Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a veritable army of Western consultants--economists, lawyers, management specialists, and others--has marched east, across the plains of Poland, through the valleys of Hungary, and on to the farthest fragments of the former Soviet empire. Funded by the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU), and scores of other governmental and non-governmental entities based in the West, the mission of these consultants has been enormously challenging: to help the post-communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) develop legal, political, administrative, and economic institutions appropriate to democratic, market-based societies. American specialists in public administration--practitioners and academics--have been prominent among them, offering advice on everything from management development in Armenia to civil service reform in Kazakstan.
This influx of Western consultants is interesting for at least two reasons. First and most obviously, their work may well have a bearing on the ability of these nations to integrate fully and successfully into a competitive, democratic, and peaceful global political economy. Second, the nature of their mission--building institutions in the image of the West--represents in many respects a return to a foreign assistance tradition that had been largely abandoned in the 1960s, superseded by the more culturally sensitive insights of "development administration."(1)
These two points of interest set the purposes of this article, which reports on my experience as a public administration consultant in postwar Bosnia. The first purpose is to distill some hard-won lessons that other short-term consultants might put to good use. The second is to reflect on the apparent disconnect between what public administration consultants are now being sent abroad to do and what we as a profession ostensibly learned decades ago.
The two purposes intersect in several key respects. It is in the nature of the above-mentioned disconnect that much of what I learned in Bosnia had been ably noted by an earlier generation of scholars; indeed, the value of my lessons may inhere less in their originality than in their timeliness and accessibility. What may be of more interest is a set of abashed reflections on why I had to learn these lessons at all. I had, after all, taught comparative administration for many years before going to Bosnia, and had even written a bit in the field. How could I have been so naive? The extended answer to this question contains lessons, too, both for other would-be consultants and for those concerned with the problems of trying to transplant homegrown administrative ideas into foreign soil. Given the number of Western experts now afield, the scope and variety of projects underway, and the stakes involved, these are lessons worth weighing.
The multi-sided war that tore apart the former-Yugoslavia from 1991-1995--a war that first escaped and then absorbed the attention of the rest of the world--was far too complex even to summarize here.(2) Suffice it to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina was a reluctant participant in what was to become Europe's bloodiest and most destructive conflict in fifty years.(3) As the most multi-ethnic and centrally located of Yugoslavia's six former republics,(4) Bosnia's leaders correctly surmised, long before the war broke out, that any cracks in Yugoslavia's facade, fueled by nationalist apparatchiks in Serbia and Croatia, would run deepest through Bosnia.(5) But caught tragically between the ambitions of Belgrade and Zagreb and subjected to the horrific depredations of "ethnic cleansing," the people of Bosnia were forced to fight, to preserve both a semblance of territorial integrity and their lives. All attempts to mediate the conflict started from the premise that whatever might be the external borders of a postwar Bosnia, new internal boundaries would need to be drawn to accommodate the warring "ethnic" groups.(6) This, too, was the premise of the American-brokered Dayton Accords that finally brought an end to the war and established a new constitutional framework for Bosnia in December 1995.
The Dayton Constitution created, in effect, a federation within a federation for Bosnia-Herzegovina.(7) At the highest level is a "State," comprised of two distinct "Entities": The Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (hereinafter, the Federation) and the Serb Republic.(8) Cooperation between the two entities is currently minimal, with the institutions of the state little more than phantoms on paper. Dominated by the party of Radovan Karadzic, the Hague Tribunal-indicted war criminal, the republic is now treated by international organizations as an uncooperative rogue state.(9) The other entity, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its capital in Sarajevo,(10) is the main focus of most international aid efforts, and, whether precisely correct in a constitutional sense or not, is what most people now regard as the rightful heir to the old Republic of Bosnia.
In an effort to address current and potential tensions between Muslims and Croats within the Federation, ten fairly autonomous cantons were established.(11) Although the State (in theory) and the Federation retained authority in the areas of defense, foreign affairs, monetary policy, and so forth, the cantons were granted broad residual powers in many areas of domestic policy. Thus, in its devolution of authority to subnational units, Bosnia's constitutional framework is closer to the Swiss confederation than to the American model of federalism.
Although tidy in theory, at least from some perspectives,(12) this federal solution to Bosnia's internal conflicts has presented some serious problems. First, officials in Bosnia have no practical experience with this model of intergovernmental relations. True, the former Yugoslavia was itself a federation, and true, each of the former republics was, in theory, autonomous. In fact, though, the republics were ruled centrally from Belgrade through the Yugoslav Communist Party.(13) Financial autonomy at the republic level--of the sort that might have given rise to a sort of American-style fiscal federalism--was particularly absent.(14) Second, nothing like cantons--a level of government intermediate between the center and municipalities--has ever existed in Bosnia. Municipalities have always dealt directly with Sarajevo, or with Belgrade. The purpose of this new layer of government is thus obscure for many officials. Third, Bosnian officials at all levels have resented the creation of cantons, viewing them, to use an especially apt phrase, as a "Balkanization" of their republic, reifying and calcifying poisonous ethnic-cultural-religious divisions. This has been a bitter pill for a people who, despite the centuries-long tensions of the broader region, have had, within Bosnia, a centuries-long tradition of multicultural harmony. Finally, the constitutional allocations of authority within the federation, while clear enough on the surface, have hidden considerable vagueness. Many powers--in education, health, and so forth--are to be shared, but no one knows quite how. Moreover, it was left unspecified which level of government would own and control which revenue instruments, an issue that has been especially troublesome.
