January/February 1994 Issue #28


Until recently, Non Governmental Organizations in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe had little contact with Western consultants. Suddenly consultants seem to be appearing everywhere. If members of NGOs understand consultants' goals and methods, strengths and weaknesses, they will be better able to evaluate the potential contributions and pitfalls of working with consultants. Consultants inspire a wide range of positive and negative reactions; like other forms of cultural contact, they pose both an opportunity and a challenge.

Defining Consultants

Environmental consultants are individuals or groups of individuals with technical, scientific, policy making, or engineering specializations. Larger consulting organizations combine some or all of these areas of expertise.

Consultants are paid to help design and/or evaluate plans for siting and building projects such as dams, landfills, nuclear waste sites, electrical power plants, and factories. Consultants are also used to evaluate polluted areas and recommend strategies for cleaning them up or to develop plans for establishing nature preserves. Some environmental consulting groups specialize in policy making: they draft legislation for government or for an industry which may want a specific regulation enacted. Other consultants specialize in risk assessment and environmental impact statements which identify probable risks to human health and the local environment associated with proposed projects. The term "consultant" has become as confusing as the term NGO, or Non Governmental Organization. Like NGOs, consulting organizations vary in size from one or two persons operating out of a home or small office to giant multinational corporations with budgets in the millions of dollars.

Expanding the Definition of Consultant

While the term "consultant" is most commonly used to describe a professional for-profit company, the term can equally well describe the informational activities of many non-profit public interest organizations. Too often, NGOs hesitate to call themselves consultants for fear of being mistaken for a profit making organization. However, by modestly claiming to be "independent NGO advocates", instead of NGO consultants, citizens' groups often abandon much of the professional stature and credibility that is automatically accorded to paid professional "consultants". Many decision makers and other segments of society do not value "free advice" as highly as paid professional opinions. They joke that "free advice" is worth what it costs.

If NGOs too often avoid claiming the title of consultant, it is also true that too many self-proclaimed consultants benefit from their professional titles even though the quality of their work falls far below the standards of unpaid NGO experts or even the more fundamental criteria of common sense. We have attended numerous public meetings announcing a controversial environmental project where a crowd of ordinary citizens uncovered embarrassing math errors, factual errors and unproven assumptions presented by professional consultants. Unlike lawyers, engineers, doctors, and most other professionals, consultants in the United States are not licensed and the profession is not regulated by the government. In the environmental information marketplace, the best advice is "buyer beware."

It is clear that almost anyone can assume the title "environmental consultant". But who deserves to be referred to as an environmental consultant? The answer determines whose advice will be heeded, who will be respected, and who will get paid and therefore be able to continue influencing environmental policies and actions. Perhaps the time has come for NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to simultaneously enhance their credibility and their treasuries by selectively providing fee for service consulting.

A Code of Ethics for Consultants

Consultants profess a doctrine of technical neutrality and subscribe to the methods of empirical science. This means that a consultant should view a client's proposal or project and its technology with all of the skepticism and objectivity of a laboratory scientist. Evidence should be gathered and examined impartially, and an informed conclusion developed within the limits of available evidence and without reference to the financial interests of the consultant or the client. As is the case in the field of science, consultants should publish or otherwise make publicly available their conclusions and supporting evidence. They should also welcome the review of their work and their conclusions by qualified peers. Consultants who reject this concept of peer review should be looked at with the same skepticism as scientists who refuse to share their results with peers.

Distorting Facts for Profit

For decades, tobacco industry consultants claimed that there was no real evidence that smoking is harmful to human health. Both professional and NGO consultants too often serve clients before the truth. Consultants are often not technically neutral and routinely violate the principles of scientific truth. For paid consultants, the pressure to bend the truth is financial; the incentives are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in future contract work with the client. Too rarely does a for-profit consultant conduct a feasibility study (a preliminary investigation into the economic and technical viability of a project conducted before serious planning occurs) and tell a client that a project is too expensive, cannot be engineered at a socially acceptable cost, and should be abandoned. Such a negative recommendation is difficult for most consultants to deliver as the consultant generally hopes to continue work through the more ambitious and profitable planning, engineering, and construction stages of the proposed project.

ECOLOGIA is most familiar with technical consulting performed in the field of municipal waste incineration in the United States. The record of faked data on air emissions and mis- representation of costs in this field is extraordinary and frightening. Consultants hired by the nuclear industry have asserted that "fail safe" technology would prevent accidents.

