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Rethinking Technical Cooperation

In the early 1990 UNDP lead an in-depth review of the role Technical Cooperation, including in a book entitled "Rethinking Technical Cooperation - Reforms for Capacity Building in Africa (UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Development Alternatives Inc., Elliot J. Berg, Coordinator, 1993). The following paragraphs provide a brief summary of the main thrust. You can also down load the book by chapter in pdf format.

"Reforming TC" provided a comprehensive analysis of the function and dysfunction of TC. It explored a number of consensus recommendations and ahead of its time explored a set of non-consensus recommendations (the time for which may have come?) Despite the fact that "Rethinking Technical Cooperation" focussed on Africa, its analysis provides a pertinent starting point for revisiting Technical Cooperation in general nearly a decade later. It thus seems to be pertinent to recapitulate some of the analysis and conclusions of the 1993 study.

"Rethinking Technical Cooperation" started with reviewing the criticisms of TC including recipient country viewpoints, donor criticisms and formal evaluations. It engaged in a detailed analysis of concepts and trends, the historical background as well as trends in TC. The substantive analysis took its entry points at four sets of problems: failures in TC delivery systems;deficiencies in the management of TC; the lack of an effective market for TC, and the unfavourable work setting in which TC operates. "Rethinking TC" found that "while donor and recipient country officials and observers may emphasize different aspects of the problem, there is a wide arena of agreement about the specific sources of technical assistance failures." The consensus diagnoses focussed on four main problem areas, related "proposals" that already at that time enjoyed "widespread accord", as well as non-consensus recommendations.

Considering "weaknesses in design, implementation, and supervision of technical cooperation projects" the study made proposals on how to "deliver the existing package more effectively". It cautioned, however, that "Blueprint" terms of reference were of limited use. They would often not capture the real challenges. Changing conditions often overtake predefined outputs. The discussion around the "nuts and bolts" of TC reflects deep-rooted deficiencies of organizational behaviour on the donor side.

TC was marked by its "excessive reliance on one model of delivery for technical assistance - the resident expatriate-counterpart model, which has failed as an instrument for capacity building". A sensible "change in the mix of delivery modes" could include greater use of short-term advisors and coaching arrangements. Much greater use could be made of local consultants, and institutional twinning should become a much more favoured instrument. All required fresh thinking about donor administrative organization and many pilot schemes to speed change.

The donor- or supply-driven nature of technical cooperation was seen as having led to inefficient allocation of resources, weak local ownership, and hence limited commitment. To strengthen local management of technical cooperation three main reform axes where discussed: voluntary donor transfer of managerial authority, stronger local management of TC, and comprehensive programming. While the adoption of programmatic approaches was accepted in principle as an excellent idea, it was also recognized that this requires more, not less, institutional competence.

A key problem for effective TC was poor incentives and working conditions in recipient country public sectors. This leads to low local staff job motivation and high turnover, creating a "Teflon-like work environment in which capacity-building and institutional development efforts fail to take hold." The report concluded that "coherent donor proposals to address this corrosive and spreading problem are few…" Improving the work environment would certainly imply that salary supplements should be avoided and should only be used on an exceptional basis. Proposals for pooling resources "from which salaries for strategic posts would be paid and salary supplements distributed" met with reluctance from donors and recipient governments alike.

Beyond the consensus, the argument was made for "gap-filling without shame": Posts requiring specialized and scarce skills should be filled with "technical assistants who would occupy line posts and hence be integrated into the national administration. The pretence about counterparts would be dropped, explicitly and frankly." Technical assistants would be integrated into existing structures, the determination of job needs be simplified and the transfer of control to recipient governments facilitated.

Introducing market elements was seen as a promising avenue with two basic policy reforms called for: a) the introduction of greater cost consciousness, which would require that a price be attached to all technical assistance personnel to be paid out of the user agents budget and not from a global allocation in the budget of the finance ministry; and b) untying of the aid package to allow governments to separately request personnel, equipment and supplies, and training.

Two proposals were added to the related agenda of "administrative reform and downsizing the state." The first consisted of improvements in reform strategies, including more intensive evaluation of the efficacy of specific instruments, giving civil service reform a higher priority, downplaying the job retrenchment focus, giving more attention to non-personnel aspects of administration, distancing administrative reform from externally imposed conditionalities and creating "reform enclaves". Second, recognizing the high risks and the long-term nature of such reforms, back-up strategies were regarded as essential, i.e following a parallel track, even while undertaking reform, to increase and improve the provision of vital government services.

"Rethinking Technical Cooperation" concluded by recognizing the imperfections and unknowns related to the proposed solutions but put emphasis on the need for "radical changes … if technical cooperation is to be put back on the right track. … More capital investment is certainly needed for faster growth. But better trained people and stronger institutions are needed even more. … In few areas of policy are the costs of inaction or misguided action more far reaching"

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