To help address these problems, in late 1995 USAID launched a program to build a workable system of "fiscal federalism" in Bosnia. Designated as prime contractor was the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a US-based organization with considerable international experience. ICMA's main responsibility was to recruit and manage a network of five expatriate "resident advisors," technical experts who would work to get revenues flowing smoothly between the levels of Bosnia's new constitutional system. Because the cantons were considered especially critical to this effort, four of the five resident advisors were slated to work with selected cantons; the fifth was to be assigned to the Federation Ministry of Finance in Sarajevo. In addition, ICMA sought to extend its reach in the field both by bringing in occasional short-term technical consultants and by grooming a set of "local financial advisors," employees of cantonal and municipal governments who received intensive training in budgeting and financial management through a series of ICMA-sponsored seminars and workshops.
The ICMA program has been operating for over two years. In that time, many successes and some setbacks have been experienced. The lessons outlined below recount the administrative history of this project, distilling it into a form that others may profitably use. Further reflections on what these lessons imply for transplanting administrative processes in the post-cold-war world are reserved for the section that follows.
Learn anatomy before doing surgery.
Everything that the ICMA team sought to introduce in Bosnia made perfect sense and was consistent with international financial management practices--program budgets, rational charts of accounts, automated tracking systems, transparent financial reporting, and so forth. Our recommendations mirrored those of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and reflected "best practices" throughout Europe and North America. And in general, our Bosnian counterparts recognized the value of our suggestions. They listened carefully to what we had to say, nodded appropriately, and took copious notes. Then, more often than not, they went back to their jobs and continued with business as usual.
Although there were many reasons for this slippage, some of which we will explore below, the first and arguably most important was our own ignorance. For all that we knew about financial management, we knew almost nothing about Bosnia. We were, as the heading of this lesson suggests, doing surgery before we knew anatomy.
Why did we flourish our scalpels with such unfounded confidence? Largely, I think, because we were convinced--rightly or wrongly--that our recommendations were sound. We believed that good ideas were enough to carry the day. Bosnia was a dysfunctional mess. Men and women of goodwill who wished to fix it would, we assumed, leap for the tools we laid out. Establishing a separate fund for capital projects, for instance, makes obvious good sense. So does grouping and reporting expenditures by function, holding public budget hearings, and assigning revenues and expenditures to levels of government in a way that minimizes externalities. When problems and solutions are this obvious, what more needs to be said? Plenty, as it happened. For me, understanding came during a discussion with one of our keener local advisers on a dreary afternoon in January, nearly a year into the ICMA mission. This woman was chief budget officer for one of the cantons that we had been working with especially closely. In the course of a general conversation on preparing estimates for the coming fiscal year, I asked a question about the procedure she planned to use to examine agency budget requests. Her answer suggested that she didn't understand the question, so, through the translator, I rephrased and reposed it. Again, her answer didn't make much sense. After several more go-rounds, I carefully explained what I meant by "examination" and "request." She looked at me as if I came not just from another country, but from another planet. The budget office did not, she said patiently, do anything of the kind. The responsibility of her office was to collate the "needs" of the various "budget users." Needs, it turned out, are legally fixed staff levels ("normatives"), with associated "material cost" ratios. Her budget office had no discretion to change: these or even to make recommendations for alternative funding levels. Or, to put it another way, her budget office was not a budget office, at least not in any Western sense. Nor was the cantonal budget really a budget. Instead, the former was a sort of labor-intensive adding machine, the latter a wholly unrealistic wish list.(15)
Knowing this elemental fact earlier would have saved a lot of headaches. That it took as long as it did to grasp it was and is embarrassing. But short of sending a team of advisors who were both country and subject matter experts--seldom a realistic option--how is this sort of problem to be avoided? Two standard remedies, reading a lot and getting briefings: from knowledgeable people, were insufficient in this case; what little had been written in English about administration in Yugoslavia was rendered irrelevant by the war; knowledgeable people were no more plentiful for the same reason.
Two less conventional solutions, potentially applicable anywhere, eventually grew out of this experience and did prove useful. The first was the inauguration of what we called our "What Do We Know?" document. This was a report to ourselves that listed, point by point, everything we knew or thought we knew about budgeting and financial management in Bosnia. It grew, shrank, and metamorphosed almost daily, zipping from fax machine to fax machine among the advisors. Its insights ranged from the commonplace ("The primary unit for budgeting purposes is called a `budget user'") to the exotic ("To expend funds that flow to a budget user through the ministry of finance, the head of a secretariat submits a request [practices vary as to whether a request is made on a standard form or a free-form letter] to the executive council or mayor to transfer funds to a specific ZPP account or giro account controlled by the secretariat"). From granitelike truth ("Federation Ministry of Finance officials have resisted using the new classification system. They are, instead, continuing to use ZPP account numbers to compile their `budgets'") to tentative hypothesis ("No auditing system--financial or program--appears to exist. The sole function of the Financial Police apparently is to ensure that taxes are paid").(16) The main value of the document, the full title of which was "What We Know, Think We Know, and Need to Know About Budgeting in Bosnia," was actually embedded in the "Need to Know" category. It allowed us to identify which questions we needed to ask and which parts of the canvas were unacceptably blank. Soon the paper began to circulate outside the core ICMA team--to other internationals and, in translation, to our local counterparts. This served not only to check our misapprehensions, but to add to the common fund of wisdom, such as it was, among the broader community of people interested in the problem.(17)
The second technique had to do with translation. Though painstaking and time-consuming, it proved of great value, in its own right and in compiling reports such as "What Do We Know?" The procedure is to render into idiomatic English the documents translated-often word by word, without regard for the overall meaning--for one's consumption by local staff. The reason this was useful was that, as anyone who has worked in a foreign country knows, language is a tricky business. Opportunities for misunderstanding are manifold. Sometimes these misunderstandings are trivial, even amusing.(18) Other times, however, they lead to serious problems. Some knowledge of the local language helps mitigate misunderstandings, as does the assistance of a good interpreter or translator though neither provides any guarantees. Unfortunately, few Americans who are not genuinely bicultural become proficient enough in another language to work professionally in it. And interpreter/translators, even those who are adept at general-purpose English, often falter when confronted with abstruse professional jargon. The technique we used helped bridge some of this gap. We simply sat down with a translated document, pen in hand, and rewrote it, word for word, into conventional English. Generally I found that my first drafts, which took the English words my Bosnian translator used and changed them into something that made sense to me, were filled with errors. But through several iterations with the translators (bringing in more than one, where possible, was helpful), I found that I could produce a document that was, from the Bosnian perspective, factually correct, and from the American perspective, comprehensible. These then became immensely valuable. They gave us a firm grasp of exactly what the Bosnians intended, and, concomitantly, minimized our opportunities to make silly, unfounded assumptions. Far from offending our local translators, this was a procedure that was immensely agreeable to them, for it gave them an opportunity to hone their skills, allowing them to learn English idiom rather than simply engage in word-by-word translation.
