COMMON SENSE On Consultancy Services [Archives:2000/19/Focus]

May 8 2000

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
A major component of a significant portion of the development projects, in most of the developing countries, is the technical expertise, or technical assistance component. This usually consists of a consultancy services element and training. Most of the consultancy services are usually provided by well-known international firms, with extensive experience in their general or specialized fields, as the case may be. Quite often many of these firms have an extensive network of branches and field offices throughout the world, where they have worked and are presently still undertaking work for their private or public sector clients. The consultancy services vary from project to project depending on size, the technical nature of the project and the availability of the competent technical personnel available to the client executing the project. While there are some consulting firms that offer a diversified line of consultancy services, that encompass a number of technical and managerial services, most consulting houses would tend to be specialized in different fields such as power engineering, construction of infrastructure civil works, roads, bridges, water and sewerage, buildings, etc. Though most consulting services are in the technical sphere of services, there are now a number of well-known consulting firms that have taken up managerial and social development fields and even more recently political, legal and institutional development fields. Quite often, the consultancy element in the latter form of consultancy non-technical comprise the whole project itself.
Normally for the consultancy activities involving a significant amount of engineering and structural works, the consultancy services can be said to be broken down into three sub-areas: study and design phase of the project including feasibility studies, project appraisal, drawing, etc; tendering (which involves, preparation of tender documents, invitation for pre-qualification of tenderers, selecting the qualified potential bidders and invitation thereof to present their technical and financial proposals, analysis and evaluation of tender offers, award of tenders, etc.); and project supervision. The latter project supervision is the main prize sought after by any consultant for any project, as it involves more time, more specific tangible work and, depending on the size of the project, lots more money than the other two phases. Moreover, this allows the consultant to take on an intermediary role between the client and the implementing contractor and here the integrity and professional acumen is called for, especially as the consultant has to gain the trust of the contractor, who has no direct relationship with the consultant, and the client who is paying the consultant. While it is not unreasonable to find a consultant undertaking all three phases of project consultancy work, it would not be exceptional to find consultants engaged in some phases of the consultancy work (phases 1 and/or two) and loose the prize consultancy to another consultant, if all three phases are bid for separately.
For the projects carried out with international donor support, more often than not, the international or bilateral agency funding the project would require that consultants are hired, especially for the First and the Third Phase of the consultancy services needed for the project. The consultant is usually brought in, in view of the deficiencies in the technical capacities of the beneficiary of the funding and also to provide the funding agency, and independent oversight of the project thus indirectly serving as a monitoring and control mechanism for the funding agency.
Costs of consultancy services vary in terms of the scope of the consultancy services to be provided, the nature of the expertise provided and the time involved, with the latter being the yardstick by which the extent of service is being valued in, with different rates applied for the nature of the technical expertise provided.
Project supervision can be extremely helpful in insuring the successful and timely completion of the project. It also provides experienced guidance for the implementation of the project according to the technical terms and conditions of the contract and in keeping with normally accepted practices of the trade. It also is an important aspect in training for both the client staff and the contractor in highly specialized fields that can provide ample chances of deviation and cheating, especially if neither the client nor the contractor are competent enough to insure such adherence accordingly.
As far as development is concerned, the training element of the technical assistance component represents an important means for human resource development that will insure a core base of technically competent staff for the client, with the view that eventually these staff should be able to carry out future aspects of the consultancy on their own and thus provide ample savings in future project implementation costs.
For the Republic of Yemen, rather than witnessing a decreased need for consultancy services. as time goes on and the available technical staff have learned from previous projects, working as counterparts of the consultants’ staff engaged in the project, we are noticing an increase of the reliance on consultancy services for project implementation, even for the minutest of jobs. Not that we are seeing a broader scope of project implementation, but rather the reason goes back to a number of institutional and organizational aspects within the government and public sectors. For one, the trainees working under the consultancy services are not usually selected by an objective screening process that entails that only competent local counterparts who can truly absorb and turn their training into meaningful productive work for the employer, when the consultant has finished his assignment. Second, the local staff find that even if they are competent to carry out the required work learned from the consultant, they will find that they no longer lack the means or resources to be as productive as they potentially could be under the same conditions that they worked in as counterparts of the consultant staff especially in terms of remuneration, availability of comfortable working conditions and confidence and trust of the management of their employers. In addition, a rewarding incentive system for productive work would be helpful in encouraging initiative and sound application of modern work methods which would entail having a viable evaluation system for gauging competence and performance of the technical staff.
With an increasing reliance on consultancy services in the Republic of Yemen, it has been found that unfortunately, a number of consulting companies have found the country to be easy prey for quick unearned profit, in terms of the actual benefit gained from the consultancy service provided. This is especially true of the non-technical or structural consultancy services i.e. those involving institutional and managerial “expertise”. This observer has had a tremendous opportunity to read and digest a number of consultancy works in various fields. Though some of this work has been worthy of praise, especially in earlier periods, it is distressing to find that, lately, some of the work, which has been coming out of, even reputable international firms, has been appalling to see the least, and surely not worth the money paid for the services that were, in fact not provided. Quite often, many of these firms engage staff from other developing countries, who unfortunately proved to be either poorly experienced or very careless in meeting the terms of reference set out for their tasks accordingly. It is hard to believe that these companies do not have the mechanisms to gauge the work of these staff who are acting in their names and who earn substantial incomes, that are not substantiated by the quality of their products in form and substance. For this reason, this observer would implore donors not to take everything done by consultants for granted as being efforts that are highly professional and meaningful. Moreover, one would expect that donors should set up an evaluation system by which they screen and continuously evaluate the consultants that work with them, and should share with the beneficiary countries the rating of consultants derived accordingly. Also there also should be a penalty system for inadequate work provided by consultants, with the application thereof to be agreed upon by, say, the World Bank and the beneficiary agencies accordingly. This would go along way to insuring that the consultants maintain a high standard of the very expensive services they are paid to provide and making sure that such service is indeed beneficial to the Republic of Yemen in pursuing its development aims.