Exporting British expertise to improve lives in low-income countries: does it work?
IMC Senior Consultant Philippa Jefferis takes stock of the ACE Progress Network event, which took place in London in June, on exporting British expertise and the 3 key factors UK companies should consider to ensure lasting impact overseas.
The night before jumping back on a plane out to Freetown, Sierra Leone, it was fitting to be invited to speak in a panel discussion organised by the UK Association of Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) Progress Network.
The event, which took place in London on 12 June, focused on exporting British expertise. From this statement, it may be clear that I believe there is a role for British expertise overseas. However, just because we can export our skills does not necessarily mean we should.
The discussion primarily focused on ‘why are we exporting our skills, should they not be developed in-country’. This is a recurring question in the international development sector. However, as the issue was explored more closely, a definite sense that British expertise should be the catalyst for change emerged alongside the need for transferring skills to local workforce, to build capacity. Clearly, British expertise is demanded in the global market, but three key lessons should be considered when we export it and they all focus around capacity building.
1. Building people’s capacity
Capacity building is not a complex concept. If I give you a pint of water but you have no glass in which to hold it, then a lot of it will be lost as you can only hold as much as your hands allow. However, if I give you the water in a glass, then it is much less likely that you will spill it on the ground. If you do not have the capacity to receive expertise, then that expertise will not be captured.
Within the UK Aid-funded Freetown Water Programme, IMC Worldwide runs a capacity building programme. It consists of traditional training courses but also informal capacity building of the staff of Guma Valley Water Company (GCWC), the owner of the city’s water infrastructure. Our daily interaction with GCWC employees means that they can gain first-hand experience of how a project of this nature is run and managed in the UK and how in future this may be a way that GVWC wish to operate.
If we just focused on the programme’s primary objective of improving Freetown water supply, we would only build and upgrade infrastructure, but we would not solve the issue in the long term. By engaging with GVWC throughout the programme development and design, we increase the knowledge of the people we work with.
2. Building the system’s capacity
Not only do you need individuals to be skilled, but the governance and support structure must be there as well if people are to become part of an overall team – a process that can be greater than the sum of its parts. By working closely with GVWC, we have shown how infrastructure can be maintained in effective ways. We are also ensuring that at the end of the programme the relevant documentation is produced so that GVWC has a clear picture of the asset it is managing.
GVWC is integral to the design discussions, as how it intends to operate the equipment in the long term has an impact on the decisions made now. In these discussions, we build greater capacity in the governance of the infrastructure, so individuals can work towards an agreed operational procedure. While working with GVWC employees to develop the designs, they have had to work to the standards and expectations of UK companies and as such have gained insight into how maintenance strategies have been developed over the last century in the UK.
3. Capacity building is a two-way process
It is fair to acknowledge that there is expertise that can be exported but it is crucial that cross-country projects are implemented in mutually beneficial ways. The resounding message of the evening from all speakers was that there is plenty of opportunity to export British expertise to help build, stabilise and support countries’ development.
Yet it is also critical to remember the opportunity for importing new ideas and experience back into the UK through the work carried out. From my personal experience as a British engineer, I have come to learn a lot more about designing a water supply network within a country with limited rainfall. This is knowledge and experience I can take on into future projects, be they based in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. Considering the current limited rainfall in the UK, perhaps there are some lessons learnt that we will need to implement back here for managing scarce water resources.
A development project led by importing expertise should be a catalyst for improvement, not the end solution. It is why for the Sierra Leone Freetown Water Programme, capacity building is as crucial to success as getting the design right. If the infrastructure is to last, the expertise we bring to the programme must then be incorporated in-country. Meanwhile, the experience of British engineers well versed in running successful maintenance programmes in the UK must be coupled with the local knowledge and understanding of the existing system.
We should continue to export British expertise, but that alone is not nearly enough to solve long-standing development challenges overseas. Rather, it is the starting point.