International development partnerships – Why countries are still being left behind

In this blog, we look at policy and funding cycles in international development. Across the entire cycle, partner countries are still being left behind – at the cost of impact and sustainability. Key points are summarised at the end of this blog.

An example of partner countries, profiled by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE)

Since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, international development partnerships have been sold as “support to national plans to implement all the sustainable development goals”. Instead of the MDG-era process of rich countries telling poor countries what to focus on (and tying funding accordingly), the SDGs aimed to place different country needs and country ownership of their own development at the centre.

However, as we will showcase below, international development partnerships have not reformed sufficiently in terms of their governance and in particular their policy and funding cycles to allow for countries to play more than a symbolic role. Countries may now sit at the table, but continue to be left behind when the agenda, policies, and funding are set.

“Countries may now sit at the table, but continue to be left behind when the agenda, policies, and funding are set.”

Who sets the agenda?

Most international development institutions and partnerships have been in place for several decades, and all without exception have been founded by high-income donor countries or institutions.

Although the governance of these partnerships has evolved over the past two decades to include partner countries and non-governmental actors, mandates (defined as the authority to act and scope of action) and operationalisation (defined as how programs or projects are implemented, and how and when funds can be used) have seen little change.

Partner countries are de facto only given the option to join in or opt out of partnerships (and funds). More worrying is that some countries continue to be shunned from all partnerships, as bilateral relationships (heavily stacked against the lowest-income countries) dominate donor interests and most partnerships (as showcased in this ODI paper).

“Partner countries are de facto only given the option to join in or opt out of partnerships (and funds)… Some countries continue to be shunned from all partnerships.”

Who decides policy positions?

Even within partnership mandates, countries have little leeway to influence policy positions. Most international development organisations and partnerships draw their policy positions from large teams of technical experts (or outsource this to academics or consultants), the large majority of whom are located in high-income countries.

Country-level and in particular sub-national expertise is frequently consulted late in the process, symbolically (through a few days of workshops), or not at all. Much of this expertise at country and local level – critical for buy-in, context-specificity, and implementation – is not deemed as relevant or to be up to technical standards.

“Country-level and in particular sub-national expertise is frequently consulted late in the process, symbolically … or not at all.”

Where partner governments or non-governmental actors “apply” for funds, most applications have been strongly pre-tailored or co-produced with the “support” (and budgets) of partnership Secretariat or high-income partners. Country partners are informed that to receive funding, they need to fulfil expected criteria, leaving little scope for inputs or change. The result is that projects that are technically sound fully ignore national and sub-national capacities, timelines, budget cycles, and realities.

Who decides funding?

The most telling fact that countries are being left behind in international development partnerships is their lack of power in deciding where funds go. Most partnerships exclude partner countries from their governance committees that make funding decisions, and nearly all are allergic to flexible funding or general budget support (as showcased in this recent CGD paper).

“The most telling fact that countries are being left behind in international development partnerships is their lack of power in deciding where funds go.”

Even where international development funds complement national funding (or a certain percentage of domestic funding must be committed to unlock international funds), there are immense staffing, reporting and implementation costs involved for partner countries. Very few partnership funding cycles take into account national budget cycles.

Who decides implementation?

As shown above, very few international development partnerships allow for countries to determine the “what”, “how” and “when” of development projects or programs. Most projects or programs are awarded through bidding processes, or implemented through national offices and partners – most of which are off regular budgets, and not linked to long-term national staff or salaries. This leaves most projects disconnected from national realities and capacity, undermining sustainable, country-owned development.

“Very few international development partnerships allow for countries to determine the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ of development projects or programs…This undermines sustainable, country-owned development.”

Even where expatriate staffing (or worse, fly-in-out consultants) have not directly been implementing projects (usually at much higher cost), national and sub-national implementation has often fully ignored national policy or budget cycles, and has been rigidly directed through specific partnership and donor reporting requirements (or frequently, both in parallel). The result is a disconnect from national policy dialogues, decisions, and timelines – and often also a long lag in disbursement of partnership funds.

Who decides prioritisation?

With the SDGs, international development was intended to acknowledge and work with complexities and interconnections across sectors, and overcome the challenges from the MDG era, which focused on a limited number of narrow thematic areas and specific quantitative targets.

However, the reality has been that most donor countries have prioritised focus countries and thematic areas further. The result has been that international development partnerships have been pushed to mirror these narrow donor expectations. A case study looking at partnerships and country ownership shows this underlying tension, concluding that “claims to both partnership and ownership have remained tenuous”.

In other words, countries have been left with less power to decide what to prioritise, and partnerships are pushed to cater for increasingly narrow donor priorities.

“Countries have been left with less power to decide what to prioritise, and partnerships are left to cater for increasingly narrow donor priorities.”

How can international development partnerships engage countries more meaningfully?

To ensure sustainable development that puts country needs and ownership at the centre, international development partnerships must:

  1. Reform governance: Countries must have a say on funding decisions, and have a voice and power in funding committees.
  2. Align funding timelines: Partnership funding must take into account and align with national policymaking and budget timelines.
  3. Prioritise highest need countries: Partnerships must ensure countries with the highest needs receive support.
  4. Provide more flexible funding: Earmarked and tied funding should be replaced with flexible funding, or budget support.
  5. Invest in national, long-term capacity building: Partnerships must invest in and incentivise national investments in long-term capacity building (including national governmental and non-governmental staffing).

Key points summarised:

  • International development partnerships have over the past decades reformed to include countries at the table, but countries continue to have little if any say on the ‘what’, ‘how”, and ‘when” of development programs and projects.
  • International development partnerships continue to serve primarily donor interests (including donor country and thematic priorities, and funding timelines), which have become increasingly narrow and heavy on reporting requirements.
  • International partnerships must 1) reform governance to include countries in funding committees, 2) align funding timelines with country budget timelines, 3) prioritise highest need countries, not bilateral donor darlings, 4) provide more flexible funding and budget support, and 5) invest in national, long-term capacity and national staff.
  • SDG targets will only be met if country needs, ownership and sustainable policies and funding are placed at the heart of international development partnerships.

For questions, feedback, or input, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us here.

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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