How to be a successful economic advisor? Recollections from the former economic advisor to Tanzania

Updated: Mar 1

Prof. Benno Ndulu


CEoG initiated a program of writing support to African economic policymakers who have played senior advisory roles at the heart of governments in sub-Saharan Africa. The goal is to gather recollections of key economic events during their tenure as economic advisors. CEoG helps contributing policymakers transcribe and edit their recollections into at least one chapter that will form part of a ‘Handbook for Chief Economic Advisors to Government’.


These chapters will be organized around key economic events and the roles of that the senior economic advisors played in navigating their countries through the events. The chapters will document successes and mistakes, elaborating the practical challenges associated with bridging economic evidence to effective policy making. They will provide a vivid account of what it takes to be an effective advisor to political leaders. At their discretion, contributing authors will be encouraged to share practical lessons and tips for how to organize advisory functions.


Part 2: How to be a successful economic advisor


Q: How much do you think your history at the World Bank and your time in Washington influenced your working relationship with the IMF?

Oh, it mattered a lot but my relationship with the IMF and other international partners began long before my time in Washington when I was doing influential policy work as an academic in Tanzania. My decade with the African Economic Research Consortium significantly expanded my contact with the Fund and beyond, with key influential minds. I had a pretty good network of all key thinkers and actors in multilateral institutions, including the IMF. That has been one of the biggest resources I have had. When the Fund missions came they didn't look at me as somebody who didn't know. Because they knew, I knew.


Q: You are also currently serving in the economic advisory council of the South African President. Are there any lessons you can extract from the differences between the two countries?


The Economic Advisory Council in South Africa is significantly more visible but it serves at the pleasure of the President. It is a mix of more free-spirited members from academia and those coming from the policy analytical world who function more within a boundary of politically feasible options.


It is the President who is answerable and so should always have space to decide on acceptable advice. Nor should it be a matter of public record on what advice was given and rejected as that can put the President on the spot. The usefulness of the Council is not only in looking at matters of medium to long term importance, which can benefit from well-organized and patient research, but very often the President has to grapple with real time issues or those requiring action within a short period. Good relevant advice has to be able to use good informed judgement based on existing analytical work or from knowledge of similar situations.


Q: How to you use academic literature in formulating the options that you present to the President?


As an adviser I try to inform myself on issues under consideration by reviewing existing relevant literature and similar cases. There might be competing conclusions from the literature and shared experience on the same issues and I have to use my best judgment based on the circumstances and political context. If lucky I can use what I may have done myself in the past. Many want to hide behind references. You have to take responsibility for what you say and not hide behind anybody else. Of course, read, but in the end it’s your brain that has to process that. And you have to come through and be accountable to the one you advise. By the way, most presidents actually appreciate that. They don't like this hedging thing. It is not all science – the bulk of what decision makers exercise is good informed judgement and risk taking.


Presidents like to be presented with options rather than “fait accompli”. You have a possibility of enriching the President’s options for choice and let him make the call. You must also be ready to take the risk of making a judgment in terms of what you want to advise.


Q: What does an economist bring to the policy world that others do not?


I think tough choices, because economics is about scarcity and making constrained choices. An economist is challenged to lay out options, present the costs and benefits of all the options and make it simple enough that the policymaker can make an informed choice and minimize the risk of making a bad choice.


And I think it's not just economics. You must have a political mind, too, once you get close to these levels where you have to give advice. In fact, economists that succeed at that level are the ones that have that sensitivity. If you don't have that sensitivity you may say things that makes excellent economics sense but that are disastrous politically. Don’t get to the point of your “boss” exclaim “What? Can somebody do this and still survive?”


Q: Do you think economists in government fear having to support political decisions that they do not think are economically justified?


I have seen some who want to second guess what the boss says. And I think that's not useful at all. What the boss needs most is sensible options that he can consider and decide upon. You must be able to back up your advice with sound evidence or cases similar to ones under consideration.

Here is what I consider as the golden rule of sound approach to advice on contentious issues. Don't give advice that would put the leader in any position of disrepute in public including in a big audience of ministers and experts. It is always prudent to have a private conversation when it comes to difficult issues. A gallery can be poisonous. And people play to the gallery. It is wise to have first a private meeting when it comes to contentious issues to provide opportunity to exchange frank ideas and concerns without the pressure of onlookers. This is true also for visiting missions with a contentious agenda to settle. Once you have established a reasonable understanding of the issues and possible solutions, then you can get the gallery involved without being pressured to standoffs – or the pressure to determine a “winner” between the two. That's the golden rule.


Q: Do you have some examples of fallacies or misconceptions that you think persistently affect the policy debate in Tanzania or other countries you've been advising in?


A major fallacy that is broadly persistent is to show that a country is in a better shape than it actually is as virtually all leaders hate failure. Dependence is a status that every political leader hates. Most leaders want to tout that the country is capable of taking care of itself – as an expression of independence. But there is no country that exists without any kind of interdependence. Such fallacy can lead to lack of transparency and possibly to misdirection of resource allocation to support the stance.


Q: How did your personality affect your style and approach as and economic advisor?


A lot. I don't like showing off. I tend to be very considerate. I put myself always in the shoes of the person I’m advising. I value humility. Maybe sometimes some people may think it is a weakness to be humble - it is not. It has always helped me.


This post is part of our new blog series on recollections of Chief Economic Advisors.


Click here to read Prof. Benno Ndulu's recollections of the 2007-9 financial crisis in Tanzania.

Click here to read Sen Narrainen's take on how to be a successful economic advisor

Click here to read Sen Narrainen's recollections of the 2007-09 financial crisis in Mauritius.


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