We need to start talking about technical assistance

When Western "experts" are sent out to provide support and advice to developing countries, it is called technical assistance. It is often expensive and difficult. But despite the fact that it constitutes a significant proportion of all official development assistance, there is surprisingly silence about this form of development assistance in the Swedish development assistance debate, writes Annie Sturesson who works at the Ministry of Finance in Uganda.

According to the OECD, technical assistance, in the form of training of local staff or support for projects and feasibility studies, represents up to 25 per cent of all international assistance. In international forums, a number of guidelines have been drawn up for how technical assistance should be conducted, but the guidelines have rarely been followed up.

Did study in Uganda
Uganda is one of Sweden's partner countries that has had experience of technical assistance for several decades. Without a functioning technical assistance reporting system, however, the country lacks an overview of all deployed experts. Therefore, as an employee of the department for development assistance coordination at the Ministry of Finance, I did a small study where I asked questions to both donors and recipients of technical assistance.

The shortcomings I identified in the study are in line with the criticism that is often directed at technical assistance:

  • Technical assistance often prioritises short-term goals instead of long-term ones.
  • Donors often control the recruitment of experts, which affects local ownership and commitment to technical assistance.
  • Organizations with a technical mandate, e.g. The Ugandan Road Administration often relies on international experts. These experts help to temporarily fill knowledge gaps but are rarely a long-term solution for building knowledge.

Foreign experts are expensive
Another issue that often came up in my interviews was the income differences between seconded experts and local staff. In Uganda, the daily fee for an EU-funded transport economist can amount to 900 euros, excluding supplements such as air travel and daily allowances of 180 euros. My Deputy Head of the Ministry of Finance recently opposed the offer of an EU-funded expert on the grounds: "Why should they send someone here whose daily fee is higher than my monthly salary? How much more can a European expert know about Uganda than I can? ”

The recommendation in my study is that technical assistance must be reviewed. Change work by organizations is a long and complicated process. My experience from the Ministry of Finance in Uganda is that the ability to deliver as a seconded advisor is more determined by personal chemistry than technical competence. If the demand for your services is not anchored at lower levels among colleagues you are expected to work with on a daily basis, it is difficult to get any work done.

Local ownership is crucial
Local ownership and technical assistance based on demand are a prerequisite for it to work. But how do you create this ownership in practice? Reforms are political and are often met with resistance, especially in organizations where information is monopolized, decision-making processes are top-down and internal power struggles are fought at all levels.

For technical assistance to work in these contexts, more discussion is needed about how the assistance is delivered by donors. How are experts recruited? Who do they report to? The experts' ability to achieve results at each individual host institution must be carefully analyzed.

It is important that the work role is clear that there is a will and resources in the department to implement changes. The expectations of what can be done with technical assistance must be realistic in relation to the local conditions. This may seem banal but is far from obvious.

Sweden should be a strong voice
In comparison with other countries, Sweden uses relatively little technical assistance. Instead of international experts, local experts are often employed. But we rarely talk about that. Sweden often sticks out its chin when it comes to aid efficiency and aid goals. Why not also speak with a stronger voice about technical assistance? Technical assistance is expensive and difficult. Time to start talking about it.

Annie Sturesson, senior economist at the Ministry of Finance in Uganda

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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