Moses Lee

Talent at the Base of the Pyramid: The Role of the Expat

expatThe traditional talent support approach for base of the pyramid (BoP) projects has been a sending model: workers/professionals from the developed world are sent by an organization to a developing country to manage a local project.

The American Peace Corps was established with the intent of sending American volunteers in “helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” Large multinational corporations have for decades sent their professionals from the developed world to start/manage local offices in developing countries.However, the sending model can be very costly and be met with significant challenges. Studies have shown that international assignments can cost three to five times an assignee’s host country salary per year. This is primarily due to cost of travel, relocation, and cost of living allowances. Outside of cost, there are also a number of other challenges for expatriates working at the BoP.? Most expatriates from the developed world are accustomed to a certain level of comfort and often struggle to work in an environment that is not as accommodating. This can limit their productivity while on the field.?

Additionally, expatriates are generally not committed to a developing country for the long-haul.? If and when an expatriate finally does adjust, it may be time for him/her to return home. In the case where expatriates hold high level management positions and do not develop a succession plan when they leave, the local project can be severely hurt in the long-run.

As a result of these challenges, many development groups and businesses are now focusing on developing native talent rather than exporting it in. The reason for this is that in general, native workers are more committed to their country in the long-run, know the local social/business networks better, and are more accustomed to the local operating environment.

However, this does mean that all expatriates from developed countries are bad and that only local workers are suited to run local BoP ventures.? I recently spoke with a returning Acumen Fund fellow and she said the following:

“The issue may not necessarily be expat verses native talent.? The real question on the ground is finding people who have the long term commitment to a community, a willingness to learn, and the humility to build a venture that serves the needs of the poor.? There are many expatriates who do meet these criteria and can be very helpful to building a local venture.? And there are many local people who struggle to empathize with the poor and have a short-term outlook on their country.”

What do you think? What is the proper role for those of us who are from developed countries in helping BoP ventures?? Should we play primarily a support/consulting/training role? Or should we continue to go, manage, and lead, despite the challenges???