Everything is hitched to everything else.
A corollary of the flawed assumption that good ideas have sufficient force of their own is the belief that it is possible to intervene in a foreign administrative system--or any complex social system, for that matter--just a little bit, to tinker with only a small piece and to leave everything else alone. This error is equally fatal. As social scientists have recognized for years, what makes a system a system is the interdependence, however intricate and confused, of its parts. Or, to use John Muir's more colorful phrasing, everything is hitched to everything else. But knowing this lesson (even teaching it in class) is one thing; remembering to apply it in the field is something else.
Our initial assumption in Bosnia was that we could keep our mission tightly focused on fiscal federalism. That, after all, was the mandate from USAID: Help facilitate the flow of revenues and expenditures through the institutions of a federation that was just taking its first faltering steps. It quickly became clear that this was about as likely as making a successful moon landing by strapping rockets to a bicycle and lighting the fuse. A lot of other things had to be taken into account. One of the most immediate was the fact that the budgeting institutions that were supposed to be linked in this system of fiscal federalism did not exist in any meaningful sense. This meant that rather than spend our time explaining the fine points of categorical grants and designing a workable system of intergovernmental transfers, we had first to engage in basic capacity building, a task for which we had precious few resources.(19) Our initial strategy to tackle this job was to mount a month-long seminar on Western budgeting and financial management, to which we invited key cantonal personnel. The hope was that we would get the seminar participants up to speed in relatively short order on issues such as fund accounting, program budgeting, financial reporting, and so forth, and then send them back, laden with three-ring binders and personal computers, to their home cantons, where they would crank out timely, rational, and transparent FY 1997 budgets; this was the origin of ICMA's "local financial advisor" cohort.
Such was the hope. The reality was that, owing in part to our own naivete as discussed above, the local advisors never had the opportunity to apply the fruits of the seminar. What appeared to be relatively straightforward changes in the budgeting system actually had profound connections to the Bosnian legal system, personnel administration, privatization initiatives, education and training, and, of course, political and diplomatic questions. Each connection, like a hypertext link clicked on the Internet, would send the ICMA team surfing off into unknown seas. Budgeting is hitched especially intimately to personnel questions, for instance. Not only do personnel costs drive the system in an unusually direct way, but they are effectively off-limits to would-be budget makers. Meaningful budget reform in Bosnia will require wholesale personnel reform. No standard personnel structures and processes--central personnel agencies, job classification and performance appraisal systems, and so forth--yet exist in the country. Nor (and this is fatal for budgetmakers) is there any method of position management. Yet ICMA didn't have the resources to deal with personnel questions and USAID didn't have the inclination. Moreover, even had the resources and inclination been there, it is likely that other links, and hitches would quickly have asserted themselves.
Law is good; legalism is bad.
Although Americans often bemoan the law- and lawyer-bound nature of our society, we have nothing on the former Yugoslavia, especially when it comes to public administration. We are, by contrast, administrative free spirits, oblivious to codes and regulations in our single minded determination to get a job done. In most American offices, meetings are often begun by the question, What is the problem and what do we need to do to solve it? In Bosnia, meetings are begun, structured, and ended by the question, "What is the law and what do we need to do to follow it to the letter?"
The effect of this legalistic culture on budget reform is stultifying. No matter how overwhelming the agreement in principle that a classification system needs to be altered or a reporting format needs to be modified, absolutely nothing will happen until the governing law or decree is changed. And in an environment where many political institutions are either not functioning or are gridlocked by interethnic bargaining, such changes either come slowly or not at all.
There are several possible approaches to this problem, none of them fully satisfactory. First, one can press the relevant authorities to make the required changes. Indeed, one must press for such changes to fulfill one's obligations both to the client and contracting agency. Yet this strategy seldom worked in Bosnia. Factional disagreement and maneuvering imparted a political charge to even the most technical issues. Sometimes the responsible official was simply permanently unavailable. Upon turning up for a scheduled appointment with one Ministry of Finance policy maker, we were informed that he wouldn't be in that day. In fact, he hadn't been in for weeks and no one knew when he might be expected.(20) In theory, big donors carry big sticks and can invoke "conditionality" to grease the policy machinery. That is, the World Bank or the IMF or USAID can say, "Either you make x change or you won't get y loan." This was not a practical option for the ICMA team, however, as bit players dealing with relatively fringe issues. Indeed, although veiled threats have been made occasionally by the World Bank, conditionality has generally not been used as a lever, even by the major players: As one aid official put it, the "Bosnia guilt factor" won't allow it.(21)
On the (probably incorrect) assumption that failure to modify the law reflects some technical inability to do so, a second, related strategy is to draft the relevant statute or decree and present it to the client for formal implementation. The ICMA team tried this approach fairly early on. After being told repeatedly that none of our recommendations was consistent with the prevailing legal code, we wrote a Model Cantonal Budget Law, a draft statute offered in the spirit of the model laws that professional associations in America often devise for state and local legislative consideration. Although this stimulated some discussion, it did not lead to any material changes. Partly this reflected unfamiliarity with the idea of a Model Law.
