Wizards, impostors or irresponsible curators? How consultants shape policy in underfunded international agencies

Wizards, impostors or irresponsible curators?  How consultants shape policy in underfunded international agencies

Consultants play an important role in developing policies and strategies for international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Based on a recent study, Tyne Hanrider And Julian Eckle contend that the enormous ability of consultants to assemble and gather preferred evidence for influential case studies is enhanced by the low level of funding these agencies operate under.

The consultants have been described as “wizards“, superior analytical minds that can change a business, but also how “impostorswho sell managerial fads and quasi-academic ideas to businesses and governments. In our recent World Health Organization (WHO) study, one of our interviewees also referred to them as “priests”—companies hired to transform organizations based on the “bible” (organizational strategy). However, this neutral, detached image of a technical employee of a public organization is misleading. Rather, as we describe in our study of the participation of consulting firms in WHOconsultants act as discretionary facilitators of reforms. They filter the knowledge and opinions that go into reform proposals and are often closely aligned with the interests of certain stakeholders and funders.


What do curators do? In art, curators assemble objects, performances, or voices into the final exhibit. In business and politics, consulting firms do something similar. When they come to help change the WHO or other international organizations such as World Trade Organization or Munich Security Conference, they collect information, talk to staff and other stakeholders, and refer to so-called best practice “cases” as models for reform. The specific task and scope of work varies from contract to contract, but at least in WHO since the turn of the millennium, many rounds of interviews and consultations have been recorded.

In art, curators assemble objects, performances, or voices into the final exhibit. In business and politics, consulting firms do something similar.

Supervision can create conflict if consultants are not perceived as neutral. For example, within the framework of the public-private partnership reform carried out by WHO. reverse malaria, malaria-endemic countries, and their allies have been sidelined by the McKinsey & Co. Gates Foundation-sponsored advisory mission. the reform came from the business world, firms like Uber and Alibaba, not government agencies. Their reform proposal became the basis for a renewal of the partnership in 2015, which, among other innovations, eliminated the representation of stakeholders such as affected countries or NGOs on the basis of constituencies.

No logo, no transparency

While such processes controversial, they are also opaque. The WHO is already underfunded organizations, many consulting firms for WHO are provided by donors and, as a result, are less scrutinized. And, since they are considered “purchases” and not official collaboration with civil society, it is usually conflict of interest provisions do not apply. Sponsors can co-write the terms of reference, but this is also done informally. Technically, WHO, as a formal client, buys the consultants’ input and owns the results, so it is not clear to outsiders what consultants contributed and by what methodology. The interviewees told us about sitting in organizational meetings and seeing those iconic PowerPoint slides that could only be from a consulting firm, but without a logo. Reports produced during the counseling process, if available at all, also tend to remain obscure as to authorship. The Roll Back Malaria Reform Task Force included McKinsey consultants as key members, but were not named on the team.

So there is a lack of accountability in how consultants work. The personal links of consultants to parties in organizational disagreements may even be open and criticized (as in the Roll Back Malaria reform), but there is no mechanism to deal with this problem. And unless a country serving as an External Auditor to WHO decides to look into consultation arrangements, there will be very little publicly available data on those arrangements. Where an auditor provided by India examined the activities of consulting firms during Covid-19, they found violations the manner in which the consulting contract was awarded. What’s more, even though the consulting firm calls its services “free of charge,” they still cost the organization millions of dollars.

Lots of money, little money

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation, one of the main sponsors of WHO advisory services, decided insourcing some potential management strategy. The Foundation manages, so to speak, its own internal McKinsey. The reason is that even if you hire external strategy consultants, you must be sufficiently resourced to know what services you may need and what services you will receive from the consultants. Fund-strapped organizations, such as the WHO, that need to survive on earmarked funds earmarked for specific projects are not in a position to do so. Consultants can come to help them sell price of money donors, or signal austerity in accounting to keep some revenue stream going. But, even if they are branded as donated knowledge, there is a lack of oversight and it is by no means overlooked that these are costly services bought to support a regime of deliberate austerity for global public health.

This post is based on a published article by the authors, The Political Economy of Consulting Firms in Reform Processes: The Case of the World Health Organizationpublished in the Review of International Political Economy.

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Image credit: adapted from Scott Graham via Unsplash.com.

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