Partnering with Competitors

In this blog, we look at why and how competitors in international development collaborate – and how this affects impact. Key points are summarised at the end of this blog.

Collaborate, compete, or do both?

Why competitors collaborate – in theory

Collaboration in international development partnerships among competitors appears to be surprisingly common. There is even a term for when competitors cooperate: “co-opetition”.

On the one hand, such collaboration makes sense on many levels, as summarised in this article in Harvard Business Review:

There are many reasons for competitors to cooperate. At the simplest level, it can be a way to save costs and avoid duplication of effort. If a project is too big or too risky for one company to manage, collaboration may be the only option. In other cases one party is better at doing A while the other is better at B, and they can trade skills.

Collaboration, also more specifically in international development partnerships, aims to reduce duplication, share risks, and leverage mutual expertise – and increase impact.

However, digging a bit deeper, most such collaboration in international development happens primarily at the advocacy, public communication, and governance levels, not in actual implementation.

In our blog on types of partnerships, we explain how partners can keep meeting, and organisational logos can co-exist in partnerships, even when partners know practically nothing about each other, and in practice do not implement work together.

The result is that partners may, for example, form advocacy partnerships to call for increases in official development assistance (ODA), but then compete for these funds and implementation. Or they may agree on a policy position, but have fully divergent ways on how to operationalise this. “Cooperation is an overall win-win, but splitting the gains is a zero-sum game,” as the authors in Harvard Business Review explain.

In practice, partners often continue to compete for disbursement of funds, for projects and programs that are then implemented separately. The result: If partners are not successful in growing the overall pie of resources, this competition may undermine any initial gains from cooperation, or waste even more capacity and funds overall than if collaboration would not have happened in the first place.

“In practice, partners often continue to compete for disbursement of funds…this competition may undermine any initial gains from cooperation, or waste even more capacity and funds overall than if collaboration would not have happened in the first place.”

Why competitors collaborate – in practice

In practice, collaboration among competitors often has motivations that differ from the cost-saving and expertise-enhancing theory above.

As we outlined in our blog differentiating between interests and impact, competitors may join partnerships in order to serve their own interests, including gaining access to information and a new network; increasing visibility; and having a platform to advocate for mobilising more resources and stretching own mandates.

Competitors may also be driven to form international development partnerships by their mutual donors, who have an interest to ensure better division of labor, and need to prove to taxpayers and shareholders than multiple investments are justified by their sum being greater than individual parts.

Both of these above interests also explain the lack of diversity in partnerships. The same competitors demand to sit or are pushed to sit together in various partnerships.

More impact?

In both of the above cases, collaboration among competitors is unlikely to lead to more impact. Competitors may appear to be collaborating, but any gains from such collaboration are then cannibalised in competition in implementation.

“Competitors may appear to be collaborating, but any gains from such collaboration are then cannibalised in competition in implementation.”

This is why partnerships must be formed – and be kept focused – with impact front and centre. And these impact goals, with clear targets and timelines, must be regularly measured.

In international development partnerships, this means: Has the partnership in practice lifted more people out of poverty, saved more lives, or addressed climate change, etc? Has the partnership overall – not just through existing work of individual organisations – contributed more value add than its individual parts?

When do partnerships among competitors deliver?

Without clear and fixed impact targets that are regularly measured, partnerships among competitors are likely to remain primarily symbolic. Partnerships get relaunched at regular intervals, often with the same partners, around different or shifting goalposts. Impact becomes a communication tool for fundraising, or to justify new layers of governance.

In order to deliver more impact, partnerships among competitors must:

  • Identify a clear, measurable, collective impact target, which is measured at regular intervals;
  • Agree on how the partnership will be operationalised at implementation level;
  • Explicitly identify areas of duplication that will be removed, also at implementation levels;
  • Explicitly clarify a division of labor in mandates and expertise, so that the partnership does not drive further duplication; and
  • Agree on a timeline or triggers for when a partnership will be terminated.

Key points summarised:

  • Collaboration among international development competitors appears to be common.
  • However, most such collaboration takes place at advocacy, communication, and governance levels – not in implementation.
  • If partnerships are not operationalised at implementation level, they risk cannibalising any initial gains from collaboration – and may waste more resources overall.
  • Partnerships among competitors are often driven by self-interest, or pushed for by donors.
  • In order to increase impact, competitors who partner must place impact front and centre of their efforts; measure this at regular intervals; explicitly agree on work plans on how collaboration takes place in implementation; explicitly identify areas of duplication that will be removed; and agree on a timeline and triggers for when a partnership will be terminated.

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

Published by Katri Bertram

Katri has worked in global health, global public policy, and international development for 20 years, and is a mom of four children. She is driven in her work to ensure that all people can live healthy lives, equity becomes a reality, and the power of inclusive partnerships is leveraged for more impact. Katri most recently worked at the German Federal Ministry of Health on global health, focusing in particular on Germany’s G7 Presidency in 2022, G20, and the Ministry’s partnerships with non-state actors. She previously worked at the World Bank, where she was a member of the leadership team, heading External Relations (governance, fundraising, partnerships, and communications) for the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents (GFF) and worked in External Relations at the World Bank’s office for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. She has also worked for Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation that works in 120 countries, where she as a member of the global executive leadership team headed global advocacy, policy, and campaigning. Katri is a graduate of 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). Katri is fluent in English, German, and Finnish. She has received scholarships from Chevening, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES), Berlin School for Transnational Studies (BTS), the Finnish Government (CIMO), and the Hertie Foundation. Katri lives in Berlin/Germany and is Finnish by nationality. Also follow Katri on LinkedIn, Twitter, and on her personal blog, and follow her initiative on partnerships in international development (PFI) and having children and a career in Germany (KarriereFamilie). The contents of all blogs are personal and do not reflect the positions of any employers.

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