Biodiverse collaborations in international development

Peter Laugharn

Foundation leaders talk a lot about collaboration within philanthropy. While these ‘in the family’ partnerships can be very valuable, I would argue that the most important collaborations are with other types of organization. I’d like to illustrate this idea of ‘biodiverse collaborations’ by looking at the world of international development.

Five sets of development actors

At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that in the ‘ecosystem’ of international development assistance there are five sets of actors: national governments, bilateral and multilateral donors, international and local civil society organizations, academics and foundations. Each has an optimal role, and strengths and weaknesses, in the global effort to end poverty and increase wellbeing.

National governments
Governments in the global South are responsible for policy and coordination, most service delivery and basic national infrastructure. Their strengths are that they have a clear mandate and the broadest reach. Among their drawbacks are that they are understaffed and underfunded. In effect their reach, though broad, does not cover their mandate.

Bilateral and multilateral donors
The role of these institutional donors is to channel outside resources and expertise to the development effort. They have a more diffuse mandate than national governments to coordinate and steer agendas at the global level. Both suffer from structural constraints. Bilaterals tend to be influenced by the politics of their own countries, their horizons often determined by three- or four-year electoral cycles. Multilaterals have a distinct tendency to be bureaucratic and to rely on political interests and vested power. Again, their strategy and planning horizons rarely extend beyond five years, while many of the problems they are working on will take much longer to solve.

Civil society organizations

CSOs play a variety of ‘interstitial’ roles that strengthen the international development effort. They extend the reach of government services; they help mobilize and organize community-level resources; they hold governments accountable; they bring resources and ideas to the development effort. Because they attract funds on the basis of merit, not mandate (ie they rely on fundraising rather than taxation), they usually need to be efficient and transparent, and to be able to translate knowledge into action. Their funding cycles tend to be short, often no longer than three years. This means that they have little financial autonomy and spend a great deal of time raising funds. It also means that they tend to favour action above reflection.

Academic and think-tanks
Their role is to produce ideas, evidence and frameworks. They provide a ‘storyline’ for the development effort, and a basis for assessing progress in a way that the others are unable to do because of bias or political constraint. For their part, academic organizations are seldom able to turn knowledge into action.

Foundations ideally combine independence of judgement and independence of means in service of the public interest although their means are usually limited compared to those of governments and institutional donors. They share with academics an ability to take a different view from the prevailing wisdom. Endowed foundations, often set up in perpetuity, in theory have a longer planning horizon than other actors. But foundations have marked weaknesses, including their insularity and lack of communication skills, and often ignorance of their main potential contributions.

These five sets of actors clearly have complementary strengths and weaknesses. However, when they work only with others like themselves, they run the risk of accentuating their weaknesses. This is particularly true of foundations, whose real strengths are currently not well used, and whose potential is underestimated, in the development effort.

What foundations have to offer a post-MDG world

I would propose three very useful roles through which foundations would, I believe, become ‘unmissable actors’ on the development scene.

Taking the longer view
We are rapidly approaching 2015, the end of the Millennium Development Goals effort. While we all know that the job will be unfinished by then, most of the international development effort is still focused on the MDGs, and the silence about what will happen thereafter is breathtaking.

While the 15-year MDG horizon (2000-15) was ambitious by government, donor and civil society standards, it was simply too short for the accomplishment of the agenda. While other development actors are focused on short-term results, foundations can take a longer view. As a result, they can encourage a ‘rolling’ medium-term view and scenario planning, help build a strong continuous feedback loop about success and failure, fund ‘light infrastructure’ (initiatives, centres) that can help chart the future beyond the current push, and incubate the ideas and approaches that seem likely to be useful in the next phase. All of these necessarily involve the other development actors, and cannot be carried out by foundations alone.

This does not mean that foundations are better at predicting a complex future than others are, but we should acknowledge that global development is a long-term effort, and we can help the further horizon come into better focus. Nor does it mean that foundations should treat all challenges as long term. There are clearly some global issues, like climate change, which require immediate concerted global effort.

Providing catalytic funding and convening as necessary

Foundations can potentially act more swiftly than others. They can be less bureaucratic than governments or institutional donors and may also be less risk-averse. Thus they can potentially play the role of catalyst and convener, identifying the things that should happen today to help the longer-term strategy unfold.

Both of these roles will really succeed only if foundations collaborate with other development actors rather than simply cooperating among themselves.

Funding ‘unmarketable causes’

Other development actors, especially national governments, institutional donors and civil society, tend naturally to focus on popular topics or those with political or monetary payoff. Foundations, which are more insulated from market and political drivers, can choose topics that may be less popular but are actually very important for the success of the international development effort.

An example of this is the Dutch Bernard van Leer Foundation’s (BvLF) almost 50-year focus on early childhood. In the 1960s, early childhood was not included in international development agendas or budgets. Over the following 40 years, thanks in large part to BvLF’s consistent focus and knowledge sharing, international recognition of the value of investment in the area has grown tremendously.

Foundations taking a longer view can identify other such ‘unfunded priorities’ and do a lot to make their importance understood. But it is only through active collaboration with other development actors that they can get these causes on to the development agenda.

Why don’t we see more of this?

I would argue that, though they could be critical actors, for the moment dynamic foundation involvement in international development is the exception rather than the rule.

Foundations tend to take the same planning horizon as other organizations, even though the political and economic factors that impose this planning horizon on others are much less powerful within foundations. Foundations should experiment with well-articulated long-term visions, scenario-building skills and longer planning horizons. They should continually ask themselves ‘what’s next?’ or ‘what’s down the road?’, not as a parlour game but as part of their function in the international development ecosystem.

Foundations often don’t see themselves as full actors in international development, rather as funders of civil society activity within development, which is only part of the picture. Then again, insularity comes a bit too naturally to foundations. Since they don’t have to ‘sing for their supper’, they can exist without diverse partnerships. For this reason they are often not internally geared up to follow external debates closely. Foundations who want to make a difference in international development need to push themselves to play a more active, prominent role.

Finally, while some individual foundations do play dynamic roles within international development, the philanthropic profession as a whole needs to articulate a compelling vision and communicate it to other actors. This will be an important role for the Council on Foundations, the European Foundation Centre, WINGS, and commentators on philanthropy.

Diverse partnerships with other international development actors will allow foundations to leverage their strengths and reduce or work around their limitations, and thus take their rightful place in international development.

Peter Laugharn is executive director of the Firelight Foundation. Email

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