Happy endings? Why international development partnerships rarely end.

“Partnerships never die,“ Amanda Glassman, Executive Vice President at the Center of Global Development (CGD) stated in a recent interview. In this blog we look at why this is the case, and what the implications are for the international development sector and its impact. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

Clear end and impact or just new pathways to somewhere?

What’s new?

There are 5,185 multi-stakeholder partnerships related to the SDGs that are officially registered with the United Nations. Every month – and at least at every large summit or during every crisis – new partnerships are announced.

This is sometimes a good thing. Different partners coming together can raise awareness, solve a challenge through collaboration, or include stakeholders whose buy-in is critical. Diverse partners can develop innovative solutions, implement projects differently, and reach new population groups.

However, as Kirsty McNeill, Executive Director at Save the Children UK has explained: “successful partnerships require radical inclusion – of people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and people from different types of organisations.“ Most international development partnerships involve the “usual suspects” in the sector, and do not prioritise diversity.

Foundation frenzy, implementation fatigue

A common scenario in international development is that there is a lot of energy around the formation and announcement of new partnerships. Ambitious goals are announced, donors and partners are applauded, and expectations are set high that this new partnership will meet targets where others previously failed.

However, very little planning goes into how partnerships will be implemented, and who is critical to have on board. In international development, this has been for decades been the case with implementing countries (deemed primarily as beneficiaries) – and continues to be the case for civil society. The result is that academically sound plans developed by highly-educated specialists in high-income-based headquarters have failed to meet the needs or reality of where implementation occurs – at country and community levels.

“Academically sound plans developed by highly-educated specialists in high-income-based headquarters have failed to meet the needs or reality of where implementation occurs – at country and community levels.”

In practice, this means that many partnerships fairly quickly run out of steam due to implementation delays, challenges, lack of buy-in, and costs.

Exit plans

“When partnerships run out of energy, in an ideal scenario there is a clear exit,“ Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director of Women in Global Health has stated. Unfortunately, most partnerships fail to develop exit plans at an early stage, and most never do. Many have never developed criteria for their partnerships. The common result is that many partnerships begin to go through “identity crises”, or junior staff members or even consultants are delegated to act as representatives – without any authority to contribute meaningfully or make decisions. In both cases, partnerships have de facto become “partnerships without a purpose”.

As Michael Sheldrick of Global Citizen has stated, in such a situation a “reset through a clear and written re-articulation of shared responsibilities and outcomes” may help. However, this process has to happen at a level of leadership and authority. Otherwise an endless process of “identity searching” meetings gets triggered, for some partnerships over multiple years.

Ideally, leadership levels or donors fully pause funding or pull the plug on “partnerships without a purpose”. Unfortunately, many staff members, leaders, and even donors are not publicly willing to show that what they founded and have spent valuable resources on has failed. No-one gets applauded for closing down a partnership. Rather, many people continue to benefit from having meetings to attend, from the network it provides them access to, and from a frequent lack of oversight that would lay challenges bare.

End it? Let’s refocus

As Amanda Glassman also noted in her interview, many donors and leaders want to leave behind legacy projects. However, many partnerships also continue to stay alive because instead of achieving an ambitious target, the target gets shifted.

“Many partnerships continue to stay alive because instead of achieving an ambitious target, the target gets shifted.”

This refocusing of mandates and targets may happen when conditions change or a crisis strikes (eg. Covid-19, or climate change), or when new niche areas emerge where partnerships hope to build value add (eg. digitalisation, data systems, community engagement).

Again, these developments may have positive effects. Instead of constantly founding new partnerships, old partnerships (and their Secretariats or Coordinators) are repurposed.

However, the right players are frequently not on board in terms of the expertise or implementation capabilities that would be required. Or, equally commonly, partners disagree what the purpose should be. In particular in partnerships with multiple donors, there exists “the risk of being pulled in different directions…especially when driven by earmarked resources for specific areas of work,” as Benoit Kalasa, Director at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) explains in this interview. The result may be the worst of both worlds, where a partnership lacking a purpose is not terminated, but also fails to find a new common purpose. It is left too fragmented to have impact, or in endless limbo.

“The result may be the worst of both worlds, where a partnership lacking a purpose is not terminated, but also fails to find a new common purpose. It is left too fragmented to have impact, or in endless limbo.”

What does this mean for impact?

Ultimately, international development organizations operate with scarce resources. Development requires funding and the capacity of people, both which are finite and scarce resources.

As all larger or funding partnerships also operate with governance mechanisms, and many are formally institutionalised (with Secretariats, donors, support functions, etc.), many also require another scarce resource – time.

Partnerships therefore always involve many costs. The question is whether these costs are justified based on the impact achieved.

One measure of success and impact should be whether core targets set out by partners have been met. Have the end goals been achieved, on time, and within budget? Or are partners waving new exciting plans around, or minor, periphery results, in the hope that this justifies costs and even more funds?

If core results have not been achieved, why not? Do changes in conditions or circumstances justify what has been achieved to date? And what is needed to achieve the original core targets? New partners? New ways of working? Could a fully new partnership resolve these challenges more efficiently than reforming an existing one?

Very few partners and donors are currently asking these questions in an honest way. If they would be doing so, many more partnerships in international development would be terminated.

Very old wheels

International development organisations and partnerships have learned many important lessons over the past decades. They hold important expertise and institutional memories. Not everything needs to be terminated when challenges arise, and many wheels do not need to be reinvented but can be repurposed.

However, when looking at the lack of diversity in most current partnerships, and in particular in who is driving (ie. funding) them, it is evident that the current wheels in international development are no longer fit for purpose.

International development actors, leaders, and in particular donors need to be bolder. It’s high time to close down a number of international development partnerships that have for decades not delivered on their core targets. And it’s high time to raise the bar for all organisations and partnerships to focus their full attention to deliver on impact. This requires radical inclusion, a solid stakeholder map, partnership criteria – and explicit exit plans.

“It’s high time to close down a number of international development partnerships that have for decades not delivered on their core targets.”

Key points summarised

  • Partnerships can raise awareness, solve a challenge through collaboration, or include stakeholders whose buy-in is critical.
  • Very little planning goes into how partnerships will be implemented, partnership criteria, or into developing timely exit strategies.
  • Many partnerships become “partnerships without a purpose”, and fail to deliver impact as partners and donors disagree on goals or a common purpose.
  • Instead of meeting targets or impact goals, many partnerships shift targets, or showcase periphery results as successes.
  • Partnerships use scarce resources, staff capacity, and time. These costs should be evaluated against impact targets, and where needed, partnerships should be closed down.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: