Increasing impact for the end beneficiary – Interview with Benoit Kalasa, Director, Technical Division, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Benoit was interviewed by Katri Bertram

“I look forward to the day when organisations will stop looking at themselves (identity) but at how collaboration, alignment, additionality will impact the end beneficiary of our actions and the business ethic that comes with.”

Benoit Kalasa, UNFPA

In this interview, we discuss how partnerships differ at global, regional and country levels, and look at how an organisation’s mandate and strategy provides a framework for selecting partners. We also talk about challenges such as earmarked funding, and organisations that are primarily focused on themselves.

Benoit Kalasa, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Could you tell us how you came to work at UNFPA, and how much you engage with external partners in your current role?

It all started in the early 1990s, when I worked at OECD-Paris on long term prospective studies based on structural population changes and was teaching at the Sorbonne. I came in contact with UNFPA as I was asked to undertake an evaluation of a training programme supported by UNFPA for African development planners; after that I worked with UNFPA in revamping capacities of civil servants in charge of developing systems for integrating population issues into national development plans. And that was the beginning of a long journey.

From that time on, I have served UNFPA in different capacities and locations, as technical lead on Population and Development for Africa, then as Representative and UNFPA Country Director in different countries, as Regional Director for West and Central Africa and now as Director of the Technical Division in Headquarters. In all these positions, partnerships have been key to advance and coordinate in the different areas of our work – building shared understanding of the challenges, looking at ways to harness our different capabilities and investments. I do believe that partnerships can bring a lot of value and impact. 

You head UNFPA’s technical division. How does this influence which partners you engage with, and how you work together?

The Technical Division is UNFPA’s global unit that contributes to the state-of-the-art technical knowledge in the areas of our mandate, and translates knowledge into tools for effective policy dialogue, capacity building and technically sound programming. Our position at headquarters provides us with the opportunity to continuously engage with technical global partners, networks, as well as regional technical teams; this in turn allows for a comprehensive coverage of the substantive global debates and their implications to the areas of work of UNFPA. My team plays a leadership role in leveraging and sustaining partnerships with governments, UN system, civil society, faith-based organizations, academia and private sector to advance the areas of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) mandate, which has an impact at technical, programmatic and political levels.

UNFPA is the United Nations sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) agency. Do you also engage with partners who do not work on SRHR, or who do not work primarily on health?

While sexual and reproductive health and rights is at the core of the Agency’s work, UNFPA’s mandate derives from the ICPD, and as such our work covers many areas of population and development. As you can see by looking at UNFPA’s three transformative results (ending unmet need for modern contraceptives; ending preventable maternal deaths; and ending gender based violence, including harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage), our work goes beyond health to embrace population data, gender, youth, inequalities, and partnerships.

Have you in your work had to identify new partnerships and partners to engage with? If yes, how have you gone about selecting new partners?

For the identification of new partners, we primarily use the criteria of:

  • Additionality
  • Innovation
  • Sustainability
  • Learning
  • Knowledge generation
  • Reach in terms of both scale and performance.

How much of a role does impact play when you discuss working together with partners? 

As I’ve said, sustainability and the potential of going to scale are key criteria we consider when building new partnerships. However, there are different levels of entering into partnerships: country, regional and global levels. At the implementation level – in countries and regions – impact is not always taken into account, or it is considered as an afterthought only.

You’ve worked with UNFPA also at the country level. Is there a difference in how you engage with partners now that you work at headquarters? 

There are some differences indeed. As I mentioned, the role of impact matters the most at country level because it’s where the implementation takes place, while regional and global levels play an enabling role or a brokering role for technical capacities and knowledge that are necessary to augment the effectiveness and efficiency of programmes. There is also a difference between these levels. For example, selecting partners at country level is more complex as the Agency might not be in the decision-making position, but in an advisory position to the Government.

“Selecting partners at country level is more complex as the Agency [UNFPA] might not be in the decision-making position, but in an advisory position to the Government.”

Benoit Kalasa, UNFPA

Can you give an example of a success that you have achieved thanks to working in partnership?

When I led UNFPA’s Country Office in Madagascar in 2006, it was thanks to a partnership initiated with the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) in the sector of rural water that we were able to connect health centers (and maternity services) to the distribution system of  clean water. This resulted in an increase of assisted deliveries by qualified personnel.

Working with many different partners can pull your organization in different directions. How do you ensure that you stay focused and deliver on your organizational mandate and goals?

The risk of being pulled in different directions does indeed exist and especially when driven by earmarked resources for specific areas of work. In UNFPA, all partnerships and external engagement have to respond to our Strategic Plan outputs, so we keep the focus and direction of programmes. As part of the Sustainable Development Goals, we also ensure the interventions are aligned and headed in the right direction. Another approach has been the alignment to countries’ sectoral plans and/or development plans, which also is a way by which the UN supports delivery of impact at country level.

“The risk of being pulled in different directions exists especially when driven by earmarked resources for specific areas of work.”

Benoit Kalasa, UNFPA

Covid-19 has forced many organizations to pivot in a different direction. Have you had to change how you work in partnership with others, or whom you work with?

COVID-19 has not forced us to pivot in different direction; it actually required us to look at those partners likely to ensure programme delivery, while building resilience of services and systems during the disruption of old implementation modalities. It has meant giving up on some roles where we cannot demonstrate the necessary agility to respond quickly (PPE procurement for example) to adopting new digital and data innovation for more evidence to bring attention on groups likely to be left behind and negatively impacted (such as older persons or GBV survivors).

If you look forward 5 to 10 years, would you hope that organizations work differently together? If yes, how?

There are quite a number of mechanisms that address key principles to guide the future collaboration of organizations in the coming 5 to 10 years. The UN Reform, the SDG3 Global Action Plan (GAP), to name a few. I look forward to the day when organizations will stop looking at themselves (identity) but at how collaboration, alignment, additionality will impact the end beneficiary of our actions and the business ethic that comes with.

You can find out more about UNFPA here.

Summary of key takeaways:

  • Partnerships can help build a shared understanding of challenges and look at ways to harness different capabilities and investment.
  • Impact matters most at country level; regional and global levels primarily play an enabling or broking role.
  • Organisations may face different restrictions when forming partnerships at the global or country level, depending on what mandate they have and role they play in each context.
  • Impact on the end beneficiary should be at the center of focus for organisations.

Published by Katri Bertram

Katri works in international development, and is a mom of four children. She is driven in her work to ensure that all people can receive quality healthcare, gender equality becomes a reality, and organisations working in these areas leverage the power of partnerships for impact. 
Katri has worked at the World Bank, where she headed External Relations for the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents (GFF), and Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation that works in 120 countries, where she headed global advocacy, policy and campaigning.
 Katri lives in Berlin/Germany, and is Finnish by nationality. She is a graduate from the London School of Economics (Master in International Relations), the Hertie School (Master in Public Policy), and the University of York (Bachelor in Economics and Politics). 
Also follow Katri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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