But, in greater part, it reflected the uncertainty and political chaos of the environment: Figuring out exactly what the cantons were supposed to do--and with what money they were to do it--was, perhaps not unreasonably, a higher priority for Bosnian officials than rewriting the budget law.
Our third strategy to cope with implacable administrative law was to encourage the development of a sort of parallel bureaucratic universe: Right, we'd say. The Law on Public Expenditures specifies that you have to classify all spending according to these two categories. How about if you keep a second set of books that breaks spending down into the UN-COFOG categories?(22) This worked, at least in a few jurisdictions managed by especially progressive and energetic officials such as those in which our local advisors held sway. Given the extra work this entailed for already overburdened administrators, however, it was a strategy that could be applied only selectively, and never with a clear conscience.
Finally, in accordance with the "learn anatomy" lesson, we eventually discovered the wisdom of one further strategy to negotiate the legal thicket: We assigned to one of our local staff members the responsibility of compiling a "legal inventory," an annotated listing of the myriad laws and decrees that bore on budgeting and financial management. Having such a compendium does not obviate legalistic obscurantism. It does, however, forewarn and thus forearm one. There are few things more depressing in this business than to go into a meeting with one's clients all ready to move on a new initiative and to learn halfway through the session that the project has to be scrapped because a key part of it conflicts with a previously unknown law. A good inventory prevents this.
No one else really knows what's going on either.
Working as a contractor in the field, especially in a high-profile setting, can be an intimidating experience. One finds oneself working alongside people with very impressive titles from even more impressive organizations. It is natural to assume that such people are, if not omniscient, at least a lot more informed than oneself, especially when one is still floundering around trying to learn the difference between "the Republic," "the State," and "the Federation."
It is true that the caliber of the field staff of many Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) and government agencies is very high. Representatives of USAID, the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury, and many other organizations in Bosnia are very dedicated, competent professionals. But they do not, individually or collectively, have the sort of overarching grasp of the situation that one might expect. Indeed, no one does.
There are many reasons for this. In part, the fact that no one really knows what's going on reflects the chaos in Bosnia--the political disorder, shattered infrastructure, unsettled institutions, and barely concealed animosities that make daily life so challenging (and interesting). In part, too, it is a function of the sheer number of international players involved in the relief and reconstruction effort. Coordination among these actors is episodic at best. Formal interagency work groups or even briefings are rarer than they should be; turf wars and bureaucratic sniping, especially among "business development" oriented contractors are more common.
Language imposes another natural barrier to getting a full handle on the situation. Although there are Bosnia newspapers and electronic media aplenty, these are of little value to international staff not proficient in Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian, which is to say most international staff. In the circumstances, rumors, gossip, and other shreds of information and misinformation are traded in quick telephone conversations and coffee bars with all the fervor of high-technology stocks on the NASDAQ exchange. With no one able to assemble the "big picture," even with respect to an issue as comparatively narrow as fiscal federalism, organizations tend subtly to shift their goals, to narrow their focus to problems that are relatively manageable or tractable, even if these are not, from an outside perspective, especially central to the mission. The frustrating result of this is that when one makes a phone call to a fellow expatriate expert, whose business card or job description suggests that he or she will have the information one seeks within fingertip reach, an "I don't know" is almost guaranteed.
Recognizing these dynamics should provide some consolation for the would-be reformer, just off the plane, reeling from a sense of inadequacy in a foreign version of Herbert Simon's world of buzzing, blooming administrative confusion. One may not know what's going on, but the odds are, no one else does either.
Celebrate small victories, but keep an eye on the main prize.
In the field, every organization worth its salt has a mission statement, a clear declaration of purposes and strategies. For USAID contractors, this mission statement takes the form of something called a Statement of Work, a document that discusses the goals that are to be accomplished under a particular contract delivery order. These goals tend to be fairly grand, having been framed (often in Washington) by people who are trying either to impress legislators or political executives, or to win a contract. ICMA's statement, for instance, included goals such as facilitating reasonable revenue and expenditure assignments between cantonal and municipal governments and ensuring that all cantons and municipalities adopted transparent and rational operating budgets. These were laudable goals. They were integral to the overall Western mission in Bosnia. They served to orient and motivate staff. But they were terribly unrealistic. For many of the reasons discussed above--especially the idea that everything is hitched to everything else--ICMA was not in a position to make these things happen. ICMA could consult, recommend, issue studies, and write reports. But only Bosnian officials could assign revenues and expenditures and pass transparent and rational budgets.
However, because ICMA, like any contractor, had to write monthly reports and mark progress toward the goals expressed in its Statement of Work, pressure developed to identify "deliverables" that were really deliverable. This produced an occasional tendency to substitute activities for results: A commitment to put revenue and expenditure assignments into place becomes a workshop on revenue and expenditure assignments; an obligation to install rational, transparent budgets becomes a seminar on budget reform. It also contributed to an attachment to demonstration projects--identifying "model" municipalities and cantons, with tractable officials--in lieu of trying to serve all clients. These are perfectly normal and understandable reactions. All organizations in Bosnia faced similar pressures and responded in similar ways--USAID, the U.S. Treasury, and the World Bank included. Indeed, as noted above, such near-obligatory goal displacement goes a long way toward explaining why it was so hard to obtain useful information and assistance from colleagues in other agencies whose formal mandates suggested that they should have been on top of a situation. They were too busy focusing on narrow, manageable problems--too busy figuring out how to "declare victories" in their various domains, to use the au courant phrase of the field--to know what one expected them to know.
