BRUSSELS — Tony Land had a dilemma.
Three weeks ago, the development consultant with over 30 years of experience was due to travel to Indonesia from his home in Botswana to evaluate a climate resilience program for an international donor. He was skeptical about Jakarta’s claim to not yet have any cases of COVID-19, conscious of the risk of flying through South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, and concerned that if Indonesia did become a high-risk country — as has since happened — it could complicate his onward travel.
“This is an opportunity for a national consultant to let them shine, let them step up.”— Tony Land, development consultant
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” the 59-year-old Englishman told Devex over Skype. “The whole thing was about meeting as many people as possible, holding focus group discussions, holding workshops. It seemed the worst recipe when the idea of social distancing was already being mooted.”
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So Land went to plan B. Given the language barrier, he had already reached out to Ruth Alicia, a 38-year-old Indonesian development practitioner, to help with translating during his planned 10-day visit. In consultation with the client, Land said they asked Alicia to lead the fieldwork, while the senior consultant stayed in Botswana.
“We sort of said, ‘Well OK, this is an opportunity for a national consultant to let them shine, let them step up, and let me rather have more of a coaching, arm’s-length role, working from a distance,’” Land said.
With the evaluation now underway, he and Alicia are meeting each evening on Skype to debrief and plan the day ahead. Land, who will oversee the final report with Alicia’s input, has taken part in some meetings with interviewees when possible via video calls.
He said their approach has boosted productivity, allowing him to conduct video interviews when Alicia is away on field visits — some of which she has also switched to phone calls over coronavirus concerns.
For Alicia — who has more than 10 years of development experience in Indonesia with organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme — working with Land has honed her ability to keep an eye on the big picture and allowed her to study her partner’s methods. “If he is participating in the interview, I will pay attention to how he poses the questions and what he is actually looking for from the interview,” she told Devex. Land also increased her daily fee and number of days under the new arrangement.
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Alicia said her added value lies in decoding the local context, helping Land navigate regional laws and policy documents. “I feel like that’s where we complement each other,” she said. “And that creates the balance in the evaluation that is needed.”
Land agreed, saying he would consider replicating the model in the future if it suited the nature of the work.
But why doesn’t this happen more already? Alicia, who has just returned from studying in Belgium, Estonia, and Germany, said there is work for local consultants from international aid donors. However, the challenge for professionals such as herself is being able to climb the ladder to be considered for missions in other countries. She cited the greater access to information, professional networks, and confidence enjoyed by European consultants. This allows them to build up a varied portfolio of work, she said, and adds to the self-fulfilling prophecy whereby clients prefer to work with those they have used in the past.
“I feel like once I’m back to Indonesia, it’s a little bit more difficult to reach out further,” Alicia said. “I can be an expert in Indonesia, which is not a problem, and I will be happy to. But when you want to go beyond Indonesia, that’s a little bit more challenging.”
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