Pragmatism vs Planning – How to increase international development partnerships‘ impact

In this blog we provide guidance on how to best balance pragmatism and planning in partnerships. We also look at which pathway leads to more impact. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

Getting from where we are to where we need to be

As we outlined in our blog on stakeholder mapping, most organisations do not start developing partnerships from scratch. There is a whole institutional history of relationships, expectations, and modalities of working together with others. Some of these relationships may be formalised, others may be based on individual relationships.

A stakeholder map helps organisations navigate which partners are relevant for increasing their impact, and to capture the status of engagement (active or potential).  

Partners for Impact (PFI) – Stakeholder map example (2020)

But what should organisations do if they realise they do not have (all of) the relevant partners on board that are needed to increase impact? And what should they do when circumstances change, and they need to navigate a new course with partners?

The pragmatic route

Covid-19 is an example of a change in circumstances. Many international development organisations have pivoted their focus – and also partnerships – in response to the pandemic. New partnerships and initiatives have been formed, and many existing partnerships have refocused their collaboration.

In a time of crisis, existing relationships have allowed many partners to respond to the pandemic pragmatically and fairly quickly. For example, the group of organisations who came together to develop and ensure equitable access of Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines (around the ACT Accelerator) have been working together regularly for several years, and many of the organisations are intertwined in various partnerships. The organisations involved have been able to build on these existing relationships and partnerships.

ACT Accelerator

However, as the ACT Accelerator example shows, many important stakeholders are left out when pragmatic partnerships are formed based on existing relationships. Civil society, for example – which is critically important for demand creation, community engagement, advocacy, and buy-in – has not been included in a meaningful way. This has resulted in delayed fundraising, weak advocacy, lack of transparency – and ultimately less impact to date.

The planned route

Very few organisations are able to build and change their partnerships from a blank slate. But this does not mean that planning is not possible – even in crisis times when rapid action is required.

Below we list four ways in which organisations can incorporate planning into their partnerships work:

  1. Regularly update a stakeholder map. Nearly all organisations at some point develop or outsource the development of a stakeholder map. However, nearly all organisations fail at keeping this stakeholder map updated and relevant. Especially in times of crisis, organisations should ensure they retain a focus on the impact they aim to achieve with the aid of a stakeholder map. Who needs to be on board when circumstances have changed? Who has switched their focus or needs to be brought back on board? Have other actors or organisations become relevant who need to be engaged?
  2. Regularly activate new relationships. Many larger organisations become complacent with or stuck in their partnerships, and also reach a point where they lack capacity or incentives to engage new partners. This undermines the impact they can achieve when new relevant players emerge in the sector. For example, multinational advocacy movements (e.g. on climate, gender) and national and sub-national civil society organisations are a powerful force of change and potential ally for implementation, but rarely engaged by larger multilateral development organisations in meaningful partnerships.
  3. Keep an overview of what others are already doing. One of the greatest inefficiencies in international development is that new organisations, partnerships, and initiatives are constantly being formed. Multilateral leaders, but also donors, are keen to found and lead the next new groundbreaking initiative, instead of strengthening or collaborating with existing organisations. One of the best lessons from the private sector is to invest in market research to identify a niche and value add before entering a market. This planning step is often ignored in international development, partly because of the wish to leave behind legacy initiatives, but also due to the pressure to be able to rapidly fundraise on the back of every crisis and change in circumstances. This further adds to the fragmentation, inefficiency, and lack of oversight of the international development system with each year and crisis.
  4. Retain a constant focus on impact goals. Many international development organisations are keen to leverage innovation, showcase that they are working at the cutting edge, and remain visible. This has in some organisations resulted in a loss of focus and lack of capacity and resources used for the core work program and mandate the organization was founded for. Partnerships that are formed may as a result lack any common ground or focus, and also pull the organization further away from the impact goals it was founded for. Sometimes donors also force organisations into partnerships without an impact purpose.

Most partnerships evolve or are built pragmatically, based on existing relationships. But as the above examples show, in order to achieve more impact, development organisations must invest more into planning, especially in rapidly changing circumstances or in the face of crises.

 Key points summarised

  • When circumstances change or a crisis strikes, international development organisations and partnerships need to ensure that they balance pragmatic collaboration with planning that retains a clear focus on impact.
  • Organisations should regularly update a stakeholder map to ensure they keep their focus on impact, also in times of crises.
  • Organisations should regularly activate new relationships to ensure that they have all new emerging key players on board.
  • Before establishing new partnerships and initiatives, organisations and also donors should make sure they have conducted market research to identify what organisations and initiatives already exist and could be strengthened, rather than constantly founding new initiatives that further fragment the international development sector.
  • All stakeholders involved in partnerships and the formation of new partnerships must ensure that organisations and partnerships retain a clear focus on their impact goals.

Questions or feedback: Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions, feedback, or would like to contribute to the work and resources provided by Partners for Impact (PFI).

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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