consulting-intl-devConsulting in International Development, A Primer
John Holley (Colombia 1968-70)
Infinity Publishing
452 pages
$26.95 (paperback), $8.95 (Kindle)

reviewed by Russ Misheloff (Ethiopia 1962–64)

DRAWING ON 40 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE, Mr. Holley has developed a comprehensive description of the life and functions of international development consultants. The book is organized into three sections covering:

  1. the process of entry into the profession, and why one might want to consider it; the “basics,” to use the author’s term;
  2.  a discussion of what consultants in the development arena do, and what abilities, attitudes and behaviors the good ones exhibit; and
  3. an extensive examination of some tools and concepts.

In sum, it presents a “primer,” as the title indicates, but a thorough one, providing a wealth of information and insight into the functions, the life style, the rewards, the drawbacks, and the abilities and disposition needed for success in development consulting to inform those who may be open to considering making it their life work. The third section, discussions of tools that Mr. Holley has found useful, and means of relating to clients and funding agencies, may also be of interest to young, novice consultants, as they represent thoughtful consideration of his vast experience.

These are Mr. Holley’s purposes and primary audiences. It should be noted that “consultants”, as he uses that term, include both expatriates planning and/or implementing development activities abroad and professionals in the developing world working (or considering development consulting careers) in their own countries or others in the developing world. Activities described in the book include short one-off consultancies, as well as those involving longer-term work on a given project, sometimes involving recurrent visits, and between them, correspondence with others who continue the work in the consultant’s absence, often with his or her guidance.

The author emphasizes that he is attempting to communicate what he has learned from many years of experience and study. It’s impressive. It does, however, leave open the question about the degree to which it will prove useful to his intended audiences. Is it a good substitute, or at least an important supplement, for experience? Put differently, can an exposition of this kind reduce the time and pain of a learning curve? And does it convey the essence of a development consultant’s life and work in a way that encourages those considering it to take the plunge?

My sense is that the book can make a modest contribution. It portrays the life and work of the development consultant with accuracy and, while not making light of negative aspects, portrays a career with material and deeper rewards. As such, I can well imagine that many talented young people looking for meaningful work would come away thinking that this is indeed a field to seriously consider.

But, at least with respect to young, talented, but inexperienced people in this country, and I suspect in the western world more broadly, opportunities for direct entry into international development consulting are limited. Many of the people that development consulting companies hire are fairly senior, with years of experience working at donor agencies, or in academia, or private, for-profit firms. Consulting companies do sometimes hire bright young people with limited experience, but generally for support roles, e.g. logistics, procurement, project management, etc. A few of those so engaged who show initiative and talents beyond their assigned functions will be able to work their way into consulting roles. But it isn’t a transition that many make.

The book certainly provides useful information for those who have embarked on a development consultancy career and wish to enhance their repertoire. Section 3 highlights the fact that technical expertise, while certainly necessary is far from sufficient to assure success in development consulting, and provides an extensive discussion of critical tools and approaches. The discussions, however, differ considerably in their specificity and utility. For instance, a strong case is made for rigorous analysis, including quantification, without minimizing the issues of limited data availability, costs, and sustainability. This is useful because, as Mr. Holley notes, in many instances senior leadership positions in developing countries are encumbered by people appointed without much regard for their technical qualifications, people who are accustomed to making decisions relying on their gut rather than hard data.

The usefulness of organizational analysis and understanding of the dynamics of the groups with which the consultant works is also stressed. But here the discussion is quite general (arguably appropriate for a “primer”). It may have utility for the reader if it stimulates enough interest for him or her to pursue the subject further. On the other hand, the discussion of projection models for decision making (Chapter 12), an extension of the author’s well justified preference for quantification, is in my opinion a bit over the top, providing much more information than is needed in a primer, but not nearly enough to enable most readers to actually develop and use such models.

The book concludes with Chapters 14 and 15, which, in the author’s words, “focus[es] on becoming better consultants by become [sic] better human beings.” It’s a very interesting discussion of self-improvement, and there is certainly strong intuitive logic to the notion that better people make better consultants. It is, however, very personal, leaving one to wonder how it will be received by the book’s intended audience.

Mr. Holley has clearly thought deeply about his career, and wishes to encourage a new generation to continue work that he considers important, a sentiment with which I am in full agreement. Consulting in International Development, A Primer is a useful tool to help those disposed to consider doing so to make an informed decision.

Reviewer Russ Misheloff, who was a secondary school teacher in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia, holds degrees in economics and international relations from the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania and the American University.

Employed by USAID (1966–97), and by consulting firms supporting USAID (1997–2015), mainly on renewable natural resource management programs. His work experience has been in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

Russ is currently retired and serving as President of the DC Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

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