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

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.

Cross-posted from Future Development

About the Author
Homi Kharas Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Global Economy and Development, Development Assistance and Governance Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Business has an essential role to play in the post-2015 agenda

Every day, businesses around the world help to deliver sustainable development. Through companies’ trade and investment, job creation, and innovation, societies benefit from stronger economic growth and higher living standards. There is enormous potential to facilitate and scale-up this positive impact in the post-2015 development agenda.

However, the challenge facing many developing markets is that the risks facing businesses often outweigh the expected returns.

For instance, while the increased demand generated by growing markets provides many opportunities for businesses, the sheer rapidity of developing countries’ population growth calls for creating tens of millions of jobs every year. Consider for example that Nigeria is expected to become the world’s third most populous country by 2050, overtaking the United States. If jobs cannot be created quickly enough, countries run the risk of chronic youth unemployment and informality.

Other challenges facing businesses include political instability, policy uncertainty, corruption, and burdensome regulation, among others. Some companies can navigate these risks, but many – especially small private enterprises – cannot.

Making progress on all of these fronts will be essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and will require significant policy reform to improve the business climate and support investor confidence. In doing so, the international development community should ensure that developing countries can make use of international instruments, tools, and good practices, when implementing macroeconomic and structural policies for growth and development. The Policy Framework for Investment (PFI) is a case-and-point of an instrument that should be promoted internationally. Platforms such as the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) should strengthen focus on sharing knowledge and building public-private dialogue to improve the enabling environment at the country level for businesses to invest and support growth.

In summary, business has an essential role to play in the post-2015 agenda, but political leadership is central to shaping the environment in which businesses can operate. Cooperation between different actors and at all levels – national, regional and global – is therefore needed to mitigate risks and unleash the full business potential in developing markets.

About the Author
Thomas de Man is Chair of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC)

GPEDC Side Event at UN Summit: Using Inclusive Partnerships to Deliver on the SDGs


GPEDC Side Event at UN Summit: Using Inclusive Partnerships to Deliver on the SDGs: the Role of Gender-Responsive Budgeting

Saturday 26 September, 15:00–16:30, United Nations, New York – Conference Room 11



(Photo Credit: Ryan Brown/UN Women)

Smart Fiscal Policies Can Accelerate Progress on Gender Equality

The Co-Chairs of the Global Partnership and UN Women convened a side event at the UN Summit on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to look at the role of inclusive partnerships in achieving the 2030 Agenda – with a special focus on the role of gender-responsive budgeting. “This is not a women’s agenda. It is a common sense agenda for sustainable development,” explained Mexican Foreign Minister and GPEDC Co-Chair Claudia Ruiz Massieu.

To a packed crowd, Ministers from Mexico, the Netherlands, Rwanda, and Sweden, as well officials from UNDP, UN Women, the African Development Bank, and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development shared lessons learned on how best to accelerate progress on gender equality at the country level by applying smarter fiscal management to advance and empower both women and girls. Moderated by OECD Chief of Staff Gabriela Ramos, the discussion highlighted the fact that while gender equality is the most mainstreamed aspect of the 2030 agenda, it is also the most underfunded, and that effective and inclusive partnerships will be critical to realizing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Commitment, ownership, understanding and leadership at the highest levels of government and among partners— including donors, civil society, business, local government and parliamentarians—are required for gender-responsive budgeting to take root and be effective. At the same time, a comprehensive legal framework is a necessary underpinning to progress, one that explicitly addresses issues like land ownership, inheritance, labour and gender-responsive budgeting. For example, when women are economically active, they contribute to the very budgets that can be used to further their own empowerment. Moreover, the GPEDC’s experience of monitoring resources for gender equality using a global indicator that assesses whether governments track allocations for gender equality and how this information is made public is also an important instrument to promote accountability.

At its core, a gender-responsive budget tests the commitment of a country to resourcing gender equality, and good decisions can only be made to this end if sound measurement and evaluation processes are in place to track progress on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. As the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, and GPEDC Co-Chair Lilianne Ploumen stated, “This is not a technical issue. This is a political issue.”

Participants highlighted the wealth of knowledge available on successful approaches, and the need to translate these approaches into action.  In closing, the Principal Secretary, Ministry of Finance of Malawi, Newby Kumwembe, noted that platforms such as the GPEDC can serve as an essential mechanism for sharing knowledge about what works and why, and how best to implement such policies and practices.


Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be as much about the effectiveness of development co-operation as it is about the quantity and form such co-operation takes. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is marked by inclusivity, integration, and universality, with a fundamental shift expected in the development finance architecture. Improving the effectiveness, quality and impact of development co-operation in this context will require inclusive partnerships, innovative approaches and the application of lessons at country level.

Building on a series of high-level meetings on transformative financing for gender equality and women’s empowerment, this event showcased how inclusive partnerships can improve the effectiveness, quality and impact of financing for gender equality. It also showcased country level application of gender-responsive budgeting as a key driver for increasing domestic resources to achieve gender equality commitments in the SDGs, and demonstrated the contribution of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) as a dynamic platform for fostering mutual learning and contributing to implementation of the SDGs.

Hosted by Malawi, Mexico and the Netherlands as the Co-Chairs of the GPEDC, and UN WOMEN, this event included perspectives from a range of governments, multilateral and regional organisations, and CSOs on a number of key questions:

  • How can inclusive partnerships support country ownership and leadership for implementing the SDGs?
  • What key elements have led to increased uptake of gender-responsive budgeting and how can these experiences be used to mobilize greater investment in gender equality?
  • How can mutual learning mechanisms be strengthened to support greater allocation of resources for gender equality?
  • How can monitoring contribute to implementation and behaviour change?

For more information on the background, objectives, and format, please download the concept note.

To learn more about how the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation supports the implementation of the SDGs, please click here.