Is DFID convening enough for impact at scale?


I welcome the UK’s intent through the Department for International Development (DFID) to become a much bigger catalyst for new international partnerships between public, private and the third sectors. DFID has convening power – not least because it has significant resources – it takes a results-based approach, and it covers all dimensions of poverty reduction. DFID’s so-called ‘Great Partnership’ initiative, referenced in the Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt’s speech at the BOND conference this month is built upon a widely held view of the need to accelerate efforts to meet the world’s highly ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs). While Brexit and UK self-interest probably has an influence as well, Mordaunt is right that British organisations and institutions of all sizes hold deep experience in all kinds of areas from child safeguarding, to forestry management, to better sanitation, to research and ‘big data’ – these and many other areas could bring mutual value internationally through new partnerships.

DFID and like-minded institutions should ask themselves two questions as they consider their potential value addition: how might we consistently catalyse institutions and partnerships to operate collectively to pursue large-scale change? Could more of DFID’s resources be better placed to convene actors and better align efforts, while also catalysing complementary resources for scale up and impact (as opposed to investing in a new programme)?

Business as usual?

It isn’t enough to simply create more bilateral connections between a UK organisation and an organisation in Africa or Asia, even though that would probably provide mutual value. While hundreds of these would be a good thing, a systems perspective suggests that supporting lots of such small-scale connections is insufficient to reach the scale of collaboration to achieve the SDGs. As Mordaunt herself points out in the speech, we only have 11 years to get this right and perhaps only the next 5 years to build the partnerships that can deliver the desired impact through the mid-late 2020s.

Systems change

There is growing evidence, understanding and appetite for systems change initiatives often with a collaborative fabric of partnership at the core, that might draw together 10s, 100s or even 1000s of actors together across a country, region or continent, in pursuit of a shared goal. This is not new, though it is being better recognised for what it is – for example, see the Stanford Social Innovation Review here and here. Wasafiri has experience too here. These efforts are often very hard and take a long time, but the impact is often more than commensurate for the pain experienced. Perhaps this is part of the future for more effective government aid, as more philanthropic aid becomes available?

In the meantime, philanthropy is moving ahead. Funding is emerging from global organisations to support this approach. Co-Impact is a valuable but fairly lonely example of this (here).

Significant and long-term collaborations need support to act across and within sectors, drawing stakeholders and existing resources together through greater alignment, and purpose towards collective goals. Sometimes these are not ‘tight partnerships’ but loose coalitions of actors convened to point in a common direction, that enables better mutual value from each actor; the sum derived of the parts interacting better together is the real benefit. The Scaling Up Nutrition movement is a notable example, among many others.

Where are the convenors and connectors?

International development in any particular country or region is a busy and complex space, so where are the convenors?

System-wide investment is needed in the volume of individuals and organisations that are capable of convening across thematic and sector spaces and to do so effectively. For instance, David Nabarro has called (at a lecture at Imperial College in November 2018) for much greater incentives within the domains of science and much more widely for incentivising the role of collaboration across sectors and institutions, in support of the SDGs (here).

Connectors are needed across sectors and between partnerships, and they need to be credible, valued and they need predictable resourcing. Strong political and institutional skills are essential to build partnerships and looser coalitions, alongside a strong commitment to the overriding purpose for which actors are striving.

At a local level DFID is starting to support a convening approach. In Kenya for instance, DFID is supporting a multi-stakeholder partnership to reduce extreme poverty across the country, to ensure the poorest households are not left behind. This is an ambitious effort and DFID is acting as a convenor in the space working with the Government of Kenya. This is new and exciting, and it involves DFID staff working in new ways. The approach involves building understanding and action across Government, major donors (e.g. EU, USAID, Gates Foundation) and NGOs to scale up economic support packages for the poorest households, to enable them to work themselves out of the deepest forms of poverty. The initiative holds promise to help Kenya meet the SDG 1, though the ambition is a ten-year journey and we are only in year 1. See: Graduation from Poverty in Kenya

Is DFID doing enough?

While encouraging, and there are more examples across DFID’s work, this feels like a drop in the ocean. Where is DFID’s Co-Impact approach? Partnering and supporting the connectors to shape loose coalitions of partners, operating at scale is key and DFID could, and indeed should, develop funding instruments capable of ‘patient convening’ in this manner. DFID is also well placed to encourage the sector including other government donors to go down this path. The Great Partnership initiative strikes me as a suitable vehicle to enable this.