Nostalgia, fragility, age and management consultants: 4 Scandinavian conversations

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day in Sigtuna, a lovely lakeside town just outside Stockholm, doing my usual blue sky/future of

tough gig

aid thing with big cheeses from the 5 Scandinavian protestant church agencies of the ACT Alliance. The ensuing conversations were full of lightbulb moments, including these four:

Nostalgia as a political force: across the region, including in the Swedish elections on Sunday, a yearning for a largely-illusory past of rustic homesteads, pitchforks and whiteness is driving the rise of populist, anti-immigration movements like the Swedish Democrats or the ‘True Finns’. The same can be said of populism in the US or UK – it all took me back to Gil Scott Heron’s great song, ‘B Movie’ about the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan:

This country wants nostalgia
They want to go back as far as they can …
Even if it’s only as far as last week
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards

And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes
Riding to the rescue at the last possible moment
And when America found itself having a hard time …
Facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne
But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan

The past is over-rated

The Left has its own nostalgic narratives of course – in the UK, they often pine for the clarity of the post war Labour government setting up the NHS and nationalising coal. But overall, they seem to be losing the Nostalgia Wars. Anything good to read on the origins and politics of nostalgia?

Working on Fragile and Conflict-Affected settings: Should aid agencies allocate more money and effort to working in FCAS, and what should they be doing differently there?

Arguments for greater priority: that’s where the poverty is/will be; where the aid money will go; any success will be likely to replicate as other organizations pick it up

Arguments against: much harder to get results in FCAS; greater risks to staff and partners, especially where being foreign is politically toxic (an increasing number of countries)

What kind of work makes sense in FCAS? Humanitarian response; thinking more about power and public authority beyond the state (eg the role of faith leaders in the case of ACT). Positive deviance approaches often make more sense when everything else fails.

What are the relative advantages/disadvantages of doing advocacy/campaigns with young v older people? I’m always sceptical of unthinking ‘we must do more with youth’ statements, but the conversation went deeper than that:

Why work more with youth? They move fast, are connected and creative, so you can get rapid and large scale change on things like norms and behaviours, and loads of new ideas. They are more ready to mobilise in public, if that’s the nature of your campaign. What’s more, if you change the behaviours of a 15 year old, you get results for a lot longer than with a 70 year old!

Why work with older people: they are better connected, have more knowledge of power and how advocacy targets like companies or the state work; they may stay with the campaign longer than young people whose lives are going through rapid change (college, work, babies).

Should CSOs partner with Management Consultants? An increasing number of large bilateral aid contracts (DFID, USAID) is being channelled through Management Consultancy companies, who have set up aid management arms – the kind of thing I was looking at in Tanzania recently, with a consortium run by Palladium. When they are putting together their bids, many approach CSOs to join their consortium. How should CSOs respond? How do we sort out the companies with a genuine commitment to development from the purely profit-oriented? Could someone put together a questionnaire for the top 20 aid contractors and publish the results? I tweeted a request for advice and which questions to ask and got the following:

  • ‘Watch out that you are not being used as bid candy. Insist on full disclosure of the whole bid.’
  • ‘Do they transparently pay their taxes around the world? Do they make a lot of money helping others not do that? Do they shame the memory of a major Scottish economist and philosopher [can’t think who that refers to….]? Do they have a track record of building capacity in-country, or of extractively profiting?’
  • Talk to another contractor, compare offers; Beware overlapping partners; Have defined, project-critical outputs beyond year 1 & key named personnel.
  • Questions around transparency, and whether there are any domestic firms from partner countries involved in the consortia.
  • Give us (at least) two references, that we can follow up, from CSO partners who have worked as part of consortia with you, and with the specific staff members leading this bid.’

Any other suggestions, or offers to take on the questionnaire idea?