Grasping this elemental fact is essential. Taking formal goals too close to heart is a sure recipe for disappointment and despair. By the same token, ignoring such goals in a cynical effort simply to "game" the system--not an unknown phenomenon among some contractors--leads directly to programmatic failure. It must be said that most of the international community working on financial reform in Bosnia, ICMA included, did an outstanding job steering between this Scylla of cynicism and Charybdis of despair. Small victories--an appointment kept, a phone call returned, a workshop well attended--were celebrated; but the larger prize--a rational system of financial management--was never far out of mind.
Balance advocacy for your client with advocacy to your client.
Field personnel are, in one sense, simply extensions of the home office. As an overseas consultant, one's job is to pack one's bag and fly the flag: Get on a plane and make sure that the goals of Washington (or Bonn or Brussels or London) are met as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. One reason this is challenging is that the home office's goals are seldom perfectly consistent with those of the government one is sent to assist. Indeed, if they were always consistent, Washington could simply staple a money order to a technical manual and drop it in the post, cutting out the middleman technical advisor altogether. The fact is that one's role as technical consultant is structured by a fundamentally uneasy relationship between those who write the checks and those who cash them. Donor countries want to see change. Recipient countries want to see money. The turbulent intersection of these desires is where a technical consultant works.
This is often uncomfortable terrain. Survival here requires agile, artful mediation between the formal strictures of the mission and the structural constraints on the client. The consultant who tries simply to club recalcitrant foreign officials into submission is likely to have just as short and inglorious a career as the consultant who "goes native." Clients are not always able to do just what the home office might initially like them to do; in fact, one of the reasons the consultant is there is to interpret the local situation and communicate mitigating nuance to the folks back home. By the same token, a technical advisor needs to recognize that most clients will resist all suggestions for serious reform, and are capable of generating any number of creative and compelling reasons for doing so.
Figuring out what one's client really can and cannot do in any particular situation requires eschewing both slackjawed credulity and fingers-in-the-ears disregard. Skepticism and empathy and patience and perseverance are all essential. For instance, virtually every meeting with Bosnian officials, whatever the agenda, began with a series of speeches. These lasted about an hour and were always elaborations of the same three themes: This [fill-in-the-blank] canton/municipality: (1) has extraordinary needs; (2) doesn't have any money; and (3) therefore can't think about any reforms until it gets the money to meet its extraordinary needs. The first two of these themes--the premises of the argument, as it were--were absolutely rooted in fact and could always be assumed to be true. It was the third theme, the conclusion, that was troublesome. Sometimes it made sense, in which case it was incumbent on the ICMA team to shift gears, lay the reform agenda aside temporarily, and press the client's case before whatever court was appropriate, usually the Federation Ministry of Finance in Sarajevo. In other cases, the appropriate response was to wait until the end of the speeches, smile sympathetically, and press forward undeterred. The trick lay in knowing which case was which. The more time I spent in Bosnia, the more inclined I was to press forward vigorously, cup hand to ear to listen carefully to the cries of protest, and trust my developing ability to sift the theatrical from the real.
The difficulty in striking a proper balance between advocating to your client and for your client is an inescapable element of working as a foreign technical consultant, and one that is relatively unique among professionals. Most expert hired guns--lawyers, doctors, accountants, and so forth--are retained and paid by the people they are supposed to be helping. Client and directing authority are one in the same. Technical assistance personnel, on the other hand, are retained and paid by a directing authority to help some third-party client, people who may or may not want that help. The closest domestic analogues are perhaps social workers, drug counselors, or public school teachers--not an entirely happy thought. If you are dealing with people who want to change, who want to get off welfare, kick heroin, or learn algebra, life is good. However, if you are assigned clients who don't think they have a problem, misery is your lot. This role often comes as a shock to technical assistance personnel who have spent most of their careers in standard domestic assignments. They are stunned to find that their skills as budget analysts, economists, and city managers, highly valued at home, are ignored by their foreign clients. Their problem lies not in their technical skills, but in their misapprehension of their role, their failure to grasp how important it is to market oneself to unwilling clients or potential clients. One of the most successful members of the ICMA team in this regard was a man who had spent years working as a short-term manager in distressed cities at the behest of a state government. The city fathers who had bungled the finances and steered the municipalities into bankruptcy often didn't want him around. His mere presence was a rebuke and an embarrassment. But by forging strategic alliances and demonstrating to other local citizens and officials how he could add value, he was able to restructure debt, balance the books, and complete his mission. These skills were of great value in the distressed cities of Bosnia, and would-be technical consultants would be wise to try to acquire them.
Had I understood or, better, embraced these lessons before I arrived in Bosnia, I would probably have gotten more accomplished during my months there. Certainly my expectations would have been different, and I would have felt less discouraged on days when our program seemed mired axle-deep in the bureaucratic equivalent of a Balkan snowdrift. As I noted in the introduction, the irony is that I did already know many of these lessons, at least in an academic sense, having taught seminars on comparative and development administration for much of my career. Why then did I ignore them? Why, indeed, did the rest of the profession ignore them--if my colleagues in the field may be taken, as I think they should, as representative of American public administration?
The answers to these questions are complex, but they are worth pursuing both for what they say about current Western efforts to reshape the old communist world and for what they imply about the current state of American public administration. To begin, let me suggest that overseas consultants--certainly those I encountered in Bosnia--fall into two broad categories with respect to these lessons: those who should know them already and those who, to use the vernacular, understandably haven't a clue. In the former category are people who have academic credentials, significant overseas experience, or both. In the latter category are the relative babes-in-the-woods, newcomers in every sense to the challenges of overseas consulting. Both consultant categories need to be considered.
To begin, one might reasonably ask why should there be anyone in the second category. What business does someone without experience or training have presuming to give advice in any foreign country, much less one as volatile and high-profile as Bosnia? The reasonable answer would be, "No business at all." But such people are indeed there--at least half of the consultants I worked with in Bosnia fell into this category--and it is important to try to understand why.
