International development consultant, a largely unknown profession

With more than 15 years of experience in projects of technical assistance to developing countries, Danilo Desiderio, CEO of Desiderio Consultants talks about the main tasks and challenges of this business.

Can you shortly describe your profession? 

I am an expert in customs and trade/transport facilitation. I basically work on assignments within projects launched by international donors (like the World Bank, the African Development Bank, etc.), that are aimed at providing support to developing countries in improving their regulation or procedures, or at enhancing their capacities in the administration of customs and trade rules. I have a regional specialisation in Africa, where I spent most of my career. Among the countries where I worked there are Algeria, Benin, Comoros, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Uganda.

How do you find opportunities in your field? 

Usually all the donors work through expressions of interest and tenders opened to the participation of international development consultancy firms. Each of these firms submits a technical and financial offer, by putting together a certain number of experts that are proposed as the team that will work to the project. Eventually, the project is awarded to the firm who will submit the best offer and will assemble the better team. 

That said, when a project comes up which falls in my area of specialisation, I just apply for the profile I am interested in (sometimes I am contacted directly by one of these firms) and propose myself as expert to work on the project. In other cases we partner with one of such firms and we participate together to the tender, building a team of experts who are able to work together and share common goals and visions. Desiderio Consultants is a niche player with a strong experience in the areas of customs modernisation and trade/transport facilitation and our experts are all well known and respected for their work in these specific fields.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your job? 

For me, one of the most interesting aspects is the diversity of assignments. It’s a never boring work. You never do the same. Moreover, there’s no routine to follow. Even when two countries face the same problem, the solution developed for one in most cases is not strictly applicable to the other, because their culture and organization are different. But in many cases, solutions can be adapted. The best consultants are the ones who have the flexibility and the creativity to adapt solutions developed in other contexts and shape their approaches to meet each client’s demand. 

Another exciting aspect is that you travel a lot and get in touch and work with people with completely different cultural backgrounds, languages and mindsets. Cross-cultural interaction in itself it is rewarding. Working in multicultural teams enriches us and pushes us to challenge every day our way of  thinking so to be flexible in understanding needs and developing solutions. 

What is the main asset of an international development consultant? 

The main asset of an international development consultant is the knowledge he possesses. He needs to have in his cultural background an arsenal of theories, experiences and best practices. The more a consultant expands his knowledge, the more effective he is in doing his work. Basically consultants are problem solvers. We analyse situations, find the root causes of problems, we identify issues that are preventing our clients from reaching their goals, and develop solutions which we recommend, in some case by stimulating clients to action (this is what I call “to move the client to the next stage”, which means convincing him to move from the acceptance and validation of recommendations to their concrete implementation). In order to achieve this, it is important that all proposed recommendations are executable and have tangible results. One of the biggest pitfalls for a consultant is proposing solutions than are not actionable. This usually happens if the first phase – the situation analysis – has not been adequately and rigorously conducted. 

Can you give us further information about the standard work methodology and the typical tasks of an international development consultant? 

Basically, the work of an international development consultant is made up of three main activities: 

  1. To carry out an accurate and objective diagnostic analysis to identify problems, gaps and areas of improvement in the client’s organisation or processes. In my case for instance, most of my work consist of making an assessment of customs and trade procedures and identify bottlenecks that can be solved through regulatory or procedural changes based on international best practices. This involves the need to analyse a huge amount of laws, government regulations and practices, and to arrange discussions with the client and all the other stakeholders affected by such procedures. The view emerging from the analysis must be in the end discussed with them, reviewed and refined, until the client is absolutely sure that it is accurate beyond any possible doubt. Once completed this phase, the next step is…
  2. …To develop workable recommendations. I already talked about this aspect. What I can say more is that this also involves in-depth discussions with the client aimed at verifying that the proposed solutions are feasible and, above all, that there is a politic will to implement them.  If not, they should be reviewed and refined until they are validated by the client.  
  3. Transfer knowledge to the client to ensure that once the project  is concluded he will be self-sustaining in the field (or the fields) where the received the assistance.

What is the most critical area in this three-steps process? 

In my view the communication with the client is crucial: a consultant has not only to perform, he must also communicate constantly and efficiently. As the consulting industry is all about creating value for clients, the only way for the client to be aware of the value added by a consultant is to communicate with him, update him, explain him why we’re going to take the direction that we’re going to take, and present the results of our activity at regular intervals. You may have the best answers in the world, but if you can’t articulate them, they’re worthless. Consulting is a client-service business. All consultants need to understand that. If we do not keep our clients updated with the progress of our work and with the results we achieved, we are not going to stay in the business for long. 

Moreover, communication allows a consultant to gain a clear understanding of the objectives to the project, giving him the opportunity to share from the beginning with the client the approach to be followed, which will facilitate the validation of his work at the end of his assignment.

Lastly, can you give some advice for conducting this business and on the skills that an international development consultant needs to develop in order to be successful? 

Consulting is a knowledge-intensive business. Intellectual capital is more important than financial capital. This is why an international development consultant must continually look at ways to develop new knowledge in his area of expertise and fresh ideas to solve problems of their clients. This implies the need to look outside our knowledge domain to seek inspiration or powerful ideas that can be applied to address our client’s problems. 

For what concerns the main skills that are necessary in order to be successful as a consultant, my answer is: 

1) to be intellectually curious and sharp; 

2) to be socially competent (consultants must also be proficient in the art of relationship building, which in turn means: to get inside the client’s mind, to be abile to read people, to get along with them and to communicate effectively, both in writing and orally);

3) to be able to move the client to the next stage: from proposing recommendations to their practical implementation (ability to convince, persuade, and influence). 

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