Reimagining technical assistance: will Covid-19 change delivery?

The final blog in our series on technical assistance explores the effect of the pandemic on the pace of change in the sector.


Will Covid-19 change the way we deliver technical assistance?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is not yet…


The delivery of technical assistance was changing before Covid-19 struck. Even prior to the pandemic, there was an increasing demand from national governments to provide national or regional expertise, a growing recognition from development partners that context does matter, and that national and regional knowledge is critical to success. We can see this shift in the increasing focus of UK development projects on national and regional experts and in Australia’s strategy on localising aid.


Covid-19 has just accelerated and demonstrated to everyone that we need a new way of delivering technical assistance; that fly in and fly out consultancy continues to become obsolete. That does not mean that there is not a need for short term, highly professional expert advice. It is just that there will be less of it, and a greater focus on national and regional knowledge.


We have also learned that technical assistance was approached on a continuum from capacity substitution to capacity development, with programmes aiming to strike the right balance between being useful now and being relevant in driving long-term reform. Moreover, the programmes where we have invested in building the relevant skills by working across the team to create a shared understanding have been the most successful.


Embedded in, and led by, national teams

With limited travel, there haven’t been many options for a different model of technical assistance. It has forced both providers and funders of technical assistance to make changes. It has also demonstrated the depth and, in some cases, the fragility of national public policy consulting markets. Where we have seen technical assistance work best, we had previously invested heavily in building up our teams in the country – focusing on knowledge and skills – as well as developing a shared understanding of the problem.

This involves trade-offs and is not without challenges. It makes management a challenge, where being adaptive and flexible in the delivery of the programme while not present on the ground to build teams and to build relationships sometimes leaves you feeling like you lack oversight and are unsure how to best respond.


We have found that in some contexts finding qualified experts, with expectations of pay and reward that fit within the incentive structure, while not skewing the government payscale too significantly, is extremely difficult.


Moreover, delivery in this manner also requires us to recognise the limits of what national experts can say and deliver. Sometimes there is value in bringing in someone who doesn’t have to go to work the next day with the individuals they challenged today. Or risk meeting them at the next social event. That makes us uncomfortable everywhere, and can be a good reason for using an outsider.


Complementarity of technical assistance models

During Covid-19, we have seen that our programmes that make the best use of technical assistance, do so by thinking about it as a spectrum from capacity supplementation to capacity development. Those programmes that are stuck supplementing capacity have tended to become stuck in their log frames and outputs. In contrast, those that focus soley on capacity development have lost traction with governments needing solutions today. The flexibility in thinking and being able to frame the resolution adopted by the government and the technical assistance programmes has been key to success.


We have found that it is useful to recognise the limits of facilitation and the need at times for technical experts to be doers. In a crisis, it is all hands to the pump. It is important to acknowledge that in such cases, the external advisors may need to be doers, but they substitute functions, not people. But, making this choice, we need to recognise and ensure we are not building up a dependency that won’t go away. We have seen this during Covid-19. Our Sub-National Governance Programme in Pakistan worked very closely with the Government of Punjab to create £1.68 billion in fiscal space for public spending to combat the effects of the pandemic, before transitioning to a facilitation mode to develop longer term recovery strategies.


Resistance to change

Despite these rapid changes, we think that a sudden change in the structure of technical assistance delivery is unlikely for reasons that have to do primarily with managing risks – delivery and financial. The provision of technical assistance has often been aligned more to the management of risks and achieving short term outputs than to long term transformation. Development partners consistently equate technical assistance to risk management - strategic, operational, reputational, quality, and most importantly fiduciary risks – connecting financial assistance to technical assistance, despite the lack of strong evidence for this connection.


As countries move out of the immediate, Covid-19 crisis, they are likely to experience – if not already – significant fiscal pressure. Low-income countries will need support, financial assistance, and this will create an opportunity for policy dialogue between governments and development partners. With financial assistance comes technical assistance, and a lot of this technical assistance will be external, as development partners put pressure on the government to provide the relevant assurances to mitigate risk. Some of this will be delivered through more national, localised, technical assistance, but not all.


What should technical assistance look like in a post-Covid-19 world?

It is clear that nationally driven and embedded technical advice has played an essential role in supporting governments to respond to the pandemic crisis and the drive to deliver technical assistance in this way is set to continue and gain pace. To be successful, the approach to technical assistance will need to change alongside this. It will need to become much more of a policy dialogue between the development partner and national government, focusing on the type and structure of the public policy advice and support required.


Moving in this direction will challenge the current providers of technical assistance to think differently and develop new skills. A focus on facilitation and coaching to develop individuals and lead capacity development will play an important role. International consulting firms will need to skill up on how they form teams and establish a mixed grouping of national and international advisors to deliver together, often with the international advisors travelling less.


This blog post was first published on the OPM blog