A rant about gender (and other) consultants and how we can avoid them

Guest rant from CARE International’s Elizabeth Cowan

Elizabeth Cowan coordinates CARE’s Global Gender Cohort and is an Australian with a fancy gender Master’s degree.

Ask a group of international development people about external consultants and the conversation that ensues resembles group therapy. Everyone has a story of pain and frustration, of feeling cheated, misunderstood and unsatisfied. Sometimes we cry.

There was the external evaluator we paid $60,000 to tell us our project was “doomed from the start”. The proposal-writer whose work was so poor that I completely re-wrote the 40-page document while arrested by dengue fever sweats. The baseline assessor whose recommendations for a conflict-sensitive area could have triggered inter-ethnic war (if we’d followed them). Or the consultant who said our project didn’t have enough budget for a ‘proper’ baseline assessment (i.e. following his firm’s extractive quantitative approach), triggering an existential crisis: “we never have enough budget to do anything properly => what’s the point of development work at all? => I should leave the sector => but one must do something meaningful with one’s life => WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?”

Not helpful for effective programming.

But let’s be fair, it’s not only external consultants who provide unhelpful “advice”. HQ gender advisors with titles as inflated as their grounded experience is limited can be just as problematic. They have a tendency to deliver recommendations like, “The project should empower people of diverse and marginalized sexual orientation and gender identities to actualize their ambitions for individual agency through endogenous strategies for self-determination”, leaving project staff scratching their heads and wishing they’d never asked for “advice” in the first place.

Duncan has some useful tips for getting better results from consultants. This is helpful, but at CARE we are trying to kick our addiction to gender consultants. CARE’s Global Gender Cohort is harnessing the great gender expertise that exists within CARE to meet our high demand for gender technical assistance (TA). Our Global Gender Cohort is a peer-to-peer model of gender TA, with CARE gender specialists (mainly based in Country Offices in the ‘global south’) providing TA to other CARE offices for cost recovery, helping make our programming more gender transformative. The Global Gender Cohort does include a small number of external consultants, those wonderful ‘free radicals’ who share our values and work with us as members of our community, but we only call on them when CARE staff members are unable to meet demand.

I can hear you scoff, “That’s just a roster. My agency has one of those.” But CARE’s Global Gender Cohort is a bit special. Here are a few reasons why:

  • It challenges hierarchies of expertise: The Global Gender Cohort recognises that a gender specialist from Nepal with 20 years of implementation experience is just as qualified – if not more qualified – to provide gender TA internationally as an Australian with a fancy gender Master’s degree*. In this way, we’re de-colonising gender TA.
  • It values skills & experience, not positions or passports: Global Gender Cohort TA prices are the same, whether the Cohort member is from USA or Uganda. This puts equal financial value on members’ expertise regardless of which country they’re based in, which part of CARE they’re employed by, or what passport they hold. This is no small thing given the norm of salary inequity that exists within the development sector.
  • It meets demand for TA and creates professional development opportunities: Out clients are CARE offices which previously relied on a small pool of HQ gender advisors or external consultants. The Gender Cohort provides access to a larger and more diverse pool of gender experts AND provides gender staff in Country Offices with exciting opportunities to work outside their own countries, giving them unique and practical opportunities to broaden their skills and experience.
  • Consultant budgets are reinvested in CARE: In the 15 months that the Global Gender Cohort has been providing gender TA we’ve channeled around $130,000 back into CARE – money that would otherwise have left our organization.
  • It contributes to gender equality: By making gender TA more readily available, CARE can better meet our commitment to put gender equality at the heart of our work everywhere.

Like any new initiative, the Global Gender Cohort has not been all fairies and rainbows. Just like our work to promote gender equality in communities, use of and appreciation for our Gender Cohort requires organizational cultural norms change that we’re still working towards.

  • Quality content vs perfect presentation: Most Global Gender Cohort members are not native English speakers, meaning that the presentation of their great gender work is not always “polished”. Few of our CARE clients are prepared to share a gender product externally if the written English is not perfect, even in countries where English is not an official language. (Of course, this raises the issue of language privilege that is beyond the scope of this post.)
  • The straw consultant: As one colleague said, “there is some kind of ‘aura’ around consultants… there is a myth that they sit on ‘pure’ expertise”. Some staff are wary of gender TA from their peers and continue to see consultants as a safer bet, despite the high calibre of our own gender specialists.
  • The consultant ‘twitch’: The way we reach for consultants for some types work is like an unconscious nervous twitch. Of course, there are valid reasons for using external consultants – when we want an external perspective, when we need expertise we don’t have in-house, or when CARE staff can’t be released from their full-time gig to provide TA to another part of CARE. But the aim is to get to a point where using CARE staff gender specialists is the norm and drawing on consultants becomes the exception.

