Journal Issue

Foreign Experts—Their Advantages and Limitations

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1967
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Phillip Z. Kirpich

A LARGE DEVELOPMENT project comes into being by stages—usually by many stages. It begins by being “identified,” that is, by being cut out, so to speak, from the many alternative possibilities by which it is surrounded and overlapped, and it must often be fitted into a national plan of long-range development. It then becomes a subject for what professional developers call project preparation, including a feasibility study. Assuming that all goes well, it then proceeds to detailed design, construction, and operation.

In these various phases (which are not always clearly distinguishable from one another) foreign experts have an important role. On this everyone would agree. But what is that role? This is a rather neglected question. It has not been given much systematic or detailed study. Yet the answer is vitally important; good development experts are too rare and valuable for their services to be wasted.

If the role of the foreign expert is to be studied as it deserves, the complex processes of bringing a development project into being have to be examined stage by stage. But that is not enough. The work done in each stage will have to be examined and analytically divided. In the design and construction of large-scale water-resource projects, for example, we must make a distinction between major works and minor works. Large dams, transmission lines, pumping stations, processing plants, and major canals fall in the first class and require different treatment from minor structures—distributary lines and canals, small bridges and buildings, and the like.

Importance of Minor Works

It may seem surprising at first glance, but large-scale water-resource projects for developing agriculture usually involve a larger total effort in minor works than in major. An irrigation, drainage, or groundwater project typically contains many miles of small canals and drains, and also many wells and ancillary structures. Often rural roads must be added, and sometimes on-farm works as well, such as clearing, leveling, and other kinds of land preparation. The aggregate cost of such minor works may easily exceed that of the major works on which the project is based. Individual large dams are, of course, conspicuous triumphs of civil engineering, but it is a great mistake to allow them to have all the publicity. Take, for example, the large irrigation-drainage-flood control schemes in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, where, in the long run, the expenditures on minor works and agricultural ancillaries will greatly exceed the expenditures for major works. The minor works here involve a formidable interplay of a large number of variables of a complexity more than great enough to challenge the ingenuity of the finest technical brainpower.

If minor works are characteristically extensive, they also have another characteristic that is important. Their planning involves close contact with local farmers, whose number will depend on the size of the average farm and the area involved in the project. In parts of Latin America where farms are large, only a small number may be involved, but even there land subdivision and settlement schemes are tending to increase the number. In parts of South Asia, a project of 150,000 acres, with average land-holdings of 2½ acres, may involve 60,000 farm families. With such large numbers the problems of land acquisition and rational layout of minor works become increasingly complex. This is due not only to physical factors such as topography and property lines but also to the need for a suitably timed program—one wherein the minor works are properly phased with respect to the “nonengineering” elements in the project. These may include the training of farmers, arrangements for credit and marketing, and the provision of improved seeds and fertilizers. On top of this, the entire effort must be properly managed, with adequate incentives provided to the farmer.

Where and how are the directors of the project going to find the men who can handle such a great complex of ancillary works and at the same time obtain the cooperation of the farmers in the process? All experience shows that only local people can deal on a massive scale with other locals. It would be impracticable (and excessively costly) to bring in foreigners to the extent required, and even if they could be brought in it would take them too long to get acquainted with local habits and customs. To find local people who already have, or who can be provided with, the necessary technical training involves a great deal of planning at a very early stage—even before the stage of what is technically known as project preparation.

There is another compelling reason why the major part of the planning effort must be carried out by local rather than foreign experts. This is the continuity which is vital to sustained success. Look around the world at major development schemes—the valleys of the Mississippi, Nile, Rhine, and Rhone, or land reclamation in Holland and Italy—and note that these were carried out over many decades, even generations, by people who made this work their career. It is in the nature of such developments that one must live with them for a long time to come to understand the many ramifications—even vagaries—involved in works dealing with waters, land, and people. Unless a foreigner is prepared to live in the country or can find some other way of continuously identifying himself with the particular development, he cannot take primary responsibility—he can only be an advisor on limited aspects of the development.

Role of Foreign Experts

Now let us look at the other side of the coin. There will be many fields where, through lack of previous experience with works or projects of the type and scope contemplated, the necessary expertise cannot be found in the country. When this is so, foreigners must be employed.

The chart with this article illustrates the extent to which foreigners can participate most usefully in the various stages of project development. For the reasons already described, they cannot participate as fully in long-range planning as they can in project execution. The maximum effective foreign participation is reached in “detailed design, major works.” Large and complicated structures, such as high dams, major diversion dams, large pumping stations, power stations, processing plants, and high-voltage transmission lines, all require large, sophisticated engineering design organizations. In countries with little previous experience these can be developed only at high cost and over a long period of time. Moreover, even though the investment is made to create an organization to design, say, a high earth-fill dam, such an organization will most likely be unsuitable for the next dam to be constructed, which may be one of concrete-gravity or thin-arch type.