One reason has to do with the nature of contemporary education in public administration. Comparative and development administration are virtually invisible in today's textbooks and professional journals. I suspect these topics are equally absent from most public administration curricula. Thus, even for those consultants who had received mainline public administration degrees from respectable (even distinguished) programs--and there were several such people working in Bosnia--the odds were against familiarity with ideas such as "formalism," "the ecology of administration," "prismatic societies," and so forth.(23)
The second reason that one more than occasionally sees in the field people unprepared for its rigors has to do with selection criteria of USAID, other funding agencies, and contractors. The bias today is in favor of very narrowly drawn expertise. When the need arises to hire a short-term expert in, say, performance measurement, a contractor looks for someone who, above all, has had practical experience in performance measurement--preferably in an American city or state agency. Experience working in another culture is seen as desirable, of course, but not as critical as the perceived skill requirement. Exactly why this should be the case is unclear. It may have to do with the relative shortage of people with experience in the field (see the point below). It may also reflect bureaucratic logic: USAID managers and other aid agency managers may feel that they can exert more control over contractor staff who lack knowledge of and comfort with the local situation (i.e., they keep the experts "on tap, not on top"). Then, too, the bias toward technical expertise may simply reflect a serious belief among donors that the world is all basically the same, that expertise can be unplugged from Tulsa or Tallahassee and reconnected without a problem in Sarajevo or Warsaw.(24) Whatever the reason, the bias is troubling.
The labor market in consultants is the third reason one sometimes finds soft spots among overseas staff. Although it is relatively easy for a contractor to identify people who are willing to go overseas and work for a few weeks at a time--after all, the work is challenging, the sites often interesting and exotic, and the pay not unreasonable--it is very difficult indeed to fill long-term assignments, the ones intended to last a year or more. Anyone with a reasonably stable and successful stateside career, such as academics, public sector managers, and so forth, can seldom afford to take the time. Professionals with working spouses and with families are also loath to make such commitments. Recruiters are consequently left with something of a mixed bag from which to choose. In the best of circumstances, they are able to draw upon a pool of seasoned and talented men and women who have made careers of managing overseas projects. This is rarer than might be liked and is becoming increasingly so given the bias toward narrow technical expertise noted above. More commonly, contractors are forced to choose from among applicants whose availability may be a bigger allure than their credentials.(25) And sadly but inevitably, it is among the long-term consultants that contractors must look for leadership and managerial continuity.(26)
But if current emphases in public administration education, consultant selection criteria, and labor market factors help explain (though not excuse) why many overseas consultants are unprepared for the field, what are we to make of their more experienced colleagues? How can those whose training and experience should inoculate them against the more egregious of the misapprehensions catalogued earlier be so guileless and naive? There clearly were such staff in Bosnia. I was among them, as I confessed earlier. Some of my colleagues had long experience in Russia and other CEE and CIS states. Two others had worked extensively in Asia. What was our excuse?
A large part of the answer, I think, lies in the nature of the work environment in Bosnia. The atmosphere was intense. We drove to our offices every morning in four-wheel drive vehicles, rolling past convoys of heavily armed troops. On every block was a reminder of the horror of the Bosnian war: roofless houses, bullet-scarred walls, orphaned children, ill-clothed refugees, maimed soldiers. These daily, inescapable images doubtless imparted a sense of urgency to our work, a sense that may well have narrowed our vision and disinclined us to the sort of reflection that would have put our mission in proper perspective. Central to the teaching of development administration is the admonition that change, if it occurs at all, takes time. In Bosnia, time was not something we felt we had. Peace was fragile, infrastructure was broken, the institutions of the federation weak, and people were in desperate need. Solutions, we thought, were needed today.
Our impatience--and thus our occasional impetuousness--were abetted by USAID and the broader structure of US foreign policy. The images of Bosnian misery that we saw firsthand every day still flickered on American TV screens. Thousands of US; troops were on the ground. As a result, Bosnia was a priority for the Clinton administration. They, too, wanted to "declare victory," both to justify the use of troops to the public and to hasten their exit. USAID got this message loud and clear. They were not interested in the long term, in building fundamentals such as local staff development, personnel reform, and so forth. They wanted the financial management system changed--now--so that money could start flowing through the cantons and municipalities--now--so that the Dayton infrastructure could function--now--so that troops could be withdrawn--now. In the highly charged atmosphere of immediate postwar Bosnia these demands seemed much less foolish than they appear today, many months and many thousands of miles removed.
In principle, some of these problems are easily remediable. Small modifications in USAID selection criteria would help a great deal. So, too, would minor investments in briefings and orientations for consultants by contractors. A little time spent educating staff at the beginning of a project can forestall major dislocations later on. Less tractable is the crisis atmosphere that can skew judgment in missions such as Bosnia. Ultimately, this is more a political than an administrative problem, with the pressure for quick fixes emanating less from USAID professionals than from the White House. Still, maintaining a strong, professional, and seasoned team of USAID contract managers may help buffer consultants in the field from Washington's occasional bouts of short-sightedness.
It might seem logical--and especially apt, given the projects underway elsewhere in CEE and CIS states--to add one final critique to these reflections: To wit, the most fundamental error the ICMA team made was trying to foist an American-style :financial management system on a society that really didn't want it and certainly wasn't prepared for it. Our problem wasn't so much a matter of style, as is implied in the lessons. Our error was rather more fundamental than that, rooted in an arrogant "We know what is best for you" mentality. At most, according to this line of argument, the team should have restricted itself to explaining options, making logical connections between the long-range goals that the Bosnians had set for themselves (EU membership, revenue stability, credit-worthiness in international debt markets) and the administrative techniques in which we were expert.
