By Nemat Shafik

(Version in عربي)

Of the three main pillars of the IMF’s work, technical assistance has been a sort of middle child; it doesn’t get the attention of the oldest and youngest children, yet in many ways is the glue that holds the family together.

The other two pillars are well known: we lend money to countries in times of need and crisis, and conduct annual check-ups of their economies and financial systems, known as surveillance.

As countries around the world cope with the global economic crisis, the IMF’s technical assistance is a vital part of the work that we do to help countries prevent, prepare for and resolve crises.  Technical assistance also helps countries master the form and details to govern themselves in an effective and legitimate way.

And as we adjust our way of doing things based on lessons from the recent crisis, we have to adapt the way we work to countries’ needs and change how we measure success.

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 A new strategy for technical assistance is under discussion at the IMF and there are five key areas we need to focus on: adapting to countries’ evolving needs, more cooperation with donors, new ways to deliver technical assistance, the importance of training, and a focus on results.

Here’s why:

Serving our members best—a key objective—will require constant adaptation to evolving needs. The last few years have shown vividly how quickly new challenges can emerge. The IMF’s rapid response to the global crisis is central to our work. We adjusted quickly and we will need to be prepared to continue to do so. New and complex areas of capacity building and training will require that our agenda be flexible, encompassing areas such as advice on crisis resolution, the linkages between countries economies’ and their financial systems, and sustainable debt strategies.

Deepening cooperation with donors will make our work on capacity building more effective:  Donor contributions to finance IMF capacity building have made it possible for us to be responsive to rising demand, whether for basic or more specialized advice.

In 2011, donors financed about 75 percent of technical assistance, up from about 60 percent in 2007. And the number of donor countries has almost doubled to over 40.

We must keep alert for new ways to enhance the delivery of technical assistance.  Our Regional Technical Assistance Centers bring our expertise closer to the end-users and to zero in on key issues, facilitated by donor support.

We will officially open the IMF’s latest regional technical assistance center in Mauritius on October 17.

We are already planning and working on securing support for another regional center to serve non-Francophone Western Africa. It will be the fifth center in sub-Saharan Africa and would boost coverage on the continent.

Technical assistance and training form a continuum and complement each other. Their common goal is to build capacity to support and realize good government policies.

Training, for instance, can help officials acquire the skills they need to implement advice. After the global financial crisis struck, many countries used fiscal policy to cushion its impact, including some low-income countries that had earlier benefitted from debt relief. As their debt levels have again begun to rise, many countries are now asking for help in drafting medium-term debt management strategies.

The IMF’s technical assistance means a country doesn’t have to start from scratch.  We leverage the experience and expertise of people from over 100 countries so countries in need of help can adopt the best practices that work for them.

Our resident representatives and regional center coordinators in countries try to stay in constant dialogue with international development partners, local and international civil society organizations and others so we can cooperate with other technical assistance providers.

We must stay focused on results. An area close to my heart is how we can best measure the impact of technical assistance.

We must ask questions like: what realistic contribution can we make to help a member country meet its strategic objectives, such as bringing in more revenue to create space for poverty-reducing expenditure?

Questions like these are difficult; to answer them effectively, we must be more rigorous about our objectives and measurement.  We have much to learn from some of our donor partners. They are calling for more results-based management, which can be useful not only to inform management decisions but also to identify and more clearly communicate our achievements.

At the same time, we must be realistic about what can be achieved and measured. Economic shocks, political events, and the ripple effects from events in the United States, Europe and elsewhere will continue to influence outcomes across countries.