How to consult your way to wealth

Millions are wasted on consultants to perform the work that government officials are paid to do.

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So, the North West Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is the first to start talking openly about the money that is being wasted on incompetent employees and greedy consultants. Speaking at a recent event in Zeerust, departmental head Dr Kgabi Mogajane essentially admitted that extension officers were not as clued up as they should be. They were simply not up to date with the latest developments in agriculture.

Hardly news to most of us, is it?

Secondly, Mogajane bemoaned the fact that government-funded projects had become white elephants because so much of the money intended to make them successful had landed up in the hands of consultants and service providers. Surprise, surprise. And apparently, North West MEC Desbo Mohono has echoed these views. So this remarkable insight is not confined to Dr Mogajane.

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The government has been relying on dodgy consultants and service providers for years. The Nkandla debacle is hardly the first example of this sort of thing – it is just a particularly notorious one because of its size, and the fact that it involves President Jacob Zuma.

Even more recent is the R15 million upgrade to minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti’s official residence, as reported by the Sunday Times. I seriously doubt whether someone from the department actually went to the house and conducted an assessment of the work to be done. My bet is that more than half of that R15 million went straight to the consultant.

Money down the drain
So, why on earth are departments using consultants for the things they can do themselves? Take a hypothetical but easily recognisable scenario. The department of agriculture approves 30 smallholder poultry projects in a specific area. Instead of a relevant departmental employee overseeing the project, this job is tendered out to a consultant. The latter briefs the contractor, gets a quote and typically adds an enormous fee completely out of proportion to the work he or she does.

Most of these consultants know little or nothing about agriculture; they simply communicate the department’s request to the respective servicer provider – and disappear to spend their outrageous fees. None of this money ever finds its way back into agriculture. Why, if government departments have employees purportedly knowledgeable about agriculture, is this project management not being carried out internally? Idleness? Corruption? Sheer lack of skills?

If lack of skills is the problem, why not use farmers as consultants? The department could even ask farmers to mentor the beneficiaries as an added service. Apart from having the experience to manage these projects skilfully, many farmers would reinvest the money in their farms, which would mean increased food production and perhaps job creation. Let’s hope that Mohono’s and Mogajane’s disquiet is the beginning of some serious rethinking. Heaven knows our agricultural sector needs it.