This is a serious criticism, and one that flows directly from the literature in development administration. Indeed, it is fair to say that one of the clearest messages delivered by Fred Riggs and his colleagues was that Western institutions do not root easily in non-Western soil. Public administration has to be seen in ecological context. As a practical matter, a technique that works in one society will not necessarily work (at least not in the same way) in another society; as a moral matter, it is inappropriate to try to make it work.
In this regard, I must register a small, respectful dissent from the traditional development administration position. I remain convinced of the essential integrity of our recommendations--and of the legitimacy of strongly encouraging our clients to adopt them. Good financial management practices (and good personnel practices, and good democratic accountability practices, etc.) are becoming universally applicable, or very nearly so. Just as we have seen international norms develop in the areas of rule of law, human rights, and participatory democracy in recent years, so too have we seen norms grow in the realm of public administration.(27)
The major shaper of these norms has been that amorphous phenomenon we have come to call "globalization"--international trade, capital flows, travel, professional networks, and so on. International organizations such as the UNDP, the World Bank and IMF, powerful regional players such as the EU, and institutions such as USAID operated by dominant national actors like the US give form to these norms and encourage their spread. To the extent that consensus forms among these organizations and institutions on a set of norms--as it has today, I believe, in key areas of public administration--pressure will be brought to bear on nations that wish to participate in the global system to play by global rules.
The upshot is that nations at the relative periphery of the global system are coming to have less freedom to march to their own administrative drummers. The space for a "Russian mode" of administrative ethics, a "Chinese style" of merit system, or a "Bosnian approach" to budgeting is diminishing. It is possible to bemoan this loss of administrative diversity--indeed, critics of globalization abound;(28) but it is difficult to deny it as an empirical fact. While political structures and economic constraints will always differ from country to country, and while it will, therefore, remain necessary to "know anatomy before performing surgery," the administrative transplant operation, to pursue the metaphor, will likely become increasingly standardized.
One result of this globalization of norms is that Western consultants will be able to wield more leverage in their interactions with client governments, a shift in the balance of power that should give us pause, though not necessarily lead us to despair. Certainly it will become increasingly important to address the weaknesses in the consulting system--inadequate training and preparation, lack of coordination, inclination toward goal displacement--catalogued above. Certainly, too, it will be critical to ensure that consultants use whatever leverage they have with sensitivity, proportion, and restraint. It is equally important, though, not to assume that all leverage is illegitimate, that each bit of mild pressure applied on a foreign official is an act of unspeakable neocolonialism.
This is obviously a delicate issue. Respect for national sovereignty and simple courtesy require that a consultant defer appropriately to the authority of his or her nominal client--the minister of this or the permanent secretary of that. Respect for the citizens of the country (and duty to one's employer) may well require tempering that deference with the occasional gentle twist of the arm.(29)
The corridors of government in most former East bloc states harbor substantial numbers of officials implacably opposed to reform, for personal as well as philosophical reasons. Blind deference in these circumstances is no more excusable than brash conceit. One leads to inaction, the other to foolish error. Certainly the people of Bosnia would be no more well served by a public administration aid program that for reasons of polite diplomacy forswore comment on the emperor's (old) clothes than would, for instance, the people of China by a policy that tiptoed around official violations of human rights. The growth of genuine international norms legitimizes--indeed demands--their application. At the same time, it is unfortunately easy to justify inappropriate intervention or to cloak selfish motives in the name of a presumed higher purpose or universal good. The challenge for the individual consultant abroad, then, parallels the challenge for America abroad in general: to shed artless innocence without assuming an ugly and dangerous arrogance.
(1.) For an excellent overview of the literature in comparative and development administration--recent and otherwise--see Ferrel Heady, Public Administration: A Comparative Perspective (NY: Marcel Dekker, 1996).
(2.) The most linear and comprehensive treatment of the Yugoslav war is Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin, 1997). Among the scores of other excellent books on this conflict, three provide especially good overviews: Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia (London: Penguin, 1993), David Reiff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Touchstone, 1996), and Peter Maass, Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War (New York: Vintage, 1996).
(3.) A few basic statistics help put the war in perspective. Half of Bosnia's prewar population of 4.3 million remains displaced by the conflict, either internally or in refugee camps abroad. More than 250,000 people died in the war--roughly 1 in 16 inhabitants. Economic activity remains at a near standstill, with estimates of unemployment ranging over 50 percent. For an overview of economic activity in postwar Bosnia, see Bosnia and Herzegovina: Toward Economic Recovery (Washington, DC: The World Bank, June, 1996).
(4.) The six republics of the former Yugoslavia were Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. The country also included two "autonomous regions," Kosovo and Vojvodina. As of this writing, Yugoslavia now comprises the republics of Serbia and Montenegro, plus the two above-mentioned regions (no longer autonomous).
(5.) Bosnia is properly known by its full name, Bosnia and Herzegovina (abbreviated "BiH"). In this article, I follow the common practice and use them interchangeably.
(6.) Whatever meaning the word "ethnicity" retains in our modern lexicon, it is seldom aptly applied to Bosnia-Herzegovina or to the former Yugoslavia more generally. Newly forged nationalist myths notwithstanding, almost all Yugoslavs come from the same stock, their ancestors having migrated to the Balkans from southern Russia in the sixth and seventh centuries. Residents of the region--whether Croat, Serb, or Muslim--come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and are physically indistinguishable as groups one from the other. Group divisions are rooted in religion, Croats being predominantly Roman Catholic and Serbs Orthodox Christians. Bosnia, per se, has substantial representation of all three "ethnic" groups. It should be pointed out that especially before the war, and to a considerable extent even today, Bosnia has been a highly secular society. Intermarriage rates amongst Yugoslavs, especially among Bosnians, have traditionally been very high.
(7.) Strictly speaking, the Dayton Constitution represents an overlay on the March 1994 "Washington Constitution," which formally created the Muslim-Croat Federation.
