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Expats as Experts

... Donna's JP article opens a debate

The Jakarta Post
April 11, 2001

Opinion: Foreign advisers and consultants as catalysts

By Donna Woodward

Medan, North Sumatra (JP): Indonesian government ministries, non-government organizations, and private corporation are awash with expatriate advisors, consultants, and technical experts engaged to supplement local expertise in problem-solving and national development.

Expatriates might no longer dominate the consulting field in numbers, but they likely still do so in terms of remuneration given and the status accorded them. Why, then; is there sometimes an ambivalence, not to say hypocrisy, about the role of foreign advisors in Indonesian organizations? Is there any connection between this ambivalence and the failure of reform?

Fundamental to the hiring of foreign is the postulate that there are too few Indonesians with required expertise in certain areas. Expatriates are permitted to work here because of certain needed skills; we should not be here otherwise. Yet once the foreigners are at work, see what happen.

Particularly in areas such as corruption and reform, where accusation of cultural insensitivity or foreign dominations are feared, expatriates become reticent.

Becoming veritable Uriah Heeps (some), they disclaim the prerogative - and like wise the responsibility - to use the faculties of intellect and competence that are an integral part of the reason that were hired.

Recently this writer inquired of the expatriate head of one international organization about their plans in the area of corruption control.

The respondent answered (in part), "We can't have a case of the foreigner telling Indonesians how to (do things). For this to work it must come from Indonesian society and businesses." This writer has no argument with the statement that foreigners do not have a de facto right to dictate to Indonesians how to do things.

Nor with the fact for a solution to work, those it will affect must internalize it. However, to say unambiguously "To accomplish the goal you've set here is the action I recommend," or "Corrupt practices are inconsistent with the stated goals," is not at all the same as saying, "We'll do it my way."

An Indonesian organization that employs a consultant remains in control of the use made of the consultant's work. If for some reason the organization rejects the consultant's advice, so be it.

But if the expatriate expert declines to give his/her best advice out of fear that it will be misconstrued as domineering, isn't this an abdication of one's job responsibility? When foreign experts hesitate to "push the envelope" out of a belief that Indonesian hosts won't like tough advice, the result is that Indonesia pays high-octane prices for low octane solutions.

Should expatriate advisors be reluctant to express views on sensitive issues like corruption, or to propose new and unfamiliar solutions?

Suppose ASPAC hired Michael Jordan at a salary of hundreds of millions of Rupiah more than local players were paid and then on arrival he said, "I don't think Indonesians actually want me to win; they have their own ways. We' ll only go in for every third lay-up and let someone else take the rebounds. I don't want to dominate the team."

If Jordan did this, would the ASPAC workers be happy? Do foreigners think Indonesian colleagues want us to refrain from tendering our best performance because of a worry that the Indonesians will be intimidated or offended? The supposition is insulting.

The impetus to mute the voices of foreign professionals often comes more from the foreign side than from the Indonesian side. (There are, however, some Indonesians who know that the fastest way to kill the expatriate's unwelcome recommendation - one might upset the comfortable status quo - is to hint that the expatriate is culturally insensitive or that national pride is threatened even when these are not at issue at all).

We western expatriates in particular have such an ugly reputation for imperiousness that guilt and the legitimate wish not to usurp the role of Indonesian colleagues sometimes produce a counter productive, false tractability. Some expatriates hesitate to advance reformists ideas zealously, to avoid the appearance of imposing foreign solutions. But anti-corruption views are not un-indonesian.

In fact Indonesian reformers might welcome more spoken support from Indonesia's international experts. Wasn't it the reluctant of International experts to speak truthfully to Soeharto about regime's oppressiveness and corruption that facilitated the crisis in the first place? Are today's experts similarly reluctant to proffer the necessary truths?

To propose a more openly activists role for foreigners consultants is not to advocate expatriates. domination of host organizations. It is not to excuse arrogance or cultural insensitivity or minimize the repercussions of ignorance and incivility. It is not to deny that at times a consultant's proposal is the wrong solution for a problem.

It is to ask for an end to the hypocrisy that prevails when expatriates advisors come here as "experts", accept expert-level salaries and perks, then assume a demeanor of unworthiness to advise. It is to appeal consultants not to demur from advocating new or even extremely new ideas and programs, particularly relating to anti-corruption efforts.

