• Opinion
  • April 29, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Why foreign advisors in government should do less and train more

Opinion: My work in Liberia showed me the importance of skills transfer

This piece was written by Clémence Landers, who had a Scott Family Fellowship through the Center for Global Development and John Snow Inc. in Liberia in 2009-2010. She has since served in various roles at the US Treasury Department, the World Bank and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. For more like this, see our spotlight on public service leadership in Africa.


Shortly after the end of the Liberian Civil War and the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I was awarded a Fellowship to serve as a foreign staffer in the Liberian finance minister’s front office.

At the time, President Sirleaf had assembled an impressive team of technocratic ministers, who collectively set out an ambitious strategy for the country’s recovery. But, with a civil service in disarray following decades of conflict and neglect, ministers had few staffers that they could rely on to manage the routine work flow.

The finance ministry was fast-paced with a seemingly never ending daily list of burning issues, each more urgent than the next. The stakes were high. With an annual budget of barely $100 million for a population well over three million people, the government urgently needed to produce tangible dividends so that all Liberians owned a stake in preserving the peace.

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Against this backdrop, Liberia’s creditors were breathing down the government’s neck and the finance ministry was racing to normalise relations with major international lending institutions to unlock hundreds of millions in grants and cheap loans for the country’s reconstruction.

The finance minister’s office was the centre of these efforts. Progressively, as I gained the trust of the minister and his entourage, I got pulled into this work stream. Indeed, with most high-priority items tasked and centralised around the minister’s office, often in the form of an emergency fire-drill, I eventually took a leading role on a number of key topics including debt relief.

I worked closely with the minister on debt restructuring negotiations with bilateral and multilateral creditors, and a commercial debt buy-back to retire the country’s unmet obligations. We also negotiated and implemented an ambitious IMF program that would eventually put the country on the path to full debt relief.

Over the course of a year, the ministry achieved a great deal: near full debt relief in a historic agreement, successful performance on an ambitious IMF program, and strengthened macroeconomic fundamentals. In the finance minister’s words, Liberia’s economy was no longer on emergency life-support, and Liberia could now move to the longer-term recovery phase. This allowed the crisis firefighting to stop, and it gave the minister and his staff more breathing space to develop medium-term priorities and shape a forward looking agenda.

The move from crisis to longer-term development planning — coinciding with the end of my first year at the ministry — also gave me time to think about my role in the ministry and, more broadly, the metrics of success for an international advisor embedded in a foreign government.

You have done your job well if you have perfected the daily routines of the ministry

My Fellowship was deliberately designed to be time-bound. The idea was not to provide a permanent form of assistance (or to usurp a role that a Liberian civil servant could perform), but to fill a void, and ideally, in a sustainable enough way so at the time of departure, the Fellow’s contribution remained.

Halfway through my Fellowship I had not met this bar. On the one hand, I had contributed a great deal to “getting things done” but in the process, I had neglected to ask at every stage of my work: in a functional governmental structure how should this process have worked and who should have owned each task? What were the skills a civil servant needed and how could I help them acquire them?

An oft-repeated but much neglected adage in development is that a foreign advisor is successful it they “work themselves out of a job”. What this means, in my view, is that you have done your job well if you have invested in civil servants and perfected the daily routines of the ministry. Combined, these become the ministry’s processes and structures — and thus its accomplishments.

Many of the foreign advisors who were worker-bees buzzing around the ministry were guilty of neglecting this (and I was not without my own moments of complicity). This was often for the understandable reason that the urge “to get things done” does not always mesh with building up the civil service; sometimes it’s because the foreign contractor’s incentive structure is simply not aligned with this imperative.

But it is a grave oversight because instead of reinforcing capacity within the ministry to fulfil regular work tasks, foreign advisors supplant the local staff and ultimately leave the structure weakened. For this reason, I believe that as a development effectiveness principle, foreign technical assistants should be required to mentor a peer within the local civil service.

Guided by this realisation, during the second half of my Fellowship, I started to focus a lot less attention on the urgency of getting things done fast, and more on thinking through what a functional process would look like. I also started mentoring some of the more junior staff in the minister’s front office.

While foreign advisors come and go, the civil service is the institution that steadies the course

Say for instance, on talking points and briefing memos. The minister had become accustomed to asking me to write him background notes ahead of meetings with external counterparts which I did and would merely run by relevant offices rather than giving them ownership over the product. Or, I would often resolve issues with the World Bank without necessarily thinking to loop in the ministry’s Aid Management Unit.

Instead, I decided to play a more coordinating role, channeling tasks to the office responsible for that work stream (and taking the time to help them accomplish it). I also spent time with office directors, helping them think about their office structures and the training needs of their staff. This ultimately improved outcomes, morale and built a sense of mission.

A decade later, many of the junior staffers I knew at the ministry are in management roles across the government making important contributions to their country. Liberia’s journey has been rocky since I was last there in 2010, but there is a new generation of civil servants rising.

A ministry is the sum total of its civil service, and while foreign advisors and political administrators come and go, the civil service is the institution that steadies the course. — Clémence Landers

(Picture credit: Flickr/Global Partnership for Education)

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