Independent consultants hit hard by job losses

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An increasing number of professionals say they or someone they know has lost their job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by: Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

GLASGOW, Scotland/BRUSSELS — Almost 14% of global development professionals say they have lost their job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with independent consultants among those hardest hit.

That is according to the latest Devex COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey, conducted from June 1-10, which asked more than 560 development professionals in 113 countries how the pandemic is affecting them.

An increasing number of professionals say they or someone they know has lost their job — 39% in the latest survey, compared with 34% in the first round of the survey in April. Of those who are still working, almost one-quarter are “very concerned” about their long-term job security.

Independent consultants appear to be hardest hit, making up 43% of those who report having lost their job, saying the contracts they usually rely on have been canceled or are hard to come by.

Since the first week of the survey in late April, there has been an increase of 10 percentage points in the proportion of independent consultants saying they have lost their own job or know someone who has lost theirs.

Professionals working on short-term and consultancy contracts or facilitating workshops and meetings have been worst affected, said one U.S.-based consultant. Another U.S. consultant who provides training in Africa, mainly on projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said travel restrictions had left them without any work contracts at all.

Source: Devex COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey

Job prospects threatened

Travel bans have been one of the biggest challenges for consultants in the sector, forcing some to cut in-country missions short and quickly return home.

“Expected contracts have not gone ahead due to travel [restrictions] and country closures,” said one consultant, with many other respondents sharing this sentiment. Another said that they had lost a “lucrative” yearlong assignment since they were unable to travel and that local professionals had been hired instead.

“Most development professionals I know, mainly consultants, have not had any contacts with their clients since the advent of the pandemic.”

— A Zimbabwe-based respondent to the COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey

But in-country consultants have not been immune to these job losses and have had to contend with domestic travel restrictions. One professional based in Kenya said his colleagues had consultancy work canceled or put on hold due to the restrictions.

Program disruptions and the diversion of funds for the pandemic response have also impacted the demand for consultancy expertise. A Jordan-based consultant who lost their job said that they had been working on women’s economic empowerment but that donor priorities had changed.

Others have been luckier and able to continue their work from home. One Canada-based consultant said that while there are “simply less opportunities at the moment for myriad reasons,” being able to adapt to remote work was helping.

Layoffs across the sector

It is not just independent consultants who have been affected. The survey revealed that 18.5% of those who had lost jobs were staff members of nongovernmental organizations, while 15.4% were employed by development consulting companies.

The head of a consulting agency in the Oceania region said that “once the implications [of COVID-19] became apparent, three out of four consultancy assignments were cancelled or permanently suspended.” Another respondent said they had to lay off staff from their Kenya-based development consulting company.

Source: Devex COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey

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“Most development professionals I know, mainly consultants, have not had any contacts with their clients since the advent of the pandemic,” said one professional based in Zimbabwe, who worked for a development consulting company but has now lost their job. “The nature of their work involves community and farmer trainings and on site consultancies. … Most of them have not had any income at all since then, and aren't sure about the way forward post-Covid.”

NGOs have also been forced to lay off staff, including consultants. “While we have retained all our full-time HQ, expat, and country program staff, some of our consultants have seen their work interrupted and/or cancelled, which must be tough,” said one respondent who works with a U.S.-based NGO.

Another NGO staff member, based in Uganda, said many development professionals have lost their jobs or are facing potential job losses due to interruptions to funding and uncertainty around development work in the next few years. “We [believe] the amount of [donor] funding is likely to reduce almost to 50%,” they said, adding that this means organizations will “have to reduce staff.”

On the other hand, one field-based professional said the ongoing situation was creating additional work opportunities. Indeed, some respondents to the COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey have reported increased workloads.

About the authors

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.
  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.