In some countries it has become a matter of prestige to be able to say that the large dam or other major structure was designed “with our own forces” 1 have run across this situation several times. What often happens is that the local agency becomes so involved with the design of the large prestige structure that it has neither personnel nor time to devote either to long-range planning or to adequate project preparation. As an example, I know of an instance where the local agency, having decided to concentrate its energies on the design of a large prestige structure (a high dam), assigned its scarce personnel to that task. But the job was too big and too advanced technically and therefore, rather hurriedly, the agency employed foreigners, on an individual basis, to help out. This failed for two reasons. First, local personnel were removed from vital long-range planning, and it was found, moreover, that the foreign experts could not fill this gap owing to the short period of their assignment and lack of familiarity with local conditions. Second, the process employed in selecting the individual foreign experts was faulty, as a result of which it was necessary in the end, after much expenditure of time and money, to call in an outside consulting firm to design the dam.1

It is in the detailed design of major works that foreign experts, properly selected, are most valuable. Such works can quite often be isolated from the other works involved. The problem of coordination with local factors—so characteristic of minor works—is not too difficult. The detailed design of major works can thus be performed anywhere, even outside the country at, let us say, the home office of a consulting firm where all the necessary expertise is already assembled.

When the construction phase for the major works has been reached, foreign experts will still be required to ensure proper execution of the design. But at this stage local technicians should play a larger part for reasons of economy and so that they may have sufficient acquaintance with the works to operate them when the time comes.

Construction and Operation

The construction of minor works and the operation of all works should be primarily the responsibility of the local authority set up for ultimate operation of the project. The construction of minor works is something that, if not already within the capacity of local contractors and technicians, should become so at an early date, since with any development of consequence the same kind of minor works are repeated many times. As for the operation of the project, this should quite obviously be undertaken by local authorities, with only the occasional guidance of foreign experts as might be found necessary.

Whatever the immediate role of the foreign expert—whether in planning, design, construction, or operation—his contribution will have little lasting effect unless on-the-job training of local experts for these tasks is an essential part of his assignment.

Sources of Local Experts

In many countries, the availability of local experts, without whom no major development effort can succeed, is far short of the need. The difficult task of creating an adequate corps of such experts in a reasonable time must be attacked on several fronts. Education at all levels, vocational as well as professional, is one obvious means. On-the-job training is another; such training is another fruitful field for the foreign expert.

In construction, some spectacular successes have been achieved on such large concentrated operations as the Mangla Dam in Pakistan and the Aswan Dam in the United Arab Republic. When activities become more dispersed, results are not usually too good; indeed, up to the present, efforts to train local experts for planning and management, and for dealing with local inhabitants on a massive scale, have fallen short of their objectives.

For example, in East Pakistan there has been some development of local know-how in project preparation, but in execution and management, as measured by the needs—admittedly very large—progress so far is disappointing. This is true despite the presence of large numbers of foreign experts for more than a decade. Fortunately, the authorities in Pakistan, in cooperation with foreign aid and financing agencies (including the World Bank) are now engaged in working out a solution, following on studies of the proper role of foreign experts: how such experts can best be effective in carrying out training of local experts; and how to develop and maintain adequate sources of local experts.

Although examples of successful on-the-job training in water-resource projects are disappointingly few, there are some notable successes. The development of consulting firms in Colombia is one. Educational standards have always been relatively high in that country. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, several promising young Colombian engineers started their own firms, after a period of employment with foreign firms—mostly American. The Colombian firms are now entirely independent, although some find continued association with the foreign firms to be advantageous.

Another success has been connected with the Dez irrigation project in Iran. The foreign firm in this case was charged with executing, operating, and managing a pilot irrigation project of 20,000 hectares, with the important proviso that the project should be pretty well taken over within a few years by local experts of the operating agency—the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority. This was a complex and far-reaching project: it included water control and distribution, land leveling, the operation of a large agricultural machinery pool, agricultural extension and research, a comprehensive agricultural credit scheme, and a field trial farm. Despite difficulties resulting mainly from land reform in Iran, the training effort at Dez has been quite successful. The foreign experts employed, originally numbering about 20, are now down to 4; local staff on professional or semiprofessional levels number over 150. During a recent visit to the project, I was most impressed by the competence and devotion of the Iranian staff that has been developed in only a few years’ time.

Although formal education and on-the-job training are valuable means of developing local experts, they can, of course, only succeed where potential experts are available. And they are not likely to be available in the absence of an auspicious climate such as will attract the vigorous and intelligent among the population to follow the pursuits involved. How can this be achieved? Salary scales are obviously one answer, but possibly more significant is the prestige connected with working on a project of high national purpose and importance. Here is where government at its highest level comes in. Government should first establish prestige by giving the project concerned a high priority in its development program. Second, it should establish an organizational framework along with personnel policies that will maintain prestige and morale. Adherence to these two principles no doubt explains in part the success of the training efforts of the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority, described above. The Waterstaat of Holland, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Suez Canal Authority, and the Panama Canal Company are examples of world-famous agencies that have attracted high-caliber people and kept them at high levels of performance. The rewards offered comprised national recognition and feeling for a job well done rather than monetary compensation (although it is true that the latter was above generally prevailing rates).

Balanced Approach

The use of foreign and local experts, like so many other human activities, requires a balanced approach. The optimum combination of these two elements will best promote not only the execution of the particular project but also long-range planning of the over-all development and execution of succeeding projects.

Techniques for selection and engagement of foreign experts, which are outside the scope of this article, have been discussed previously in Finance and Development. See “Consulting Engineers and the World Bank” by S. Aldewereld, Vol. II, No. 4, December 1965.

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