What Happens When Consultants Work for Authoritarian Regimes
Doing research in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a few years ago, I heard a remarkable story from a young government adviser. As a UAE citizen with a Ph.D. from a top U.S. university, he had good ideas about reform. But getting those ideas heard was difficult, in part due to the pervasiveness of highly-paid foreign experts at all levels of government. He was friends with one of them, a U.S. consultant who was part of a team advising a government minister. Over a private cup of coffee, the consultant posed an interesting question that cut to the heart of the matter.
The American asked, “Why am I here, really?”
The consultant went on, noting that it felt like many of his colleagues were simply telling the minister “what they think he wants to hear,” and he worried they would have little positive impact as a result. Since he was writing a final report with their recommendations, he said to his friend, “You know more about the situation here and what is needed. Why don’t you put what you think should go in it, and I’ll write the executive summary?” The UAE government adviser thought it over and concluded that the minister would probably take reform proposals more seriously if they seemed to come from a top consulting firm based in the West. So the two worked together, keeping their collaboration secret. And the minister was reportedly very pleased with the final report.
This story raises a number of provocative questions on top of the one the American consultant originally posed. Why do autocratic governments recruit consultants and other experts, especially foreign-based ones? The consulting market in the Gulf monarchies, for instance, grew 7% in 2017, up to $2.8 billion. According to Source Global Research, “the resulting wealth and complexity of ambitious change initiatives has been a boon to consultants in the region, with pretty much every firm benefiting from — and indeed growing to rely upon — the pipeline of work this is generating.” Further, how are such experts perceived locally? Do they actually improve governmental decision-making? And what are the pitfalls, including ethical ones?
To help answer these questions, I conducted field research in the Middle East over a period of 19 months between 2009 and 2017. My main focus was the UAE and other Gulf monarchies where experts from major consulting firms and universities, especially those based in the West, are key advisers. The research incorporated interviews with expert advisers and ruling elites (including one ruling monarch) as well as palace-based observations of them interacting with one another. I also collected qualitative and experimental data on how citizens assess the role of experts in government. Taken together, the findings offer several takeaways about both the opportunities and the challenges for experts working in authoritarian regimes, and for the reformist ruling elites who enlist their assistance.
Experts can play a valuable role by rationalizing the decision-making process in the early stage of intelligence gathering. Gulf ruling elites generally say they believe outside experts will offer fresh perspectives and revitalize reform efforts. This reflects a longstanding conventional wisdom about the benefits that experts can provide — the belief that they will help to rationalize governmental decision-making through their knowledge and training.
To better understand how the role of experts plays out, it’s useful to consider three phases of decision-making: intelligence, design, and choice. In the intelligence phase, experts can bring knowledge, data, and experience to bear as they identify and investigate policy problems. In the design phase, they can apply their knowledge to design, analyze, and evaluate alternative courses of action, ideally with impartiality, or what Francis Bacon called a “drier and purer” light. And in the choice stage, experts can steer leaders away from whim, impulse, and other biases, ensuring that decisions emerge from an appropriate deliberative process after weighing pros and cons of the alternatives.
I found that experts are quite valuable when they first start working on a project — that is, at the intelligence stage. At this point, they are new on the scene, and feel relatively free to speak truth to power. They may observe things that ruling elites do not, like hidden barriers to change or opportunities to apply approaches that have improved aspects of governance and service delivery elsewhere. An education consultant in Kuwait, for example, said “There is an unrealistic vision [in ruling circles] that if you change the curriculum in schools, then it automatically means that students will learn better. But [rulers] now realize that this isn’t enough, and it’s not a realization that they came to on their own — the experts have pushed them to this, wearing them away, giving them studies, evidence, examples of that not being enough.”
But as experts adapt to incentives rooted in the authoritarian political system, they tend to avoid speaking their minds, making them less effective in the design and choice stages of decision-making. In my research, a general pattern emerged: the longer experts worked with ruling elites on a project, the more likely they were to get drawn into problematic incentive structures characteristic of authoritarian regimes. For example, despite initial assurances to the contrary, experts find that they are easily and arbitrarily fired, with limited opportunity for redress. Foreign experts are especially vulnerable, because they can be deported along with their families. Many also come to learn that they are competing in a politically opaque atmosphere marked by intense rivalry and high turnover, with equally competitive ruling elites who come armed with their own teams of experts attacking similar problems. They worry they may be used as convenient scapegoats when things go awry.
Facing uncertainty and fears about job security, many consultants worry more about maintaining their status — for instance, renewing their contracts — than about conveying uncomfortable truths to their bosses. As a Saudi business developer explained, “[Experts] say their opinion on day one, and then they are told, ‘No we want to do it this way,’ and then they will keep quiet and do what they are told. They know that someone else will come and take their place if they don’t.”
When experts shy away from expressing their true opinions and fail to temper ruling elites’ ambitions, the latter are left with unrealistic and sometimes fantastical notions about how much can be accomplished in a short period of time — a far from rational outcome. A good example of this dynamic is bargaining over timeframes. Experts will propose a reasonable timeframe for a reform, but ruling elites then demand that things move faster. Experts object a little but ultimately acquiesce, despite private misgivings. As an expert in Qatar recalled, “I like to think that I, in my regular one-on-one with Her Highness, gave a realistic assessment to Her Highness of how things were going, trying to push back on timeline. But at some point you are employed by them. What do you do when they say, ‘No, no, I need it this summer’?” As a result, timeframes can be unrealistic, and reforms may fail.
Experts can have unintended effects on legitimacy, too. Conventional thinking about experts in politics suggests not only that experts rationalize governmental decision-making, but also that they confer legitimacy — meaning that the public may be more likely to support government initiatives when experts with the relevant knowledge, training, and experience are involved. In the Gulf, both experts and ruling elites tend to think along these technocratic lines. Some experts even worry that they have been recruited solely to confer legitimacy and shore up the regime.
But exactly how experts affect popular support in differing political contexts is not well-understood. Three experiments I conducted in Kuwait at local universities, involving 648 students in total, indicate that experts — far from conferring legitimacy — can have the opposite effect.
In my first experiment, subjects read a mock newspaper article about a hypothetical reform being launched by Kuwait’s leaders. The reform was to improve education or infrastructure, depending on the experimental condition to which the subject was randomly assigned. Subjects were also randomly assigned to an “experts” or a “no experts” condition. So for about half of them, the article noted that a team of international experts would be assisting with the reform, and emphasized their credentials and experience. For the other half, the article did not mention any expert involvement.
The results showed that expert involvement caused a significant drop in legitimacy across several measures of the concept. For example, subjects who read that experts were involved were less inclined to support the reform, regardless of the reform’s purpose. And they also displayed less patriotism, suggesting that any reminder of international expert involvement made them less proud of their own country.
Yet experts can also foster optimism about scientific and technological progress. The results were not all negative from the perspective of experts. Those who read about expert-assisted reform showed significantly greater optimism about scientific and technological progress in general, and the ability of humans to solve major problems. These results suggest that experts and ruling elites are correct to think that citizens appreciate the value of expertise in general. So while experts may not buy legitimacy for a particular reform, they may foster some degree of optimism about progress more broadly, which may be useful in building support for reform in the longer term.
Experts’ nationality and the length of time they spend in country can also affect how they will be perceived. My next two experiments, also in Kuwait, explored what factors may affect whether experts legitimize or delegitimize projects in authoritarian regimes. The second study varied the nationality of the experts described in the mock newspaper article. Subjects were randomly assigned to read about an infrastructure reform that involved either American, Chinese, or Kuwaiti experts.
The results suggested that nationality can matter a lot: when American experts were involved, subjects were least supportive of the reform. And although you might expect that Kuwaiti subjects would be most enthusiastic about reform when Kuwaiti experts are involved, that wasn’t the case — they were equally enthusiastic about Chinese experts. One possibility is that subjects are more familiar with U.S. and other Western experts, on whom their leaders most often rely, and so blame them for failed reform efforts of the past.
My third study investigated the length of time experts spend in country. Subjects again read a mock newspaper article about a major reform, with the only difference being whether the team of international experts was described as short-term (having “arrived yesterday”) or long-term (having been “living and working in Kuwait for 10 years”). The results highlighted a strong and consistent legitimacy advantage for long-term experts. Subjects were more supportive of the reform, more confident it would succeed, and more confident about the experts themselves when experts were described as long-term. They were also significantly more optimistic about scientific and technological progress more broadly.
Overall, my research highlights serious pitfalls for experts, especially foreign ones, when they work in authoritarian regimes. They do not always rationalize governmental decision-making in the most effective way; nor do they necessarily confer legitimacy. In both respects, their work can backfire, making reforms less rational and less legitimate — even when experts have the best of intentions.
So, yes, the UAE government adviser and his consultant friend quoted at the beginning of this article were right to be asking some deeper questions about the nature of their work. And certainly knowing more about the pitfalls can help experts to avoid them in the future. But what other measures could experts take?
First, they might want to consider focusing their efforts on the early intelligence stages of the projects they assist. They should also show a greater willingness to walk away when they start to feel trapped by the incentive structures typical of authoritarian regimes, which can discourage criticism.
The expert community as a whole must also increase transparency about what they are actually doing in authoritarian regimes, including both the positive outcomes of their work as well as the obstacles and challenges they face. This would allow scholars to assess the role of experts more systematically, so we have a fuller understanding of what kinds of interventions are most likely to succeed in improving governance and the daily lives of citizens living under authoritarianism. While consulting firms often carry out such research on themselves, that isn’t enough due to their inherent conflicts of interest; independent assessments are needed.
Finally, as Michael Posner at NYU’s Stern School of Business advises, consultancies should also develop shared guidelines for when they should undertake contracts in authoritarian regimes, and when they should disengage from such contracts. This would help experts avoid the ethical dilemma of “dual use,” in which the expertise they provide is then used by autocrats to carry out repression and potentially violate human rights. For example, it may be best for experts to focus their efforts on bread-and-butter sectors like health, infrastructure, and education, rather than the sectors associated with the repressive capacity of authoritarian regimes, such as internal security and surveillance. This would help experts maximize their potential to make a positive difference with the knowledge, training, and experience they can bring to the table in any political system.
Courtesy : Harvard Business Review