Despite these challenges, the Global Gender Cohort is generating lots of interest and enthusiasm within CARE, with other sector teams interested to learn how they can adapt the model to provide TA on advocacy, WASH or monitoring, evaluation and learning.

What do you think? Is our Global Gender Cohort just another boring roster, or are we quietly doing something revolutionary with this new approach to meeting demand for gender TA? And would this model work in your organisation?

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6 Responses to “A rant about gender (and other) consultants and how we can avoid them”
  1. Osman Siddiqi

    Why is 20 years of experience used as an equivalence? They would definitely be leagues more qualified. And 5-10 years would be leagues more qualified.

    • Elizabeth Cowan

      Hi Osman! Interesting point. It really depends on the piece of work – for some types of work, such as recommendations on FEASIBLE gender transformative project activities – experience is definitely valuable. For other types of work – such as complex analyses or project design – a high level of analytical ability is very important.

  2. Irene Guijt

    I have much sympathy for these ideas and love the internal roster ideas, including salary equity. (I’ll ask around in Oxfam to see what of these ideas we’re already implementing.) The default ‘let’s find a consultant’ mode is good to challenge. But it still sounds like a rather categorical ‘down with consultants’ framing, even if there is a bit of recognition of some valid reasons at the end. As always, it’s not an either/or. So just to add some thoughts to ‘when are they useful’, having worked as a (not gender-focused) consultant for more than a decade before I joined Oxfam, there were sometimes vital areas of expertise that organisations didn’t have for which temporary external insights seemed to be useful, around a specific methodology or a very niche experience or the mix of methodology/experience/language. And now working ‘on the inside’, I know that it is very easy to get myopic so we still need regular refreshing with non-homegrown experiences and insights, which we can get through other avenues of course. One of the most problematic practical realities in Oxfam is there simply aren’t enough internal experts for the enormous level of demand that exists and is going. My gender colleagues are seriously overstretched and being pulled in a gazillion directions, which is not healthy or sustainable. And I’m not sure $130,000 will offer enough additional gender TA to our staffing to get us into the ‘enough’ zone. But it’s a step.

    • Elizabeth Cowan

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Irene. I agree with you that there are times when consultants are needed, and we do really appreciate the knowledge and experience that they bring to CARE. The bulk of TA requests that the Gender Cohort responds to are for training on CARE’s core gender approaches, gender analyses, and project design (and a smaller amount of research and MEL). In my experience, these are the most common needs in terms of gender TA, are areas that don’t require the same level of objectivity or external perspective, and also require skills that we do have in-house (and actually where knowledge of CARE is an asset).

      Given the resource constraints affecting our whole sector, more and more of our technical experts are doing internal cost-recovered work to help cover salaries. So while $130K (which, in our first year I think is pretty good!) isn’t enough to totally meet demand it does help to subsidise TA costs.

      Regarding your gender colleagues being pulled in a gazillion directions – does this include only those with ‘gender’ in their title? The great thing about the Gender Cohort is that we have ‘unearthed’ amazing gender folk whose skills weren’t being fully tapped because they were based in a Country Office, or attached to just one project, or who are great at gender but weren’t in a specific gender position. So while we’re working with the same level of human resourcing we now have a mechanism that increases access to their expertise.

  3. I don’t think the issue here is really about consultants vs permanent staff. As Elizabeth says it is not only consultants who come out with statements like “empower people of diverse and marginalized sexual orientation and gender identities to actualize their ambitions for individual agency through endogenous strategies for self-determination”. And as Irene said sometimes you do need a temporary consultant to provide additional capacity or external perspective.
    The real difference that the article seems to be describing is between people whose experience is based on the reality that societies treat people differently because they are male or female, and those who are trying to implement what is taught in “fancy gender studies masters” programmes, based on theories about gender identity. These theories lead people to say things like “we unreservedly reject any linking of gender to a “biological” sex binary” (https://hiyamaya.net/2019/03/27/dear-feminists-of-the-tax-justice-network/).
    i.e. there is a mismatch between the practice ind development organisations of saying “gender” as a euphemism for sex, and academic theories of gender which say that we should ignore sex.
    If these theories don’t work in practice, maybe its time to rethink them and get back to talking about vulnerabilities, discrimination, oppression and protections for the human rights of women and girls.

    • Kristin Hetle

      Excellent response to the tax justice network. Thank you! Women and girls are not discriminated against because of their “identity”, but because of their sex.