“The marketplace is changing, donor expectations are changing and we need to be able to constantly position ourselves to anticipate and respond to changing client needs.”
That’s according to Kit Black, the Australian national who in March took up the reins as European general manager at Coffey, a professional services consultancy headquartered in Sydney, Australia, which now employs more than 2,000 development professionals across in excess of 80 developing countries, first commencing operations in the Middle East in the early 1970s.
Previously, as general manager for the Asia-Pacific region, Black oversaw a period of strong growth for Coffey, one of the Australian government’s leading contractors in the international development sector. His latest appointment illustrates the company’s ongoing commitment to expanding its operations in Europe.
His first priority was to take steps to ensure that the operation is able to maximize development effectiveness and respond appropriately to client needs — bringing to bear the best practices from his longstanding experience managing operations in Australia.
“In our U.S. and Australian operations, we’ve got an enormous amount of technical expertise, stretching back 40 years,” Black told Devex. “We want to be able to leverage that global experience in the work we do out of our European offices.”
Over the years, Coffey has developed “very strong relationships” with a veritable who’s-who of major donors, including the European Commission, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to name a few, along with clients such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K. Department for International Development and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
So why the need to ramp up the company’s presence in Europe — and why now?
Black explained that the shift has come on the back of a “reassessment” of where Coffey’s international development team wants to focus its energies in the future. “We’re looking to harness our experience over many decades as a managing contractor and renew our interest in a broader range of activities from an active and engaged Europe base,” he said. “If you’ve got a good service to provide, you’ve got to focus on the areas in which there’s a demand.”
A ‘hands-on’ role
This includes expanding the company’s research, monitoring and evaluation practice in both Europe and Australia in order to take a much more “hands-on” role in the development of aid policy and priorities.
As part of the strategic realignment — and to meet a growing donor demand to showcase results — Black revealed that one of Coffey Europe’s in-house research and evaluation experts, Ben Ward, has moved to Australia for two years to work with the newly appointed general manager for Asia Pacific, Sam Spurrett, in that operation and expand its offering in this area.
“One of the advantages of mobilizing senior staff for either short or long periods of time is we can then access and share experiences and learn from each other — particularly in the areas where we see growing and future client needs,” he said.
At the same time Coffey will be building on its strong capability in Europe through the increased involvement of personnel from its America’s operation, Management Systems International. MSI became a part of Coffey in 2008, and has a strong reputation as a leading provider of strategic management and performance improvement assistance, including M&E support, to USAID and other donors.
“We have applied a number of key aspects of the strategic management and performance improvement tools developed by MSI — methodologies that have been part of their DNA for over 30 years — and leveraged them to boost our technical offering in other regions,” Black said.
The culture club
But are there any notable differences to bridge in terms of the donor culture?
According to Black, there is a lot of common ground: “While the major donors might operate in slightly different ways, the constant theme is the donor’s expectations for innovation and value for money. Those things that work in the Australian environment — quality service delivery, good systems, delivering on value for money, getting the best people to deliver your programs and building strong relationships with your client — work just as well here in the U.K. as they would anywhere else.”
He cited Coffey’s track record of working around the globe in “very difficult, demanding environments,” including Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan and Somalia, as an opportunity to bring proven expertise to new and emerging challenges in a broad range of geographies. This depth of experience also enables Coffey to bring some “fresh ideas” from other jurisdictions to the table.
For example, MSI has a wealth of experience running civil society capacity-building projects in the Middle East and North Africa. Coffey Europe is leveraging this experience on a current project, training civil society professionals in Syria on how to take an active role in resolving the conflict peacefully.
“It’s a compelling story in terms of our ability to mobilize complex programs quickly and efficiently,” Black suggested. “Coffey Europe has a thorough understanding of the geography in which it operates, and a well-established technical capability — so we’re building on a very solid foundation.”
Indeed, Black revealed that Coffey Europe would continue to deliver programs in its traditional areas of expertise — governance, security and justice, economic growth, and human development — but also seeks to expand its portfolio in areas such as education, health and food security, in which it has “significant experience” in the other global regions of operation.
“There’s expertise there that we can access and call upon, as we look to build a stronger and broader base,” he said.
Working in-country with local partners is another essential ingredient for success, Black explained. “Sustainability relies on strong in-country partners — there needs to be commitment to and investment in the project from both parties, for the project to ultimately succeed. Our approach to working with our partners is relationship-based and we’ve developed some wonderful relationships over the years,” he said.
Like other groups, Coffey works hard to engage local communities and partners. To facilitate those processes in East Africa, for instance, the organization has set up a regional headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.
Black said: “By moving to the places where our clients are focused — as for example DfID is in East Africa and the Horn of Africa — we increase our understanding of local issues and conditions and we’re better able to deliver their programs successfully.”
Cost-effectiveness is another cornerstone of Coffey’s work.
“Value for money has always been a critical issue for us in terms of our service delivery,” Black said, “and there’s a very clear focus on value for money with all of our major clients. It’s an issue that we take particularly seriously.”
One case in point is Coffey’s recent appointment of an in-house value for money manager and the work of its in-house research, monitoring and evaluation team, which carries out internal reviews at the beginning, middle and end of all of Coffey’s major programs.
“For us to do development and do it well, we have to be an efficient organization — in terms of processes and practices — to deliver the quality services that are required,” Black said.
Building the right team
Another cornerstone of Coffey’s success lies in the quality of its staff members and consultants — and the organization is looking to expand its network of technical experts in Europe. “We’ve got a very strong base of existing expertise at the more senior level in Europe, Australia and the U.S. and we’re looking to build on that in the European market, in particular,” Black said.
“We’re also looking to develop a strong global pool of young and mid-level professionals who bring a passion to the industry and a desire to do good development work.”
To its staff members and consultants, Coffey presents itself as an innovative, dynamic and transparent company with a strong support network and a focus on taking care of its people in the field. “We have an existing reputation in-country of looking after our people, which allows us to attract senior level people to manage our projects.”
“Right now, I’m really looking forward to where Coffey is going,” Black said. “As we work even more closely across our global team, I think we’ll be able to do some very innovative and interesting things, and really contribute to the future of sustainable development.”
This article was sponsored by Coffey. Find out more about Coffey.
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