Diversity in international development partnerships – a long way to go

In this blog we discuss the importance of increasing diversity in international development partnerships. We share some insights from research and best practices. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

International development partnerships are still primarily high-income, and led by white men

Diversity has been proven to increase innovation, a focus on facts, and also profitability. In international development, diversity also ensures that different contexts, experiences, perspectives, needs, demand, and buy-in are taken into account to maximise impact.

However, most international development organisations and partnerships still have a long way to go with diversity. For example, in global health, more than 70% of leaders were in 2020 found to be men, 80% nationals of high-income countries, and 90% were educated in high-income countries. When these leaders meet, for example to discuss partnerships or to engage in partnership board meetings, the composition of partners is highly homogeneous.

Some improvement

Organizational partnerships and partnerships that include experts in their individual capacity (for example because of their technical expertise) have, over the past two decades, become more diverse.

More people and different types of organisations are included in partnership discussions and in organisational partnerships. For example, the number of private sector and civil society organisations involved in partnerships has increased over the years, and it is now taken for granted that international development organisations must be able to showcase such collaboration. Another newer development is the inclusion of country representatives, and a shift in language from “beneficiary” to “partner”.

One example of how partnerships have expanded can be found in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) annual report, which states that “UNDP craves diversity, especially when it comes to partnerships”, and includes 600 partners from civil society alone.

A long way ahead

However, partnerships should not only be measured by whose name and logo is listed as a partner. The ability of partners to influence agenda-setting, policy, implementation, and funding decisions is more important. This means not only being publicly listed as a partner, but also having a voice and power in partnership discussions and decisions.

Too often in international development, the term “partners” is used for organisations or representatives who help organisations deliver on diversity and inclusion expectations, and receive funding or perks (e.g. travel costs to attend meetings, events or project visits) to deliver what is expected. These partners have little say on agenda-setting, policies, implementation, and funding, and find it difficult if not impossible to contribute to more transformational changes.

Diversity in international development is also often still limited to account for types of organisations (e.g. government, private sector, civil society), but fails to address partners’ diversity across gender, geographic, and ethnic representation, as well as thematic focus.

A worrying trend in international development partnerships is the limited pool of partners and representatives across partnerships. The same multilateral organisations, donors, development banks, foundations, and individual representatives tend to partner in nearly identical constellations in various partnerships. These are nearly always limited to their thematic area (e.g. health, education, climate, etc.), and most take place at a global “headquarter” level. This means that the same organisations and representatives partner and meet with each other again and again – and the same civil society and private sector representatives often rotate from one partnership to the next.

„The same organisations and representatives partner and meet with each other again and again.“

There is also great pressure and expectations to include “the usual suspects” (most often those with funding or technical credibility, e.g. from the United Nations system, or other organisations that key donors are funding), in particular in organisational partnerships. This results in very little space for new partners, and limited capacity within development organisations to partner with or even consider scoping other partners. In particular partners at country levels, local civil society organisations, partners from outside of a specific thematic field, or new entities (for example youth-led groups) are often left out – even if they could help innovate, advocate, ensure uptake, and ultimately increase impact significantly.

Partners at the core, and other partners on the periphery?

Ways to increase diversity

Many international development organisations are starting to look into diversifying their partnerships further – in part also under pressure from countries that have increasing domestic budgets for development, advocacy movements, donors, and because international development organisations themselves recognise their lack of innovation and sufficient progress. This should be further encouraged.

The following can further help increase diversity in partnerships:

  • Diversify leadership levels and governance mechanisms of international development partnerships. This needs ro include changes in power distribution to ensure a shift from tokenism to meaningful engagement and partnership.
  • Diversify representation across partnerships. Diversity should not be limited only to one organisation, bilateral partnership, or organisational partnership. Increasing diversity is a must throughout entire thematic sectors and international development more broadly.
  • Diversify individual representation. Organisations and partnerships are made up of individuals. Diversity needs to extend to include e.g. gender, geographic, and ethnic representation, as well as diverse thematic expertise.
  • Start from impact. Partnership discussions and engagement should start from an analysis of impact goals, and who needs to be at the table and involved to achieve these goals. Partnership scoping and selection should not be limited only to those who already sit in other partnerships.
  • Move beyond usual suspects involved in the “partnering circuit”. International development organisations need to build capacity and time to meet with new organisations and representatives, and not just limit discussions and partnerships to a small pool involved in other existing partnerships.
  • Open calls for applications and funding should replace selectively reaching out only to known organisations and entities.
  • Partnership criteria should be developed to help identify partners based on their ability to increase impact. This should replace selective requests for engagement that do not use partnership or impact criteria.

Key points summarised:

  • Diversity benefits individual organisations and increases their impact. Diversity also benefits bilateral and organisational partnerships, and the international development sector as a whole.
  • More diversity is needed at leadership levels and in governance mechanisms in international development. Shifts in power distribution also need to take place.
  • Diversity in individual representation in partnerships is also key, and should include aspects such as gender, geographic, and ethnic representation, and thematic expertise.
  • Partnership engagement should start from impact goals, not from who is already engaged in other partnerships.
  • International development organisations need to build capacity and time to meet with new potential partners.
  • Open calls for applications and funding based on partnership and impact criteria should replace selectively reaching out only to known organisations and entities.

Further reading:

Rock, David and Grant, Heidi, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter“

The Partnering Initiative, “Platforms for Partnership Report”

2020 Global Health 5050 Report, “Power, privilege, and priorities”

United Nations Development Programme, “Annual Report 2019”

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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