, has been a struggle. We have followed some of the six points, and are beginning to see the value of others. Having some core funding from the IDRC Think Tank Initiative has also been helpful.

  5. Brain drain is not a new problem in Bolivia, for years now society is aware of a flow of skilled workers leaving the country in search of better conditions anywhere, Argentina, Brazil, Europe or US. However focusing on this issue on the market of academic research is something interesting.

    I personally believe this is an issue that must be confronted by universities. Bolivian Universities do not require students to do much research. It is not a skill taught to students therefore it is normal for the professional market not to demand those skills. If universities demand some research they do it at the end for the thesis, where students get hardly any support from tutors or supervisors. The mass of students that have finished their subjects but never submit a thesis is evidence of this observation.

    Bolivia has proved to provide with very skilled academic researchers, Rolando Morales is one of the examples among others. Unfortunately for the rest of us, these elite of researchers has capped the researcher marker, NGOs, International Organizations and so on. “New comers” like myself have nowhere to engage in more research or are simply relegated to assistant roles, shadowing this great researchers. Not that we do not need the experience, but we also need a place where we can try out our own ideas, our own research in the country. Universities should absorb this supply of researchers, but as explained in the article they do not engage on research, not even full time professors do.

    Programs like INESAD, PIEB, ILDIS and others try to mitigate this problem but then they run again into the vicious circle of lack of research skills among newly grads. Usually the answer is lack of funds that generates this situation, but I have to disagree, IDH resources allow state universities to engage in research, but it is simply not among their authorities interest.

    Universities should start more aggressive research demanding assignments. Requiring students to engage in certain problems extensibly, and not just reading the news or following textbook recipes. If we fail on generating interest on research among the new generation of professional, we are very far from improving this situation.

    • Dear Matias, thank you very much for your thoughtful reply. I couldn’t agree more! At INESAD we try to help fill the current gap by providing a space for researchers, both young and experienced, to interact, develop their skills and contribute to carrying out important policy-relevant research. But it is a fill-gap measure, and I agree that the issue really should be confronted by the Universities, which, as you say, do have the funds to do so.

  6. Dear Lykke,
    The six points to which you list for long term research are excellent and along with the NI method of doing Science and Liberal Arts research can only enrich and enhance innovation in doing research and the sustainability of the efforts of those who pursue consultation research with their passion for addressing the problems of the time.

  7. I believe it is possible and thanks for the 6 criteria mentioned.

  8. Muy buen artículo. Felicitaciones. Coincido plenamente con la autora.

  9. I think it is possible. I agree with the autors six criteria. If we talk about sustaining a long-term research strategy we must also talk about structural and profund problems to be solved, no matter if they are national, regional or local problems.

    The state cooperation agencies such as AECID, USAID, and the multilateral develpment institutions, such as the IDB, CAF or the WB, are as a rule those who formulate the problems and the strategy to solve them, in their Development Plans, and later call NGOs for proyect prosposals to solve the problems.

    If these two set of players mantain their formulations por many years and enrich them with feedback projects results, I am sure that a long-term reaserch strategy is possible.

    With the National, the Regional and the Local Development Plans, we have another set of formulation of the development problems. But the problem statement may differe from of the others. In this case, I am not sure that a long-term reaserch strategy is possible, because I distrust of the capacity of enriching with feedback results by the fact of being made by political players.

    Universities do not really formulate the problems because they are currently being formulated by the political players. And this is no bad. Perhaps the contribution of the Universities could be the study of the coherence of these set of statment problems.


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