It is to affirm that as consultants we are not mindless amoral experts. Michael Jordan wouldn't forego his opportunity to be a catalyst for progress out of a misguided obsequiousness. Why should a consultant?

The writer, an attorney and former American diplomat at the U.S. Consulate General in Medan, is a consultant.

A subsequent response to Donna's article:

The Jakarta Post
April 17, 2001

Not all expats are experts
By Nirwan Idrus

JAKARTA (JP): There seems to be an accepted myth that expats are experts. This not only applies for Indonesia and Papua New Guinea for example, but also developed countries like Australia.

The major difference between the former countries and the latter is that in the latter, the impostor is normally found out much quicker. There are many factors contributing to this and some have nothing to do with the shortfall in the knowledge or expertise of the locals.

Donna Woodward's article (Foreign Advisers and Consultants as Catalysts, The Jakarta Post April 11, 2001) was refreshing. In the first place, little if any discussion on this exists at the moment.

Second, it raises awareness of both sides of the equation. On one hand is the incapacity of the locals to properly evaluate the expatriates, while on the other, the readiness and willingness of nonexpert expatriates to assume, accept and act in the role of experts when they are not.

Given that foreign experts are normally appointed by or through a foreign aid of some sort, the issue is also instructive to donor agencies and countries.

The raising of this matter in Indonesia now is crucially timely. There is aid money now to address poverty and programs that impact the majority of poor Indonesians. It is indeed a wonder how these people live under conditions which are unacceptable elsewhere, even in Third World countries.

It is imperative that experts, whether foreign or local, be chosen using strict criteria. Commitment and dedication must head the list of the selection criteria.

It is an open secret that foreign experts, even on poverty eradication projects, live in luxurious apartments, are driven in luxury cars and certainly earn in more than luxurious dollars. Is this the fault of the foreign experts? Of course not.

The donor agencies would justify the conditions they provide their foreign experts perhaps on the basis of hardships (despite the mega malls in Jakarta and Surabaya), lack of basic necessities (in their luxurious apartments?) and the high costs of living (does anyone wonder?) and so on.

For those real foreign experts who really help Indonesia, they do deserve appropriate rewards. But who really knows who the real foreign experts are or were.

A few years ago, data from the World Bank showed that there were some 60,000 expats working in Indonesia, costing the country some US$200 million per month or $2.4 billion per annum, which is six times the IMF dropping that Indonesia has to ask cap in hand for in recent times. This was not all.

The World Bank data also showed that some 41 percent of those 60,000 foreign experts were in fact not experts at all. They were technicians whose tasks could have been done by local technicians, so some people claimed. But not everybody agreed.

At a seminar attended by over 150 managers of a state-owned enterprise, an Indonesian manager stood up and said that he would employ a foreign technician any time rather than an Indonesian technician with the same qualifications.

When asked why, he said he could trust the foreign technician to do a good job, complete his tasks, come to work on time, stay at work until knock-off time and be responsible for the job he was assigned to do.

He is probably right. But are these qualities a manifestation of a person's expertise? Or are these more of what is better known as work ethics? Even if these traits were not directly related to one's expertise, the question of course is, are work ethics not just as important in achieving what was planned or targeted?

Right or wrong, the manager had at least articulated what is perhaps preoccupying a lot of Indonesian managers' heads and hearts.

This is in fact a good start to addressing the problem of the effectiveness of foreign experts and workers in Indonesia.

In addition to dedication and commitment as the leading criteria for a foreign expert working in Indonesia or developing country, a profound understanding of his tasks in all facets is also required.

In its simplest form, it seems reasonable to expect foreign experts to contribute in improving the current conditions in the country, in whatever sector they are involved in.

That improvement has to be delivered. Otherwise, as Woodward mentioned, the foreign experts will take the path of least resistance.

Indonesian values of not wanting to offend the host, not wanting to impose cultures on the local culture and many similar excuses become convenient rationale for not doing expats' jobs. Unfortunately, there is little feedback that local authorities and recipients of foreign expertise have on shortfalls on the foreign experts' deliverables.

Those who have been involved with foreign expert services and foreign donor agency bureaucracies would also lament the lack of project management expertise on the Indonesian side.

Add to that the above attitudes, much of the potential improvements are also out of reach of those who have been given the responsibility of sometimes managing projects worth hundreds of millions of US dollars.

