Engaging national consultants in international development

Pierre Varly

This note is the base for a presentation at the CIES 2018 conference, planned Wed, March 28, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Hilton Reforma, 4th Floor, Don Alberto 4, Mexico City.

Technical assistance is a key component of international aid to education. Expert teams are set up to design, implement or evaluate projects. These teams rely on a combination of personal and professional skills and profiles yet national consultants/local staff are not always embedded in groups.  Thus, local knowledge and research is very often overlooked by international organizations, at least in Africa (Maclure, 1997). An examination of reports, papers and documents from international organizations clearly shows that information emanating from local staff is not given the attention it merits. Consequently, in many instances, research is not properly contextualized and produces misleading operational recommendations.

We define a national consultant as someone that lives and works primarily in his/her country while an international consultant is someone that works in multiple countries predominantly. The former are not always integrated in expert teams. Similarly, their governmental counterparts (i.e., Ministries of Education) are not always embedded in the projects, or their level of involvement is marginal. In extreme cases, international consultants write reports on countries where they spend only a few weeks without knowing much of the context and educational culture. This has consequences on the quality of the technical assistance and the level of appropriation by MoE.

The recruitment of national consultants not only reduces costs of expertise in most cases but it also adds value. National consultants studied in the country, live in the country and have kids actually learning in the education system. Additionally, their expertise and intimate knowledge of field nuances proves indispensable in many projects.

International and national consultants are different. Often, international consultants are dexterous users and advocates of cutting edge research methodologies while the latter do not have access to international journals and current research sources. There are many causes for this asymmetry: language, funding, disinformation, scant internet connectivity, and electricity blackouts. Although there are regional networks of researchers such as ROCARE in Africa, local experts can suffer from isolation.

Commonly former ministerial education staff, domestic consultants have solid expertise in their national education systems, values and cultures. They can help to interpret findings and contextualize data and also to deliver messages to national stakeholders.

Working with paired national and international consultants is an effective way to design, implement and evaluate projects. Each can learn from the other. The use of international consultants is also a way to better guarantee the independence of projects and reports because as foreigners, they can be less susceptible to local sociopolitical forces. For example, international consultants do not have allegiance to one of the regions or ethnic group of the country.

There are various practical considerations when working with national consultants. First, terms of reference and scope of work must be properly designed to avoid exploiting local experts. Given that they live in the country, they can be required to perform many tasks such as logistics, liaising with MoE, collecting data, facilitating missions, that can be outside their initial scope of work.

Second, working with national consultants builds domestic capacity as they gain access to international research sources and methodologies. Certainly, the building of assets requires time for training and exchanges. National consultants, in turn, can brief international experts on the specificities of the country: regional diversity, languages and education culture. They are also instrumental to access to local information: qualitative data, national reports and documentation. Engaging national consultants may be difficult due to their limited availability, software-hardware familiarity and linguistic profiles. Hence, the respective roles of national and international consultants should be clearly defined at the onset of project planning.

Though in years to come international consultants will represent a lower proportion of international development consultants (Bruckner 2015), they may continue, as is the case now, to be in command of projects as team leaders and through consultancies. International consultants are also predominantly males. Thus, it is important to understand why donors rely so heavily on international expertise.

In light of the aging international consultant cadre, those young qualified local staff such as engineering and Ph.D. graduates are often recruited by international organizations and they are the future. This raises the issue of knowledge and skills transfer not only from North to South but from a generation to the other.

The discussion is now informed by a quick survey of international firms a as per Bruckner (2015).

Three international firms of consulting in education received a quick questionnaire (two Europeans firms, one American firm). Firms size range from 18 to 300 staff (HQ and local offices). The proportion of national consultants recruitment among all consultants is respectively 30-70-80%. The ratio of fee of a national consultant compared to an international consultant is around 1:3-1:4 in Asia and Africa and 1:1 in Arab states. National consultants are identified through local contacts, job posting in websites and newspapers and social networks such as Linkedin.

The policy of donors varies with regards to engaging national consultants. USAID, the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and DFID intends to have recruited national consultants while in EU and UNICEF projects rely more on international expertise according to the firms. The Asian development Bank also encourages the partnership and recruitment of local firms though it is not always formalized.

The combination of international and national consultants work well, each have its own specificities.

For national consultants :

Pros are:

  • better understanding of the local context (laws, habits, stakeholders, context, national institutions, reliable and non-reliable stakeholders in Ministries, etc)
  • ability to travel alone within the country and meet with relevant people
  • Easy to mobilize (no international travels, little local logistics)
  • Lower fees
  • Specific input to deliverables.


  • difficulty for former civil servants to play their role in complete independence vis à vis their former employee and former colleagues
  • Lack of innovation for people who have been working inside the system for many years and have now to work on changing it.
  • Cultural issues: in some countries, it is difficult for national consultants to listen to/ take advice from young people/ women
  • Level of expertise
  • Higher difficulties to get deliverables

International consultants added value will mainly have to do with:

  • Bringing international best practices
  • Planning of activities and coordinating team of experts
  • Drafting/coordinating complex deliverables
  • Ensure the global project management (including HR and financial issues)

Bringing an international consultant in a national team might also be seen as questioning their capacity, instead of bringing international best practices. It has to be carefully planned, and take into account local knowledge.  There is a need to verify that international consultants have the necessary skills to work in good intelligence with a national team, in a multicultural environment and in respect of what each member of the team brings to the table.

National staff get all the same trainings international staff get. National consultants (long-term) would get some of the business ethics/ security trainings. The situation can vary depending on national context and local expert’s competences. Some project depends on local experts for 90% or more, while others do not include any local expert.

To conclude, there are advantages and disadvantages in recruiting national consultants versus international consultants. Policy across donors varies and national consultants are not systematically embedded in the projects. In prospective terms, given the cost-efficiency, the proportion of national consultants recruited in projects might likely increase. More sound training and capacity building policies for national consultants should be hence developed by donors and private firms considering international expertise’s goal is one day to disappear.


 Till Bruckner  (2015), International consultants: Overpaid today, extinct tomorrow?, 04 August 2015; Devex.https://www.devex.com/news/international-consultants-overpaid-today-extinct-tomorrow-86508

Maclure, R. (1997). “Overlooked and Undervalued: A Synthesis of ERNWACA Reviews on the State of Educational Research in West and Central Africa.” Bamako, Mali, Educational Research Network for West and Central Africa (ERNWACA) and USAID.

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