Sunday, February 21, 2010

Aid Expertise is not scalable

Someone got frustrated with me the other day for being too "down" on experts in international aid and development. She said she considered herself an expert, since she had worked twenty years on a certain topic. She also pointed out several other people who we both agreed were really smart, and to whom we both look for advice and insights.

I realized that the problem is not that there are no experts - there *are* some real experts out there, and I have worked with many of them. The problem is that expertise is not reliably scalable.

Many aid agencies are structured and staffed based on the assumption that they can reliably find experts who know about each topic and each country the agencies operate in. And then they can rotate these experts among different departments and regions over time to keep them from getting "clientitis."

No agency that I know of has done this effectively. Instead, of every 100 people hired, maybe half are real experts in their field. What happens is that, over time, the agencies convert most of their staff - including their "subject-matter experts" - into "agency experts," which are people who are very good at the arcane procedures and processes needed to move a loan or report through the agencies' own systems.