Friday, February 12, 2010

Developing Local Talent

There seems to be a Catch-22 in the development world: creating great programs often requires bringing in outside talent. But the very act of using outsiders inhibits the central process one is trying to nurture, namely the ability of a country to sustainably raise living standards. Outsiders take up jobs that might otherwise go to a local, thereby preventing current seekers from obtaining the position. They also inhibit investment in the education necessary to create the skills needed for the position.

So why are outsiders needed in the first place? An organization might have a few reasons for doing so. Firstly, the skills needed just might not be available in-country. One often will find this true in management positions or in positions requiring a very narrow skill-set. Secondly, using outsiders might be built into the way the organization functions. Some country-specific funding organizations (such as USAID, CIDA or KFW) require the organizations to which they’re contributing to place nationals in internship or paid positions.

But there’s another reason an organization might prefer outsiders. Frankly, it’s just easier to “get things done” when everyone in the organization understands each other, in all the small cultural details. Communication can break down in surprising ways when people think they understand one another but actually have no idea what’s going on. But this is the easy and ultimately self-defeating path for an organization to take. Most organizations focused on development should be focusing on creating skills that translate into high-value jobs, thereby creating the talent to let locals determine their own path.

Now for a confession – I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve worked as a volunteer in Uganda. The work I do does require some relatively advanced skills, but not skills completely unknown in Uganda. There are engineers here that could be doing the work I am doing. But as I described above, I work with an organization that places a large number of young people as interns. The funding has a two-fold purpose: to increase living standards in sub-Saharan Africa, but also to develop talent amongst its own nationals. There’s some self-interest tied to the altruism.

As a relative novice to the development world when I arrived in Uganda 10 months ago, I’ve gained invaluable experience during my time here. Experience that will inform a lifetime of decision-making. I’ve also contributed much to work here that might otherwise have been difficult to finish. But ultimately, a country will show the mark of progress when people like myself become redundant.

1 comment:

  1. Volunteers and interns re also free. (Well, free to the end user.) Local talent even in a developing country, costs money. From the governments point of view, education costs money. From the local user's point of view the talent costs money. If they can get it for free from the NGO, why not?