It is also not uncommon that projects are dominated by accounting priorities rather than project contents, resulting, for example, in unused new buildings and equipment littering the countryside, benefiting no one except some of the Indonesians involved in the project and of course the expatriates.

Also, it has resulted in reports after reports from projects after projects piling up in various government bodies around Jakarta with no one really looking at or looking after them.

No one is normally charged with the complete implementation of any of the recommendations that have been carefully detailed by the foreign experts. In some projects, it is also not uncommon that duplication and overlaps occur across projects and reports. And for these, no one can blame the foreign experts, whether they really are or not experts.

Maybe, a worthwhile short term but intensive project, funded by donor agencies and countries, should concentrate on project management and implementation.

Every project grant and donation should insist on a front-end course for the sake of those involved in the project, especially the locals. We need real experts for this, and nobody would mind if they were foreigners.

The writer is the executive director of the Indonesian Institute for Management Development (IPMI) in Kalibata, South Jakarta.

and a few comments on these articles from our Expat Forum:

Like many articles by Ms. Woodward, I found this to be an over-simplistic view without much substance. I am a foreign consultant, and part of my job is to train Indonesian staff to do what I do, the theory being that they will benefit from my skills and eventually take over my job. It is never going to happen, because it doesn't seem to be in their nature to risk their entire future on each decision, something I have to do every day and which, if I get it wrong, will cost my client company a very large amount of money. We have some excellent Indonesian consultants too, but in technical fields rather than commercial. I have one Indonesian friend who does the same job as me as a consultant for other oil companies, and he makes an excellent living; however he learned the business in America, and it shows.

Far from costing Indonesia money to employ me, like many expat consultants my salary comes from overseas and a lot of it gets spent here, including many hundred million a year in income tax. I also directly employ five people to help run my home and car, and five families can therefore eat because I'm here. Of course I have a good lifestyle here and make no apology for it, and I certainly don't object to repaying some of what Indonesia blesses me with. A consultant will generally make around double what a similar expat employee makes, but has to provide his own accommodation, car, retirement fund etc., doesn't get paid holidays or sick leave, and can spend long periods with no income at all, so it's not all roses in the garden. It's a calculated risk, which happily has so far been successful in my case; my wife however would prefer me to have a smaller income but more security.

It's true that some expats are not experts, but these don't tend to remain consultants very long. I believe that Indonesian colleagues have no objection to the benefits given to an expat consultant if they are worth the cost and benefit the company overall; if they do not, however, the cooperation they can expect from Indonesian colleagues vanishes quickly and leaves the "expert" looking like the waste of money he or she is.

Anyway, if anyone's still awake after reading this, sorry if its boring. dc

Far from sending me to sleep, I enjoyed your comments and insight, Ms. Woodward often makes bold and provacative statements which would not have been allowed five years ago, but this time she has bitten off more than she can chew, please Ms. W. check with the people in the driving seat before issuing literature which can be used in an inflammatory manner by local agitators who are permanently on the lookout for such material.

As for the article by Mr. Idrus, I have rarely observed such uninformed twaddle outside of the pages of the tabloids, his information is obviously gleaned from the few expats he comes into contact with in his position as Exec. Director of The Indonesian Institute of Management Development ( how many oxymorons there?). A quick survey amongst a group of expats revealed that not one person present was provided with either luxury car or apartment, indeed, none could remember such a thing on any posting! Presently we are the Management Team on a large Construction Project, three expats share a Kijang and we live in barrack style accommodation eating in the same mess as the local staff. There have been many comments by other people regarding Indonesian work ethics, so I will not comment further, those who know the truth know why we are here. The JP chose not to print a response to Mr Idrus' article or even acknowledge it. aj

It's simple: you can't have foreign investment without foreigners!

Every time an Indonesian tells me they think their country would be better off without the expats, I enquire whether they have ever visited a developed country ... you can guess the answer. hf

... thinking their country would be better off without the expats. If they took the time to understand why we were here they wouldn't bother wasting their breath. It's "logical" and they haven't got to that word in their dictionary yet! The ones that have, accept that we are an asset to their companies AND why we they need us here. No offence meant ref: uneducated ... it's a fact. jb

I am a consultant, and part of my job is to train the client staff to do what I do, it's called knowledge transfer. Clients depend upon their consultants to manage and communicate strategic changes and direction that they themselves don't have the knowledge (sometimes courage) to manage or communicate. For that and my experience and my technical knowledge I deserve what I am paid and then some. cc

The Jakarta Post
May 18, 2001

The Value of Expatriate Experts

By Idris Kyrway

JAKARTA (JP): The article by Donna Woodward on expatriates in this newspaper last Saturday contains some questionable statements -- but her article has the advantage of bringing the subject out of the closet.

