Note: This article is not intended to discourage the involvement of foreign consultants in our efforts to achieve economic development and growth. It is merely intended to ENCOURAGE the involvement of Liberians in the process. I too have worked as a foreign consultant; hence, I have great respect for international consultancy.
That being said, there is a saying in Liberia that “Liberians do not have confidence in the abilities of other Liberians to perform certain tasks.” Instead, consummate trust and confidence are placed in “external” or “foreign” consultants, in spite of their qualifications and/or experiences. Now, I cannot vouch on the veracity of this statement because I do not have tangible evidence to substantiate it. However, I do know that there are projects or systems that were designed and/or built by “external “or “foreign” consultants” or “consultants of funding partners” that have failed, or could not be sustained because the Liberian staff expected to handle the systems lacked the capacity.
If the aforementioned Liberian saying is true, then where does Liberia’s future stand? If systems or projects exist only while “eternal consultants” are here, then how do we develop economically? If we lack the confidence in our own expertise to handle our future then where will Liberia be in the next 20 years?
We have heard, on several occasions, that Liberians lack the capacity to handle certain tasks and therefore, we are constrained to gravitate toward “foreign advisors,” We then pay the foreign consultants 100% (excluding travel costs, lodging, etc.) more than we would pay qualified Liberians to do similar work. I have also been told that, when these “advisors” arrive, they often rely on Liberians to do most of the work, while they (foreign advisors) write lengthy status and progress reports. Interesting, isn’t it?
In the area of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), I have heard so many times, that Liberia lacks the skills needed to integrate ICT in the country. REALLY? Is this why we continue to maintain antiquated business processes; engage in projects that fail when the “foreign expertise” departs; or worst yet, engage in costly and unrealistic projects because the “foreign experts” say they are “best practices?” No, it is not that Liberia does not have the needed skills to build its ICT sector; it’s simply that some Liberians, believe “foreign expertise” can do a much better. In this case, the skills of Liberians who obtained their education and experiences from similar countries, schools, and companies as the highly respected “foreign experts,” are not respected by their own countrymen.
Our primary focus seems to be on foreign expertise; to bring and proffer “best practices” to enable us to achieve the much sought-after-and-talked-about economic development. Yet, we often forget that what is considered “best practices” abroad (USA, UK, etc…) may not be the “best practice” in Liberia. What do you say then, when the “best practice” is implemented and it still fails? Who knows Liberia and Liberians better than Liberians themselves? Is it not Liberians?
Foreign consultants are often asked to apply their professional expertise and experiences, in unusual situations, or under tight resource constraints in foreign countries that have only basic or no technical infrastructure. While “foreign experts” may have the knowledge, they often lack experience in particular areas. Hence, most of the tasks given to them in these over-constrained environments are often left to the locals.
What we have failed to realize, is that the 14-year civil war forced a lot of Liberians into the Diaspora where many of them garnered higher education and the much needed skills to rebuild Liberia. I believe it is called, “brain gain.” This “brain gain” includes doctors, ICT professionals, engineers, nurses, accountants, economists, etc. Obviously, this “brain gain” has not been taken advantage of; if it has, then we are yet to see the results.
Is it true that Liberians lack the capacity to perform certain ICT tasks and functions? Yes! But is relying on foreign expertise when there are Liberians with similar “expertise” a good approach to achieving sustainable development and growth of sector? NO! Will the foreign expertise be around to provide support? Or will we continue paying those foreign experts who may sub-contract local firms or other foreign firms (in India, for example) to do their work?
The future of Liberia should be in the hands of Liberians; not foreign consultants. We must use the experiences of those Liberians who have made professional and academic progress both in Liberia and the Diaspora, to formulate a model for sustainable ICT capacity building and development. We need to build the capacity of Liberians in the ICT sector; not just by providing training to individuals, but by enabling Liberian-owned ICT firms to develop an ecosystem of entrepreneurial technology companies that provide skilled and cost-effective ICT solutions and support services for organizations in the country.
Using local firms to provide ICT solutions decreases total cost of ICT projects, as well as the international travel costs of foreign consultants. Local support improves service response times and overall service level, advancing organizational efficiency, and program delivery.
On the other hand, local ICT firms and professionals need to deliver quality services to maintain a level of credibility that is needed to improve the sector. Clients must be able to have confidence in the ability of ICT firms to get the job done, not only correctly, but using the best possible ICT solutions available.
Partnerships between local and international firms can be formed through innovative certification and training programs that empower local ICT professionals and entrepreneurs with increased visibility, knowledge sharing, resource acquisition, and high-value job creation. This initiative can also be expanded to into rural areas.
Finally, Let us not forget that ICTs have been the catalyst for a new source of economic wealth during the current economic period called, “the information age.” Liberians must be able and allowed to benefit from this “new source of economic wealth” and this can only be done by empowering them. Therefore, before we decide to run off to the USA, Ghana, or South Africa for needed skills, let’s try to find Liberians who can actually do the job; both locally and internationally. And, if funding partners (World Bank, USAID, EU, ADB, et al) want to help Liberia, let them not impose what they want on Liberians simply because they think it’s the “best practice” or what they want achieved. They can monitor how their funds are spent; but we should utilize skilled Liberians to do the job.