The promise and pitfalls of partnerships in tackling extreme poverty around the world

Yesterday, Erik Solheim, chairman of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, summarized the moral case for international development cooperation by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s remark that “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Solheim, in a modernized version, challenged the audience to ask “If the presence of extreme poverty in the world today is not wrong, then what is?” This provided the backdrop to a discussion of how to implement the sustainable development goals and, in particular, the first goal on ending extreme poverty.

The venue was Brookings, where I was moderating a discussion and Solheim was launching the OECD’s 2015 Development Cooperation Report. In discussing the report’s findings, Solheim highlighted the significant potential for partnerships as coalitions for action. He underlined the progress that partnerships have already made, citing 7 million lives saved as a result of just one vaccination and immunization partnership.

Partnerships are an intriguing new tool for driving progress in the developing world. They are a hybrid between unilateralism and multilateralism. In today’s world, no actor, even one as large and powerful as the United States, can be successful if acting on its own. If nothing else, local ownership—by governments, business, and civil society organizations—is now generally recognized as key to any development progress, so unilateralism cannot work. But multilateralism, too, has its drawbacks. It can take a long time to achieve consensus when many different parties have a voice—witness the Doha Development Round of trade talks or the negotiations over climate change. Partnerships can provide space for action while such discussions are taking place and even change the facts on the ground to make reaching consensus easier. Solheim used the example of the U.N.’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) program to create new facts on the ground that will make it far easier to agree on net carbon emission targets at this year’s climate change negotiations. Following Solheim’s presentation, we had a highly engaging panel discussion with Elizabeth Cousens, deputy CEO of the U.N. Foundation and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council and Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator for Policy, Planning, and Learning at USAID. Cousens saw partnerships as “very possibly” a game-changer for international development. She pointed to numerous elements of the Sustainable Development Goals framework that wouldn’t be possible without the experiences of building new partnerships, and commended multilateral organizations like the U.N. and the World Bank for their leadership in many of these efforts. She also highlighted the different nature of partnerships at local and global levels and emphasized that partnerships need to invest in core foundations—trust, monitoring systems, transparent and honest learning—before they can be successful.

Thier saw partnerships as the natural bridge between official development projects and sustainable, locally owned projects. United States’ oft-cited HIV program and others are all intended to gradually be owned by their local beneficiaries, Thier said, and partnerships help this process along by bringing civil society and others into the conversation early and driving the very politics needed to make these programs self-sustaining at a local level.

I asked Solheim if successful partnerships were always based on a group of actors pooling their financial resources to achieve scale economies, like the Advanced Market Commitment of the vaccine alliance. If that was the case, then partnerships today could face difficulty as official development assistance is very difficult to mobilize.  Solheim disagreed that money was the key driver of success. He pointed toward Indonesia’s efforts to reduce deforestation. Indonesia was eligible to draw resources from the U.N.-REDD program, but chose not to do so because much of what it accomplished did not cost money—it was achieved by the political leadership shown by then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who rallied his government ministers, businesses, and civil society groups around a fundamental shift in norms and behavior that dramatically reduced forest clearing for plantation activities.

Each of the panelists warned that partnerships are not a panacea and there have been many failures when success factors (the DCR 2015 report identifies 10) are not present. For example, partnerships need good metrics of outcomes, outputs, and inputs to identify if change is happening fast enough, and, if not, what needs to be done to accelerate progress. Data on many development issues has been poor, but powerful new tools and technology are now available: satellites can measure changes in tree cover down to a single tree; governments can compare illness statistics after a vaccination program. Of course in other areas (for instance, education), outcomes, like learning, are still difficult to effectively measure and the “production function” (how do we get improvements in learning) can vary in different contexts.

Each of the panelists referred to the learning and innovation potential of successful partnerships. In too many areas of development, there is still a lot to learn about the most effective interventions. Moving from anecdotes to a systematic learning culture is not easy.

But the real obstacle to successful partnerships, the panel agreed, is risk-averse political leadership. It’s no surprise that using tax dollars to eradicate poverty in far-off places can be a risky endeavor, especially when one considers that attention must now focus on the most challenging and conflict-prone areas of the world if we are to leave no one behind. So bold bets on development are needed, but most politicians prefer not to rock the boat. Their careers can be ended when programs go awry, and they rarely get praise when programs are successful (indeed, they may have long since moved on if results only show up in the long term). But without political support and strong leadership, partnerships cannot be successful. Generating greater tolerance for risk and learning more from failure may be hardest problem in implementing the new Sustainable Development Goals.