Forging operational partnerships between foundations and the World Bank

Rien van Gendt

Since James D Wolfensohn joined the World Bank Group as its President, he has made it very clear that he wants to see mutual understanding and effective cooperation between the Bank on the one hand and foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the other. This article is the first in a series assessing how these relationships are developing in practice.

At a number of meetings in the US and in Europe the following questions have been discussed:

  • How can the Bank and foundations work together as partners and what type of collaboration should be undertaken?
  • How can the Bank – while having to work via governments and abide by its own rules – involve NGOs as implementing agencies?

Working together in Kenya

While high-level dialogue about improved communication and effective cooperation has taken place and will continue, the Bank and the foundation community have also begun to identify concrete opportunities for operational partnerships. Recently an opportunity arose for the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and the Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF) to work with the Bank in Kenya, a country where both foundations have long-term experience in the development of early childhood activities.

The opportunity arose when the Bank and the Government of Kenya agreed upon a loan for early childhood development. Part of that loan will be used for ‘community support grants’. It will be disbursed to local NGOs in Kenya, channelled through international foundations. As a result of a bidding process the AKF and the BvLF, in a specially created joint venture, were selected as one of the partners responsible for handling the community support grants (the other partners were Care, African Housing Fund and ActionAid). For the Bank and for the Kenyan Government, foundation involvement has several advantages:

  • The foundations bring in their accumulated experience in Kenya.
  • They add grant money to the loan.
  • They ensure the money reaches local NGOs – thereby contributing to the development of civil society in Kenya.

An ongoing assessment

In the framework of this project, AKF and BvLF have decided to make a careful assessment of the institutional relations between the World Bank, the foundations, the local NGOs and the Kenyan Government. It is hoped that valuable generic lessons will be distilled from this process.

In this article I will not anticipate the outcomes of this assessment. But I would like to make seven observations regarding partnerships between the Bank and foundations, based on BvLF’s own experience over the past years and on the experiences of my colleagues in other European foundations.

Translating intentions into action

First of all, it is obvious that partnerships between the Bank and foundations become complicated once global visions and honourable intentions are translated into concrete action. Looking at it from the side of the foundations – and the Bank can, in my opinion, be equally critical of the foundation world – they sometimes experience delays, and a lack of transparency about procedures being followed and about organizational structures in the Bank.

Because the Bank and foundations do not have much experience in working together, cooperation should never be considered a one-off venture: it should involve continuous commitment to the principle of partnership and the adoption of a ‘learning by doing’ approach.

Understanding the strengths of each

Second, it is important that each partner should have an open eye for the different strengths of the other. The Bank needs to understand better the strengths of foundations: their flexibility, closeness to the ground, provision of social venture capital, access to grass-roots experience, and independent voice. Foundations in turn should take advantage of the Bank’s strengths: the possibilities of moving to scale, making a wide impact, replicating projects and engaging governments in designing policies. Staff exchange programmes and joint projects could be considered in this context.

Working with governments

Third, it takes three to tango. It is good that the Bank and foundations are positive about the potential of cooperation but in the end the national governments have a very strong say in what actually happens. Many governments do not really feel comfortable with civil society institutions such as foundations and NGOs. There is sometimes even a feeling of suspicion. Combined with the Bank’s fear of intruding on national sovereignty, in practice this means that governments often complicate the implementation of what were supposed to be joint projects between the Bank, foundations, governments and local NGOs. The Bank should put pressure on governments for transparency of operations, and for consultations with participating foundations and NGOs.

Thinking about scale

It is difficult for the Bank to think and act in terms of small-scale support as foundations can. For foundations this is not just a financial necessity: there are also intrinsic advantages attached to small-scale support. Foundations, in contrast to the Bank, can test community-based approaches, develop knowledge of local neighbourhoods and communities. The Bank should develop a greater appreciation of this approach. Similarly, foundations must accept the challenge of learning, through cooperation with the Bank, how small-scale support can be coordinated with large-scale programmes.

Encouraging private philanthropy

Foundations are interested in sustainable development, not just through governments but also through private giving. In many countries, however, despite private wealth, there is no infrastructure for private philanthropy. Could the Bank not use its political muscle to advocate tax advantages and appropriate legal frameworks for philanthropic giving? In other words, could the Bank not use its influence to help governments become ‘enabling governments’ that are looking at the infrastructure required for philanthropy?

More understanding on the ground

While there has probably been a policy shift towards beginning to work with foundations and NGOs at the executive level of the Bank, this has not yet been digested throughout the Bank’s hierarchy. This means that there sometimes exists a large schism between Bank headquarters and field offices in terms of attitudes to foundation involvement. This is perhaps the reason why the Bank is not being as effective a broker between the different partners as it could be. The strengthening of resident missions, and more adequate flows of information from headquarters to the field, should contribute towards a better understanding of the work of foundations and NGOs among the Bank’s field workers.

Involving foundations earlier

It seems clear to me that the Bank should involve foundations at a much earlier stage, when the parameters of policy-making in a particular country and/or those of a particular programme are being defined. That means involvement at the design stage.

We still have a long way to go in forging effective operational partnerships between the Bank and the foundation community and in bringing about an effective sharing of know-how and expertise. Yet I am convinced of the potential to do so and this gives me – and I hope other representatives of the foundation community – a strong commitment to making it work.

Dr Rien van Gendt is Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

This article is based on his contribution to a meeting on ‘Exploring Partnerships with the World Bank’ held in Washington DC on 26 April 1998.

For further information about BvLF,  contact them at PO Box 82334, 2508 EH The Hague, The Netherlands.
Tel +31 20 351 20 40
Fax +31 20 350 23 73

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