Indonesian legislation dealing with the presence of foreigners is not thought through, sometimes ridiculous, in certain cases highly unfair, and often detrimental to the country's very own interests.

When foreign investors choose Indonesia to set up a company -- eagerly welcomed by the government -- they should have the right to protection and to fully develop their investment. Their main purpose is to exploit an available business opportunity. Charity comes after success, as in the case of Ted Turner, Bill Gates, and George Soros.

On the surface the legislation gives sufficient protection. The investors can appoint foreigners as directors or commissioners to lead the company. Directors can get a five-year stay and a work permit, renewable and without having to leave the country. Yet, until not so long ago even commissioners, except in the biggest projects, could not get such a facility.

On the other hand, Indonesia's lawlessness is exemplified by the fact that even this "favor" is not always guaranteed. Illustrative is the case of the Manulife insurance firm, with one of their managers put in prison while it was clear from the start that it was mainly the Indonesian partners who should have been grilled.

The aim of an investor is to develop a business and to earn money. Providing jobs, raising standards of living and education, environmental concerns, and so on, are all praiseworthy objectives, but secondary nevertheless. That's where expat personnel come into the picture.

If local and overseas investors were convinced that Indonesians had the same capacities, skills, work ethics, yet could be employed at a lesser cost than expats with similar qualifications, only cross-cultural differences would stop them from doing so.

If fears of underperforming Indonesians, even when they seem qualified on paper, prevail, then the profit-minded investor will look for overseas candidates he feels more confident with, because of a similar background and of shared concepts of performance, loyalty, integrity and sense of responsibility. "Overseas" does not necessarily mean "Western". It might be Hong-Kongers, Singaporeans, Filipinos, or Thais.

There is an enormous dearth of really qualified Indonesians, and even those who possess the technical qualifications or the required experience don't necessarily have the required work ethics.

A diploma, even from a reputable overseas university, is not automatically a guarantee of quality, of achievement, of work ethics of the highest standards. Academic staff at overseas universities tend to be more lenient towards guest students from developing countries. And we know all too well that the quality of universities here in Indonesia differs as night from day. Moreover, diplomas can be bought, also from overseas institutions.

Of course, local talent in Indonesia is present to the same degree as anywhere else in the world. Yet, this does not mean that the intrinsically talented people here get the same chances as elsewhere to prove their worth.

The only single example of one street child I know of who managed to break through the lack-of-education-and-funds barrier is the exception that confirms the sorry rule. This former street boy is now a top manager in a company marketing high-end fashion products, fluent in English, with a remarkably high standard of work morality. But his good fortune has mainly been the result of a chance meeting with an expatriate journalist who took him under his wing some 12 years ago.

The main flaw in Woodward's reasoning is that her arguments don't leave enough room for market instincts and market logic to prevail. And market freedom is what is required here. If Indonesians who studied overseas can't find a job back home, it means that they have concluded that their best chances for self-deployment are elsewhere.

If foreign companies are prepared to pay exorbitant bills for expats, it means that they feel more assured with higher paid but more reliable specialists than with local personnel. Even when this evaluation is at times mistaken, they have a right to such a misperception. It is after all their money that is at risk, not the government's.

Market forces should be allowed to fully play their role as guardians of natural selection and survival of the fittest, also among the business species.

If a foreign investment (PMA) is 100 percent foreign-owned there should be no obligation at all to employ Indonesians. This statement is no different from the conclusion which the government arrived at in the mid 1990s when it dropped the obligation for most PMA ventures to take Indonesian partners on board.

The rules of Indonesian shareholdership as well as the divestment regulation have probably hampered investment more than they have stimulated Indonesian participation in the country's economic development, which was supposedly the intention.

Most of the regulations still in force were drawn up under the New Order. They were conceived and written by a few individuals -- not after deep, honest and tough deliberations, but to have something on paper that would "please" the power-brokers and something the foreigners could live with, albeit grudgingly.

All these conditions of Indonesian shares, training of locals, foreign employment piecemeal, divestment, were lip service, harmful to true Indonesian interests, introduced to placate a largely illiterate populace and to meet widespread prejudices, even reinforcing the latter: foreign investors as blood-suckers, profiteers, etc.

The executioners of these "policies" -- the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), manpower ministry, immigration office etc. -- were all well aware of this hypocrisy. These officials showed a much more realistic interpretation of these rules, also, of course, because such flexibility served their own interests of tips and "cigarette money" (uang rokok).

In other words, and contrary to what Woodward states: The BKPM was not wrong to do almost nothing in this regard. After all, each expat position pays a US$100 a month just for being here, funds supposedly to be spent on the training of locals. That makes $1,200 or a bit under Rp 15 million a year plus taxes. This raises another question: Where does all this money disappear to?

The conditions for the employment of "technical advisors" is a good illustration of the ridiculous balancing between placating native prejudices and the need to accommodate foreign investment.

On paper again, everything is there: a manpower plan, education and work experience requirements for the expats, a training plan for Indonesian staff, etc. It's on paper. And that's enough.

That the rules are not serious, were never intended to be applied as such, is clear from the way that there has never been a follow-up by the departments that issued them. To the population at large the officials and politicians can maintain that they have done their job, to the foreigners that "all that is necessary to keep everybody happy".

Meanwhile, everybody seems to forget that training is a specialization in itself, and that most experts are not necessarily born educators.

Is it the role of foreigners to train counterparts to lead Indonesia's companies and to teach them correct work ethics?

Not so long ago there was even talk of importing judges from the Netherlands -- the former colonial power! -- to replace local incumbents in the judicial system. And this idea emanated from the government itself!

Moral education is something that goes back to role models in a person's youngest years, the quality of the educational system and the prevailing social environment which someone breathes day-in, day-out. An Indonesian at the age of 20 or 25 or 30 won't change his work ethics anymore because he has been working for one or two years as a counterpart of a foreigner.

At best, he might adjust his heading a bit, but he won't be able anymore to make a U-turn. And when it comes to the technical skills part of his job, for most specialties to arrive at a "master" level does not require one or two years, but 10 or 20. Those who wrote these regulations just forgot to put a zero behind the figures.

Contrary to Woodward's opinion that Indonesia should put "teeth" into its requirements for foreigners to train locals it seems more imperative to let market forces decide.

Indonesia should invite foreign investors -- and there is a majority of honest expat business people really concerned about Indonesia's future to make this feasible -- to find out which compromises are the best for our country, for attracting a maximum of foreign investment, and for the foreign investors themselves.

The writer, a former senior investment advisor to the Coordinating Investment Board, lives in Jakarta and Bali and is now a political observer and business consultant- kyrway@indosat.net.id.

And our forum visitors responses to Kyrway's article:

There's a refreshing article in today's Jakarta Post by Idris Kyrway, countering Donna Woodward's article about "expats not necessarily experts". It's interesting that Ms. Woodward (American) advocates much stricter controls over foreigners working in Indonesia, whereas Mr. Kyrway (Indonesian) thinks foreign companies shouldn't have to employ Indonesians at all if they don't want to. I disagree with that, but to me Ms. Kyrway is much more in touch with the real world out of the two. dc

I saw that too and have to say almost totally agree with Mr. Kyrway and not Ms. Woodward who was advocating the tried and tested anti imperialist, liberal argument that does not demonstrate any in depth understanding of the Syntax of expat employees vis a vis foreign investment.

I don't think all expats are experts. Many of them are truly an experts, but some of them are not (even though they pretend as if they are expert). I have worked with some expats that actually no better than a middle staff. They don't have enough brain to earned their position. But I also have worked with the smart ones and really earned their position. I think the underlying problem is that we are Indonesian people has a "low confidence" syndrome. As a nation we were colonized and treated as a low people for too long time. Unconsciously most of Indonesian feel that "bule" or western people are more superior than us. This kind of feeling giving the expats an impressions that we, Indonesia people, really are inferior. Like a saying from (I forget who) "People will see you the way you see yourself". If you think you are incapable, than people people will also think that you are incapable, regardless your true capability. ww

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