International consulting showcased its downside this week as one major overseas campaign ended in violence and controversy, and Paul Manafort was indicted on charges stemming from his work in Ukraine.
Working abroad for consultants has for decades been a lucrative practice that carried a certain amount of risk. Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who got his start internationally working on the 1994 Colombian presidential, once described to C&E being accompanied by armed guards whenever he left the office.
But usually that risk was overshadowed by the handsome payoff offered to U.S. practitioners willing to make the trek to a foreign capital and remain for the stretch of a difficult race.
But in the current environment, consultants have a harder calculus to make: security concerns and the potential for added scrutiny from federal authorities weighed against a lucrative overseas contract, albeit one that could complicate domestic work. Still, many practitioners told C&E that the international market is too alluring to stay home.
“It may sound strange but, even knowing how it turned out, I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” said Andreas Katsouris, SVP for global services at Aristotle.
In August, Katsouris together with John Phillips, who heads Aristotle International, was arrested by plainclothes security officers while working in Kenya for then-presidential candidate Raila Odinga and his National Super Alliance (NASA).
While in custody they were threatened with violence or prolonged detention unless they gave up the passwords to their electronic devices. Both men were eventually deported.
The Kenya presidential election concluded on Monday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta being declared the winner with 98 percent of the vote. The controversial rerun of the election — the initial Aug. 8 vote that Uluru won was deemed to have irregularities by the country’s supreme court — was boycotted by Odinga and NASA. Since the Oct. 26 rerun vote, some 14 people have died in election-related violence.
Katsouris said his firm sensed that the Kenyan system was titled against Odinga’s opposition party. “You never really now how much that is true until you put the system to the test,” he said. “But if you understand the environment in which you are operating, absolutely you can make a difference to the strategy and its execution. We certainly felt we brought value to the campaign in Kenya.”
Despite his experience in Nairobi, Katsouris said he doesn’t think international work is becoming more dangerous. In fact, there’s a growing demand for data services.
“The past few U.S. cycles have opened everyone’s eyes to how much more effective you can be if you get your models and targeting right,” he said. “The challenge for U.S.-based consultants is to translate that experience to an environment where there are more legal restrictions or a lot less data available, or both. But if you can get the principles right, there is a lot of potential.”
Lea Endres, who recently succeeded Jim Gilliam as the CEO of NationBuilder, said her firm is looking to expand internationally after success in the recent European elections.
“We had like seven of the French presidentials, including [now-President Emmanuel] Macron,” she said. “One hundred percent we will continue to expand internationally.”