Your Choice of Consultant Can Make A Difference!

Environmental health experts in the asbestos and coal mining industries have routinely denied and covered up environmental health threats to workers.

Distorting Facts for Profit in the "Public Interest"

Although environmentalists may accept the fact that consultants who work for industry and government frequently distort scientific evidence, it is uncommon for them to acknowledge the same routine practice in their own community. NGO consultants can also be tempted to distort facts or to exaggerate potential but uncertain threats. They may justify their misrepresentations as being in the "public interest". But, as in the case of consultants working for industry, economic interests often are the motivation for misapplying science.

In the interest of providing a balanced view of how consultants operate in the real world, we asked some of our colleagues if they had personal experience with distortions by consultants hired by NGOs. Following are explanations of some situations and their results.

SITUATION # 1: Over the last few years, NGO experts have issued alarmist pronouncements about the severity of environmental problems. For example, environmental experts across the former Soviet Union have frequently asserted that their local ecological problems are "worse than the Chernobyl disaster". The intention of such exaggerations is undoubtedly to emphasize the need for outside support. RESULT: Aid has been discouraged as the situation was made to appear hopeless and unsolvable.

SITUATION # 2: Several international environmental organizations were premature in declaring that global climate change is a reality and an immediate threat. But scientists still do not understand the process. The public is confused. A weary and emotionally exhausted public is beginning to ignore many warnings, including well founded concerns about ozone depletion and about future energy shortages.

SITUATION # 3: International NGOs and zoos focus publicity and fundraising efforts on threats to species such as giant pandas, African elephants, and whales because of their enormous popular appeal. They claim that by developing "safe havens" in countries of origin, or by relocating animals, these species can be preserved. RESULT: Zoo purchases are depleting the existing wild animal population, in some cases reducing the chances of successful reproduction. With African elephants in Zimbabwe, lack of attention to the habitats of the animals has resulted in the deforestation of overly small reserve areas, the destruction of other species, and problems for the local farming communities.

SITUATION # 4: Citizens in a community are concerned about a local environmental problem, such as a leaking landfill. They hire a consultant to evaluate the situation. The consultant intentionally exaggerates the severity of the problem so that they will hire him to do further tests. RESULT: Citizens and regulatory agencies spend money, time and emotional energy on something which is really not a problem. Only the consultants and the lawyers benefit.

SITUATION # 5: Public concern in the United States over exposure to hazardous wastes led to the passing of Federal Superfund clean-up legislation in the 1980s. This set up a mechanism for certifying an area as highly contaminated and eligible for Federal clean-up money. Consultants claimed that by digging up and removing the hazardous wastes, environmental quality could be improved. RESULT: Wastes were moved into other communities, where they still leaked. Billions of dollars were spent. Bureaucrats, lawyers and consultants received most of the money allocated to clean-up efforts, in legal wranglings over where and how to move the wastes.

Making Room For Consultants In Emerging Democracies

Whenever consultants put the financial interests, political agenda, or policy statements of their clients above the truth, the result is ultimately costly and damaging to the environment and to society. Thus bad science produces bad public policy.

But in a world of increasing environmental problems and decreasing financial resources to deal with these problems, consultants can make a vital contribution. They can operate above the political arena and short term financial interests of individual clients and provide us with the information we need to be rational, to apply our limited financial and technology resources to ecological problems.

Much of the responsibility for the failure of consultants to live up to their potential is not the fault of the consultants themselves. It is the failure of the public, of NGOs, of industry, and of governmental officials who often do not want to be troubled with the extraordinary complexity of ecological problems. One local official in Pennsylvania summarized this feeling after hearing a two hour presentation by an internationally recognized consultant who presented evidence that challenged the claims of a previous government paid consultant. The official snarled, "I do not want to be confused by the facts".

Consultants play an increasingly important and valuable role in emerging democracies. As specialists they can provide information that average citizens and local governments do not have. However, the policy recommendations of consultants are not a substitute for broad based and informed citizen participation in political decision making.


Citizens must learn to evaluate the opinions of environmental consultants critically and intelligently. In order to to do this, citizens in emerging democracies must have access to a variety of consultants' opinions. While foreign consultants will contribute valuable information, they must be balanced by indigenous organizations which can act both as partners and as informed critics. The next issue of the ECOLOGIA Newsletter will examine several varieties of relationships that environmental NGOs are establishing with foreign consultants.

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