This blog looks at why international development partnerships find it so difficult to focus on impact, and often resort to delivering self-serving interests instead. Key findings are summarised at the end of this blog.
One common slogan used by international development partnerships is that they are aiming to “go out of business”. Whether eradicating a disease, building an education system, or helping countries get on track for sustainable climate policies, many partnerships state that their main interest is to deliver impact.
However, international development partnerships have other, implicit goals, too. Many of these are not listed in public communications, but can be defined as interests and include goals such as:
- mobilise the maximum amount of resources,
- grow Secretariat and partner organisation staff size and budgets,
- expand expertise and mandates, and
- increase the visibility of a partnership, organisations, leaders, and donors.
Some partnerships explicitly include some of these interests in their mission statements, mixing these with impact goals. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), for example, aims to “mobilise partnerships and investments that transform education systems in developing countries”.
Although not public, the most explicit listings of such interests can be found in internal strategic documents, as well as in individual leadership and staff work objectives.
Interests do not always translate into impact
Interests may serve or even be prerequisites for achieving impact goals. For example, a partnership that does not have sufficient staff or budget may not be able to deliver on many targets.
However, as partnerships develop and grow, many in practice face an increasing disconnect between delivering interests and impact. Most become so focused on their interests that they lose sight of impact.
“As partnerships develop and grow…most become so focused on their interests that they lose sight of impact.”
One reason is that it is much easier to raise funds, have good communications, and invest in staff numbers than creating complex and sustainable change. Having a vision for change is one thing; knowing how to deliver this in practice is more difficult.
Another reason is that incentives and targets for staff working in partnerships and partner organisations are nearly solely focused around interests. In part this is understandable: transformative and sustainable change is complex and takes a long time. Incentives, targets, and staff evaluations therefore focus solely on what can be controlled.
But what happens if the parts (delivering targets related to interest) do not translate into a coherent whole (delivering impact)? Or if insufficient or no progress on impact goals has been made five, fifteen, or even fifty years after a partnership has been formed?
What partnerships communicate in practice
Results reports and communication materials of many international development partnerships often provide clues to what happens when partnerships lose sight of impact. Compared to initial materials (focused on impact), materials produced by partnerships after several years or decades increasingly focus on issues such as resources raised, technical expertise acquired, and visibility gained in the global or national arena. They reflect how a shift takes place for many international development partnerships from impact to more self-serving interests.
“A shift takes place for many international development partnerships from impact to more self-serving interests.”
The costs of this shift are dire. Scarce resources are squandered by partnerships, and are not used to deliver on impact targets. The main cost is borne by beneficiaries or partners who should be benefiting from expertise and funds.
How can partnerships refocus on impact?
How, then, can partnerships pivot back to focus on impact, and ensure that their interests are aligned with delivering this impact?
(1) Focus. First and foremost, donors and leadership must not only have a vision (with impact goals), but also a clear strategy and implementation plan on how to deliver on these goals. Impact targets and a partnership’s value add and strategy in delivering these need to be crystal clear. If these are too vague, broad, or constantly keep shifting, it‘s impossible for staff or anyone involved to know what they are working towards, and how.
(2) Measure impact, not interests. Second, results reports and evaluations should focus on impact, not interests. If communication materials keep highlighting sums raised for an issue but not lives or climate improved, it‘s high time to take a closer look at implementation (or lack thereof). Independent impact evaluations should also be carried out regularly. If an organisation or partnership is fully off track, its leadership, strategy, composition or even existence should be questioned.
(3) Align incentives and work objectives with impact. Partnership, leadership and staff incentives and work targets should be fully aligned with impact goals – not interests. If, for example, resource mobilisers only have targets to raise more funds, communications experts to raise visibility, and leadership to position an organisation or partnership in the development architecture, the sums of interests will fall far short of or fully misalign with impact goals.
International development partnerships have been set up to deliver on ambitious impact targets. Each individual target, and their interdependence also with other constantly moving factors, makes achieving these impact targets a difficult undertaking. Disentangling impact from interests is an important step to ensure partnerships are on track to deliver impact, not just self-serving interests.
“Disentangling impact from interests is an important step to ensure partnerships are on track to deliver impact, not just self-serving interests.”
Key points summarised:
- International development partnerships find it so difficult to focus on impact, and often resort to delivering self-serving interests instead.
- Interests can include goals such as mobilising resources, growing staff capacity, expanding mandates, and gaining visibility.
- If interests don’t serve or translate into impact, scarce international development resources and partnership capacity are squandered.
- Partnerships can retain a focus or refocus on impact by: (1) having a clear, focused strategy and implementation plan; (2) measuring impact, not interests, also through regular independent evaluations; and (3) ensuring that leadership and staff objectives are aligned with impact, not just interests.
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