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10 Responses to “Nostalgia, fragility, age and management consultants: 4 Scandinavian conversations”
  1. I’m commenting on 2 issues: Nostalgia and CSO partnerships.
    Nostalgia: Working in Swedish academia, I find it interesting that nostalgia often comes in the form of ‘we Swedes/Danes/Finns/…used to be so good at development and we don’t really understand what happened’; one of the things that is happening right now is ‘decolonization’ (recent post on Norway:; ‘but colonization was never an issue in the Nordic world’…and that’s where nostalgia meets the many nuances of North-South cooperation, white saviors & a changing aid landscape at home and abroad.
    CSO partnerships: If you want to do research with indigenous peoples in Canada (or on their land) you need their consent *before* you can submit your research proposal/ethics review. I could imagine something similar for CSO-consultancy partnerships: Before they put a CSO on a bid they need to show that they engaged openly with their CSO partner. On a more academic level, I’d love to see more staff exchanges as part of these partnerships: send CSO person to big, global management consultancy and consultant to the regional office of CSO!

  2. Duncan – on your list of working with consultants. Think about the following……. 1. You can team with smaller consulting consultants with clear specialist expertise and you can lobby DFID/FCO to support these types of consortia and not default to the big primes who can afford to devote copious amounts of time to win the bids; 2. Always sign a Teaming Agreement specifying the nature of the relationship and who does what (beware those consultancies who promise work on signing and then give you nothing – we know who they are!). 3. Remember, overhead costs in-country are pretty much the same for everyone, we all value our safety and security; 4. I have never met a Prime that shared their commercial bid – but the least you can expect is a hard copy of the technical, if this is not good enough for you go with a smaller consulting company that does believe in full transparency; 5. It is rare that bids go forward without local partners, we just need to know them and understand they are fully committed to the project objectives and are fairly rewarded, not exploited; 6. Lastly, you need to like the people you work with and respect their motives. What get’s them up in the morning? Solving/addressing complex humanitarian and development problems or driving corporate profits?

    That’s my little list

  3. Thanks so much Duncan, and great points Greg on the 3rd issue- partnering with management consultants. The problem is of course the power dynamics for small NGOs that want to do good work but have resource constraints and are therefore often dependent upon the whims of these larger contractors.

    We’ve pushed consistently for those we have thought about partnering with to share proposal/bid documents and have never been successful. Many often refuse to pay for legitimate staff time for local partner organizations while taking as much as 80% in overheads. Some of their work is actually criminal (re: Greg’s point about safety and security- they are not the only ones that need to be safe). In the past, we have also been paid approximately 5% of a total contract award to provide fully 30% or more of the project deliverables. In other cases we have been forbidden from speaking to the donor about the project to protest these dynamics. Although the donors that fund these contractors clearly do not yet have an incentive to change these issues in meaningful ways, unfortunately. Other questions to ask the contractors (and to measure them by their answers):

    – How is your work meaningfully co-designed with local partners? How much time has your staff actually spent in X country before visiting as part of the effort to bid on this proposal?
    – In a given project, what percentage of your deliverables will be carried out by local organizations and what percentage of your budget is allocated/has been transferred to them?
    – Can you explain how you have worked with the local organizations you included in your bid? How many times have you met with them as part of this project, once the contract has been signed?

    We’d be happy to think through a questionnaire for the top 20 aid contractors with other interested partners and publish it, if that isn’t something that someone is already working on…

    • Extremely helpful, Duncan and Blair.

      Being based in DC, it’s pretty tricky to work out which consultancies are “Beltway Bandits” and which are ones that might make for good partners. So much harder for smaller and more resource-strapped organizations far away from DC, and who may be tempting “bid candy” (love that expression, if not the practice).

      Some collaboration around that – working out what questions to ask, collating data, sharing experience, and perhaps a tripadvisor esque ratings function – could be very helpful, and maybe help to shift the power dynamics a bit.

  4. Priyanthi Fernando

    You are so privileged, Duncan Green to be able to have “a day in Sigtuna, a lovely lakeside town just outside Stockholm, doing my usual blue sky/future of aid thing with big cheeses from the 5 Scandinavian protestant church agencies of the ACT Alliance”.!!!! and it’s unsurprising that in such a setting the conversation was so global-north-centric!. Surely being nostalgic for the days when there was such a strong north-south divide across which development aid was distributed, is to deny where development has gotten to in the countries of the global south and to sidestep the recognition of the 2030 Agenda that ‘development’ is today a joint responsibility. SImilarly the conversation of fragility needs to go beyond ‘that’s where the poverty will be” to ask who is causing that poverty – let’s talk about Yemen for example…..and from an old person;s perspective rather than a global south one, must it young vs old? can’t it be together?….

