In this interview, we discuss how the financing for development agenda and partnerships have changed over the past 15 years. We also speak about donor coordination fatigue, incentives for partnerships, and when partnerships are not the right instrument for collaboration.
Could you tell us about your background, and what your focus is at ODI?
I joined ODI – an international development think-tank based in London – about ten years ago and I have been Senior Research Fellow for the past five years. My time at ODI has been a whirlwind of exciting research projects and advisory work on different aspects of the financing for development agenda and on international development cooperation in particular. I have enjoyed a rather privileged position and unique opportunities to collaborate and learn across academia, Finance/Planning and Foreign Affairs Ministries across the globe, multilateral development banks and civil society organisations.
I started my career as an academic researcher but then moved first to the World Bank and then to the OECD Development Centre. I always found the bridge between academia and policymaking stimulating and challenging, and have felt the responsibility of generating solid evidence to inform decisions that could affect lives, and the importance to question policymakers’ decisions on development cooperation.
International development has probably changed quite a lot since you started in this sector. How does the current development architecture reflect these changes?
I began working on international development policy about 15 years ago, at the time of the Gleneagles G7 Summit in 2005. I have really witnessed some radical changes in the financing for development agenda since then.
We encapsulated the nature of these changes in a co-authored publication at ODI – An Age of Choice for development finance. Compared with the early 2000s, the number and type of actors contributing to international development more actively has mushroomed. These actors range from emerging donors, that had been there for a long time but their financial contributions rose over the past decade, to vertical funds, from philanthropic organisations, that expanded their international grant-making, to development finance institutions. The new landscape meant many more potential opportunities for governments and CSOs in low and middle-income countries to help the implementation of their mission and mandates. Navigating the system has, however, become far more complex now. We often asked whether and how all these actors partnered with governments and CSOs in low- and middle-income countries and, if that is the case, how best they could coordinate their efforts to reduce duplications of projects and programmes.
“Compared with the early 2000s, the number and type of actors contributing to international development more actively has mushroomed.”Annalisa Prizzon, ODI
The unprecedented systemic challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, and the responses we have already seen, will fast-track the transformation of an old paradigm of donor-recipient aid relations towards a model of international cooperation between all countries. This transformation, which has been advocated by many commentators before, was already underway pre-virus. Our research shows that many economies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific have seen their dependency on aid falling as their socio-economic indicators improved. Countries are moving away from grants and borrowing at below-market rates from bilateral, and especially multilateral donors, towards more expensive loan financing at market rates. Development partners are also increasingly reflecting on how they should forge new relations with partner countries beyond financial transfers and when aid relations evolve.
Are development organisations in your view working differently together, and with other stakeholders, if we compare the situation to 10 or 20 years ago?
Yes, most of the organisations I work with are cognisant that working together can help avoid duplications of projects and programmes, reduce fragmentation of interventions and increase the impact of individual efforts. This is a strong legacy of the development effectiveness agenda, although its visibility and energy has faded away in recent years. It might sound trite, but we are really compelled to find new ways of working and new partners because challenges are increasingly multi-disciplinary, the pace and the information overload make decision making – and recommendations – far more complex, requiring far more diversified skills, expertise and geographical reach. And even well before the Covid-19 crisis, technology – and videoconferencing – helped expand our boundaries.
There are of course lingering disincentives for partnerships – especially when competing for similar funding streams or greater visibility – but this autarkic strategy remains short-lived.
Most organisations engage in multiple partnerships. Is this a positive development? If yes, why?
Objectives of successful partnerships include achieving greater impact together than what the sum of individual organisations might be able to pursue, reducing fragmentation and duplication of efforts and freeing up resources, and having a stronger voice with thought-out solutions. But partnerships should not be considered as the default option for every single challenge. In the beginning, they require fixed costs to make them work. The risk of being too thinly spread could even damage a relationship based on trust and expertise so prioritisation of partnerships matters too.
“Partnerships should not be considered as the default option for every single challenge.”Annalisa Prizzon, ODI
Reflecting on my own experiences in research and policymaking from smaller to more ambitious endeavours, clarity about the scope and the end goal of the partnership (and, if time-bounded, its length), agreement on common objectives where each party involved has a stake in them and a similar level of ambition are all elements to make multiple partnerships work – or when their absence led to some disappointment.
Over the past years, there has been a lot of focus on partnerships at the country level. Has this changed how organizations partner, and whom they partner with?
To a certain extent, partnerships at the country level have been fading away rather than being strengthened. The principles of country ownership of development programme and alignment to national priorities are certainly still pillars of the development effectiveness agenda and are not challenged as such. However, the agenda on donor coordination mechanisms has clearly been suffering from general fatigue. And the reason for that is very similar to the issues I mentioned earlier when partnerships don’t deliver: the purpose and the objectives are not clear enough and so the incentives and benefits of participation; a top-down approach rather than a country-led and country-owned agenda.
