Advisors were never the problem

It’s always someone else’s fault. Even when we were kids, it was always little brother or sister who stole the cookies, spilled the milk or woke the baby. Then you went to school, and it was the kid at the desk behind you.

Then you began to work, and it was anyone but you. Now you’re on the national stage, and it’s not Vanuatu’s fault; it’s some insidious foreigner whose life is devoted to subverting your country.

It ain’t that simple. It never was that simple.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: foreign technical advisors are just that—advisors. They have no executive power, they do not make policy, and they perform their work at the pleasure of the administration of the day.

When we start blaming technical advisors for our problems, we’re no better than a child blaming a sibling for something they both did. Nobody is forcing us to take advice.

Sorry for the cheap shot, but some of my best friends are technical advisors. Much of their work consists of getting out of the way of the best and brightest civil servants. When technical expertise is needed, they lend a hand. But if they’re worth their salt, they sit quietly and wait till they’re asked a question or tasked with a job of work.

Nikunk Soni is chairman of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, and has worked as a technical advisor in PNG, Vanuatu, Timor Leste. He’s currently working in West Africa. He brought his insight and experience to bear on Vanuatu’s coming cash-flow crisis in a must-read column in the latest issue of the Vanuatu Business Review.

Soni writes, “The past several years have seen a constant, almost relentless, effort by politicians and donors alike to undermine the civil service which is already under severe pressure having to deal with major crisis like cyclone Pam….”

Until we start giving our civil servants credit for original thought—and the mandate to implement policy without undue political interference—we’re just perpetuating the myth of a second-rate civil service in a third-rate country. Neither of those is true. Not today, and certainly not in potential.

The problem is not with the advisors. The problem is with our development partners.

What is true, and has been true for far too long, is that international development institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank don’t care as much about Vanuatu’s national interest as they do about their own particular agendas.

And again, this doesn’t imply some kind of insidious desire to recolonise our nation. That would be giving them too much credit. Mostly, they just don’t care. Or rather, they care more about the instructions they get from headquarters than they do about what we have to say.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously said that sharing a border with the United States “is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Likewise our relationship with the global financial system and other so-called development partners. Their priorities are not always aligned with ours. In many cases, they are at odds. The single most glaring example of this occurred in 2011, when an ADB advisor didn’t want to wait for Parliamentary approval for a loan he was touting, and so encouraged the government to make a tiny but crucial legislative change. The result is that new loans could now be signed off by the Minister, rather than passing through Parliament.

Aha! I can hear you saying. So the problem IS the advisors!

No, the problem was our politicians, who were willing to short-circuit our processes and procedures in pursuit of quick fixes. The cash crunch that we face today can be directly attributed to the short-sighted actions of a few people, some of whom are in jail today, to get a quick cash fix from financial institutions who are more interested in making their lending quotas than actually supporting development.

The problem is not foreign advisors. The problem is not merely an incompetent civil service. The problem is government spending that has been twisted out of shape to serve certain short-term interests, leaving the national interest largely un-served.

Nik Soni writes that “years of political and donor interference in these crucial areas has meant that the Government is critically short of the very skills it needs right now.”

Happily, some of those same civil servants who fought so hard in the trenches now hold positions of considerable political influence. The bitter lesson of the last few years is not lost on them, and by all accounts they are taking steps to put people senior civil servants back into key positions.

But more is required. As Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Johnny Koanapo recently said, our development partners need to reassess how they work. “Hopefully, you’ll make our priorities your priorities.”

If our development partners are serious about helping, they will not let Vanuatu languish in the financial hole they helped us dig. Last June, China’s Consular for North America and the Pacific in the department of Foreign Affairs stated, “China will not force Vanuatu to pay back its debt.”

That is a commendable—and respectfully realistic—statement. But we need more.

The two biggest issues we face today are the looming cash crunch we are facing due to poorly timed loans from the EXIM Bank of China, and the rising demands we have for continued investment in communications, education, health and transport infrastructure.

Both of these showstopper problems could be reduced drastically if global and regional financial institutions were willing to sit down and help Vanuatu better manage its responsibilities. That means debt forgiveness. That means better loan conditions. That means restructuring the debts we’re already saddled with.

If our development partners came to the table with some modicum of recognition that—according to their own research—Vanuatu’s tiny, fragile economy simply doesn’t work the way larger economies do, then perhaps we can make some progress.

The best way to do that would be to listen for once to the senior civil servants who know in excruciating detail where our needs lie. But that’s not going to happen if everything gets sorted at the highest political level, and our senior civil servants are left out of the conversation. And for starters, that means we need to stop thinking of them as witless, helpless dupes.

Enough with the conspiracy theories. Let’s stop griping about nefarious global agendas, and start thinking about how we want to speak with our own voice. And how to make our development partners listen.