Why consultants lie

Peter Griffiths

One person, one economist, can get a government to change its policy. I have done it. Often. It is what I do for a living. My book, The Economist's Tale (Zed Books) shows one case where I did it. This time, I stopped a famine.

The White Man's Graveyard, they used to call Sierra Leone. It was the Black Man's Graveyard when I worked there. Half the children born died of hunger and disease before they were five. Life expectancy was the lowest for any country in the world.

I hoped I could do something about it. I had come from England as a consultant to do an economic analysis of food policy in four months. I was starting from scratch, as this was one of the few countries in the world with no agricultural economics and marketing department.

Economics is about people, so I started by listening to people. First there were the courtesy visits to my employers, the Minister of Agriculture, the Permanent Secretary and the Director of Agricultural Planning. This was my attempt to find out the hidden agenda for my study, what they really wanted but would not put on paper. Then I spoke to everyone I could find working on agriculture; people in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the Ministry of Commerce, in the Central Bank; the foreign aid projects in Freetown and up country; the rice wholesalers in their dark warehouses behind the bazaar, and the market women squatting on the floor, bags of rice in front of them, bargaining with customers before measuring out a cup-full or two of rice the farmers in the paddy fields and the consumers in the streets and markets.

I must have spoken to well over two hundred people in the first two months. It would have been impossible in Britain, of course - it would have taken six months even to make the appointments. However, Sierra Leone's telephone system had collapsed since independence, so nobody expected appointments. Instead I would knock on the door of a civil servant and say, "Hello! I am Peter Griffiths. I am doing a study of food policy for the Ministry of Agriculture. Can you help me please?"

Their faces showed their thoughts "Oh no! Not another consultant. I spoke to two yesterday, three the day before. I must have spoken to a thousand over the last ten years. I tell them all the same thing, and they put it in their reports, but nothing ever happens."