(8.) The Serb Republic--Republika Srbska in Serbo-Croatian (itself a problematic term now, with each nationality insisting that it speaks a distinct language, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian)--is an "Entity" of the "State" of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It should not be confused with the Republic of Serbia, which is the heart of rump-Yugoslavia.
(9.) Karadzic himself no longer holds office. Moreover, as of this writing, an intense power struggle is underway between Karadzic supporters, centered principally in the eastern Serb Republic, and supporters of Biljana Plavsic, the nominal president, whose base of support is largely limited to Banja Luka and a few other areas of the western part of the republic. Plavsic has received active support from NATO and the West in recent months, despite her history of near-hysterical nationalism, on the theory that she is less undesirable at the helm than Karadzic.
(10.) Strictly speaking, the capital of the all-but-nonfunctioning State is also Sarajevo.
(11.) The number has now been stabilized at ten. The original proposal was for six, with later versions projecting eight, nine, and various other numbers of cantons. The ten cantons are: Sarajevo, Una-Sana, Hercegbosnia, Neretva, Middle Bosnia, Zenica-Doboj, Tuzla, Posavina, Gorazde, and Grude.
(12.) Many critics, the author included, believe that Bosnia's confederal framework was foisted on the country by Western mediators who wrongly assumed that segregating "warring ethnic factions" into semiautonomous cantons was the only way to end the conflict. The perverse result has been to harden and reinforce communal animosities.
(13.) Fear of exactly the sort of rampant nationalism that resulted in the 1991-95 war was a major reason for Belgrade's tight grip. For an excellent treatment of the role of the architect of this policy, Josip Broz Tito, see Richard West, Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1994).
(14.) Indeed, the non-Serbian republics--particularly Slovenia and Croatia--especially resented what they saw as massive imbalances in revenue generation and expenditure, with their industrious economies subsidizing what they viewed as an indolent Serbia. This resentment was one of the underlying causes of the split in 1991, and hence of the war.
(15.) The consequences of this system--with the inevitable mismatch between resources and "needs"--will be discussed below.
(16.) The ZPP--Zavod za Platni Promet--is the traditional nerve center of Bosnian budgeting--part bank, part finance ministry, and part revenue police.
(17.) It is a measure of the value of the "What Do We Know?" document that a member of the ICMA team now working in Poland has drafted a similar compendium for that mission.
(18.) I lost a contact lens in Spain once. By confusing the verbs "to look" and "to see," instead of explaining the difficulty with my vision, I began emphatically telling anyone within earshot not to look at me.
(19.) As noted earlier, ICMA was supposed to have five resident advisors on the ground. In fact, owing to recruitment and other personnel problems, from late-1995 to mid-1997, there were never more than four; on occasion, there were even fewer. Even a full complement of five advisors would have been unable to serve all ten cantons.
(20.) The tenuous character of the Muslim-Croat Federation requires a system of dual "ethnic" appointments to office. If the chief minister of a particular department is a Muslim, his deputy must be a Croat; if the chief is a Croat, the deputy must be a Muslim. Depending in part on the state of intergroup relations at any particular time, the level of intraministerial cooperation could range from minimal to nonexistent. At the time of our appointment, cooperation was nearly nonexistent, so the deputy simply didn't bother coming to work.
(21.) This refers to the (well-founded) sense that the West did so little to assist Bosnia during the war, and thus helped to create the massive problems that it now faces, that it owes the Bosnian people a huge debt. The guilt factor obviously does not extend to the Serb Republic--at least not as long as it is seen to be governed by those primarily responsible for the war's worst atrocities.
(22.) COFOG stands for Classification of Functions of Government. UN-COFOG codes are widely used in international financial reporting.
(23.) These are terms drawn from the work of Fred Riggs, the most original and influential scholar of development administration. The centerpiece of his prodigious work is Administration in Developing Countries: The Theory of Prismatic Society (Boston: Mifflin, 1964).
(24.) USAID enforces its will in this regard, by the way, through a system called "country clearance." Each overseas staff member whom a contractor wishes to deploy--long term or short term--is subject to USAID approval via the country clearance process. Thus, even if a contractor were to take the position that the strongest premium should be placed on in-country experience, the staff member would still have to negotiate the shoals of USAID. Even after my experience in Bosnia, for instance, I have twice been denied country clearance after having been selected by a contractor for other financial-management-related assignments in the former-Yugoslavia because my skills-fit wasn't quite close enough for USAID; in both cases the assignments went to US practitioners with no Balkan experience.
(25.) There is, for better or worse, something of the air of the French Foreign Legion among the cadre of consultants available for long-term assignments: In addition to the outright aventurers, one finds men and women escaping domestic unhappiness, soured careers, midlife angst, etc.
(26.) Recent assignments I have undertaken in Southern Africa, Mexico, and Central Asia have lent credence to this speculation. While they have all been interesting, even exotic, places to work, none has had the "edge" of Bosnia. My expectations about what I might accomplish in each setting have been correspondingly more sensible--though how much of this is a function of what I learned in Bosnia and how much a reflection of the less intense work environment is difficult to say.
(27.) A useful overview of the literature in this area may be found in Stephen D. Krasner, ed., International Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983). Another important treatment is Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence, 2nd Ed. (NY: Harper Collins, 1989). Some interesting administratively relevant case studies of the norms argument may be found in Mark W. Zacher, Governing Global Networks: International Regimes for Transportation and Communication (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
(28.) For instance, see Ozay Mehmet, Westernizing the Third World (London: Routledge, 1995) and Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty (London: Zed Books, 1997).
(29.) For an encyclopedic overview of the normative implications of intervention and nonintervention in a world of still-sovereign states, see Terry Nardin and David Mapel, eds., Traditions of International Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Mark Huddleston teaches Public Administration at the University of Delaware.…