  5. About Primes: it may be instructive to ask whether the head of the company, his or her successor or the VP had ever been employed by the foreign aid and/or development arm of his or her country. There are several large consulting companies inchoated by former senior staff who then developed an automatically sustained channel into contract opportunities. All legal, I am sure….but the concentration of contracts issued to these companies absolutely creates impediments if not actually inhibits smaller companies and NGOs with valuable experience to respond to RFPs. This insider track to opportunities is what westerners often accuse developing country bureaucracies of!
    I am not suggesting that some of these ‘insiders’ do a poor job; but I am claiming that there is too much of a clustering and concentration of larger companies. A small NGO or less known company could, of course, equally implement well ….or horribly.
    In a world needing increasingly more peace, understanding, recognition, use of local knowledge and clarity on appropriate, contextual and adaptable skills and knowledge, we ought to imagine and try mechanisms of project allocations in innovative ways to a larger number of implementers or executing agencies. Not in the least, this also requires a better understanding of a) profit orientation: I had known an institution that, after a serious recommendation to shut its programme down because of ineptitude refused to do so in order not to lose its overhead; b) wage and salary disparities: this begets related and often unsolved issues of poaching and competition from other ‘development projects’ as well as overpaid foreigners and grossly underpaid locals with similar qualifications and capabilities.

  6. Hello Duncan
    I would like to comment on resource allocation for working in Fragile and Conflict-Affected settings – I think working in the field of transitional justice is an aspect that is often overlooked but could, in my opinion, set a basis for a more peaceful future. Transitional justice takes many different forms from community-led reconciliation processes right to top-level interventions. So I agree with positive deviance but would encourage to look into the very interesting and practical work on transitional justice.
    What are the relative advantages/disadvantages of doing advocacy/campaigns with young v older people?
    I would argue it is not about either or OR about versus but rather of bringing both worlds together. If you merge the advantages of both it makes sense. The energy and motivation of young people have in history been driving forces for change, disruption and advancement. But at the same time, the conflict and friction with the older generation have been an important factor in this advancement. So my argument would be to look for intergenerational approaches that harvest the best of both and use the energy generated through the friction of generations.

  7. Charlotte Ornemark

    I like so many issues raised in this blog post for so many reasons (as a nostalgic Swede AND as a long-time consultant in this industry). Except for the awful acronym FCAS, that is, lumping together both syllables and contexts into four-letter anonymity. Nevertheless. Some time back I wanted to start an ‘Ethical Consultants Collaborative’ — getting together with other consultants interested in signing up to some commonly agreed and transparently declared principles like 1) Avoid “commoditization” of public interest solutions at all cost, 2) Never trademark what’s completely obvious, 3) If we come up with a management tool or ‘user’s guide’ that requires re-hiring us for applying it, we failed, 4) Our hourly and daily rates, overheads, and financials for different assignments are transparently available for public scrutiny and tailored to the situation/need/ability of client to pay, 5) We insist on closing the feedback loops with people that shared their experiences with us (regardless of where they are — in Boardrooms or in rural communities) for mutual learning, 6) No “bid candy” ever (picking up on Alan Hudson’s comment). Etc. (the list was long and not very hard to come up with — very common sense). However, feedback from other consultants was that this could never survive as a business model in a highly competitive ‘aid biz’ landscape. Too costly. Nobody would sign up. Suppliers don’t care about ethics… and so forth. It simply would not be profitable, working in a not-for-profit world… (great oxymoron right there). Just thinking: Anyone wants to join? 🙂

  8. Charlotte

    (Clarification: nostalgic in terms of what Swedish / Scandinavian development cooperation can be at its best only. 🙂 Notions of solidarity and trust are on their way back. Look out for EBA study taking a comprehensive look at how to promote ‘multi-stakeholder ownership’ and locally led solutions in Swedish cooperation to be discussed at a Sida Dev Talk, Stockholm on Sep 27)