“To a certain extent, partnerships at the country level have been fading away rather than being strengthened…The agenda on donor coordination mechanisms has clearly been suffering from general fatigue.”Annalisa Prizzon, ODI
The creation of “country platforms” was the recommendation of the G-20 mandated Eminent Persons Group on the reform of the global financial architecture that received most traction among multilateral development banks and their shareholders. Their main objective is to mobilise all development partners to unlock investments and maximise their contributions as a group – taking the argument of donor coordination mechanisms to a different level. But to make them work strong country leadership is still necessary. In my observation of country coordination mechanisms, those what went from strength to strength had strong support from government leadership, were clear in scope – often with measurable outputs – and had strong incentives for participation, e.g. a large influx of funds or need for reconstruction/recovery. The recovery phase from the Covid-19 crisis might offer that opportunity.
Could you provide examples of what you consider successful partnerships in international development, and why these are successful in your view?
I would certainly list the initiatives in the health space, such as Gavi and the Global Fund, as good examples of partnerships that delivered. They involve financial contributors well beyond national governments with a diversified funding base and voices, have very clear mandates and measurable results.
With space for reform, multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank and the regional development banks, have been successful in scaling up resources with often limited paid-in capital. Lowering the cost of borrowing for many countries – that would have not been able to access financial resources in international capital markets at reasonable rates – is one of the benefits of these cooperative institutions, a role that is often overlooked.
Do you think the value add of partnerships can be measured? How?
The role of partnerships in international development should be recognised beyond financial transfers of development assistance and beyond international development agencies (i.e. across government departments).
Rather than measuring the value add of partnerships – which might create a new conundrum as I reckon the value add varies based on objectives and scope – I would focus on designing the right incentives for organisations to partner together and who should structure and assess them. For example, organisations with similar or common memberships might benefit from greater coordination to avoid duplications or competition and to exploit their comparative advantage more effectively – even though a few areas might benefit from different voices and a certain degree of disagreement and challenge function. This might be the case of collaboration across multilateral development banks, for example. However, it is down to their common or similar members or shareholders, rather than management of individual institutions only, to make sure coordination happens – either with financial rewards for savings or direct guidelines, verified over time.
“Rather than measuring the value add of partnerships…I would focus on designing the right incentives for organisations to partner together.”Annalisa Prizzon, ODI
To what extent do you think impact determines which partnerships are formed between international development organisations, and with other stakeholders? What other factors drive the formation of partnerships?
Yes, in my experience achieving greater impact is usually the ultimate main driver of new partnerships, but there are many other factors. These are not necessarily the reduction in transaction costs – not initially, at least – and duplications of efforts. Partnerships are also set up to amplify voices and messages, reaching out to a more diverse audience, and to bring together a more diverse set of skills than already present within an individual organisation.
Not all partnerships live up to their ambitions. What do you think should happen when partnerships struggle to provide value add, or lead to more impact?
Some partnerships should reach their “sunset clause” if their objective is time-bounded and their focus is clear. This is particularly the case for research-related type of partnerships. Ineffective informal ones might simply fade away or die because the initially-set purpose was not clear enough or not well thought-out.
Some international organisations are often under scrutiny with regular reviews carried out by some of their members and shareholders or other mandated international organisations though. Critical reviews pointing out the limited effectiveness of some of these partnerships have led to several internal reforms.
If you look forward 5 to 10 years, would you hope that organizations work differently together? If yes, how?
I hope the recovery phase from the Covid-19 crisis will galvanise political leadership and commitments for global cooperation as it was in part the Marshall plan in post-WWII. It might sound optimistic given tensions on the rather diverse health response across the world, contribution to vaccine development, production and their distribution. However, the shock has been so large so far that the system cannot ignore the impact of the crisis and solutions beyond national borders.
In international development, I would really like to see rather differentiated types of partnerships based on a different set of instruments and modalities. International cooperation should not only be about transfers of financial assistance, it is much more than that. Governments in middle-income countries usually express demand, rather than for financial transfers, for technical expertise, knowledge sharing, peer learning. Knowledge sharing and technical assistance tend to be cheaper financially than large-scale project and programme implementation. However, they require a radically different perspective, diverse skills deployed across governments, incentives to work globally, possibly a longer-term approach and even greater softer skills with the recognition that solutions and policies have to be adapted to different contexts (macroeconomic context, culture).
“In international development, I would really like to see rather differentiated types of partnerships based on a different set of instruments and modalities. International cooperation should not only be about transfers of financial assistance, it is much more than that.”Annalisa Prizzon, ODI
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Key points summarised:
- Since the early 2000s, the number and type of actors contributing to international development has mushroomed.
- Covid-19 will fast-track the transformation of an old paradigm of donor-recipient aid relations towards a model of international cooperation between all countries.
- Successful partnerships focus on achieving greater impact together, reducing fragmentation and duplication, and having a stronger voice together.
- Partnerships work if there is clarity about the scope and the end goal of the partnership, an agreement on common objectives where each party involved has a stake in them, and a similar level of ambition.
- Partnerships at country level have struggled to date, because their purpose and objectives have not clear enough, and a top-down approach has been attempted rather than a country-led and country-owned agenda.
- Designing the right incentives for organisations to partner together is key to their success.