ODI Fellows face an incredibly steep learning curve. We should probably see this as a good thing.

Owen Barder takes a question from an ODI Fellow looking for some more detailed information on budgeting processes and answers with some good material (also see the comments for even more interesting stuff, if you find budget processes particularly exciting).

He ends the piece with a little bit of concern:

(And is it OK that we are sending ODI Fellows to developing countries to work on the budget process without some formal training, or at least a reading list?)

As a former ODI Fellow who worked in Malawi’s budget office, I can safely say the answer to this is a bit complex, but overall I would lean towards: “yes.”

For those of you that aren’t familiar, the ODI Fellowship is a two year scheme run by the Overseas Development Institute, which recruits around 50 young economists every year to go work as civil servants in developing countries. While the ODI does the recruiting and the basic vetting (and pays for most of the salary), Fellows are employed solely by their host governments. It is (mostly) a demand-driven scheme: governments make requests for positions to be filled, and the ODI sends them some CVs to choose from.

The scheme has two main goals: to provide governments with enthusiastic, capable economists and to let a group of enthusiastic capable economists learn what it is like working for a developing government.

The scheme is not as much about capacity building or technical assistance as it is about gap-filling. While some fellows end up in advisory or semi-senior positions, the majority are hired by governments as ordinary civil servants. I was a budget officer – the same grade as half a dozen Malawian junior staff of a similar age and qualification. I wasn’t a budget expert, or an advisor – I was hired with the same knowledge everyone at my grade had when they entered: none.

This may seem terribly inefficient, as new Fellows face a steep learning curve (especially if they have no predecessors) – it can take a significant hunk of your posting to figure out how everything works.

But in a way, that’s the point: you begin with no priors – in fact, priors get in the way more than anything else – and so truly, truly begin to understand what is an incredibly complex system. As a friend and former-Fellow pointed out to me in an e-mail, self-training is an incredibly valuable skill, and it’s one that successful Fellows have learned to master.

While we enter as complete n00bs, we leave as experts. Any donor, technical adviser or consultant worth his salt knows that the local ODI Fellow is the go-to for both information and understanding.

So would it help to give outgoing Fellows a little more background reading? Probably – but the initial impact would be pretty marginal. It would be better for the ODI to give Fellows free access to relevant online journals, or even better yet, maintain a database of information that Fellows can contribute to and learn from, so whenever Fellows feel the need to expand their knowledge (as the one questioning Owen has) they can find what they need quickly.

4 thoughts on “n00bs

  1. Andrew W

    April 28, 2011 at 11:39am

    “Any donor, technical adviser or consultant worth his salt knows that the local ODI Fellow is the go-to for both information and understanding.”

    More so than your supposed ‘equal’ Malawian junior staff?

  2. Matt

    April 28, 2011 at 11:51am


    A little harsh, but perhaps brevity was my enemy here:

    Of course an ODI Fellow’s info and understanding won’t be superior to their colleagues – I left Malawi still very much an amateur compared to my colleagues. But it is often the case that other `outsiders’ feel more comfortable approaching an ODI Fellow, and are often directed that way. This doesn’t always happen (it didn’t with me, except with consultants), it is more often the case than not.

    This also creates a conundrum for the average ODI Fellow – it’s a balancing act. You’re a civil servant, where donors often treat them like you are one of their own. While we are often able to have a unique relationship with these parties, we also have to make sure that our actual employers, the government, can trust us as much as any other civil servant. If you get too cozy with the donors, you start too look like you’re on the wrong team.

  3. Erin Antcliffe

    April 28, 2011 at 3:51pm

    Based on my limited experience with pre-departure training, I would tend to agree with you. I’ve found that while it may be interesting to sit in your home country and read as much as possible about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing, there is no substitute for just going and doing it. That is not to say that people should carry out random experiments that effect lives and livelihoods, but that experiential learning is the most effective way to develop expertise, skills and context.
    Thanks for posting your thoughts!

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    May 3, 2011 at 2:33pm

    Just catching up on the blogs at the moment, in a brief lull on this holiday. Nice post. If I’m completely honest here, I’ve now lived in africa for six years and know a *lot* of ODI fellows, and would suggest that there is very little correlation between how academically brilliant and book-smart they are and how good they are.

    Being a fellow is about compromise, adaptability, people-skills and resilience more than cutting edge intellectualism, and I think the hardest thing the ODI have to do is selecting the right kind of people.

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