First the good news: the number of deaths of children under five years of age was more than cut in half between 1990 and 2015.
As the global development community transitions from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), impressive stats like these help to buoy our spirits. Which we need, because we all know: there is much work still to be done.
For the past 15 years, international NGOs have been at the forefront of ensuring progress on the MDGs, and we should celebrate this. But if we truly want to solve social problems in our lifetimes, we need to do even more. Below I outline three ways in which NGOs can work more effectively in the coming 15 years.
1. Proactive vs. Reactive Planning to Strengthen Governments’ Role
In most countries where NGOs work, governments have a mandate to achieve certain development objectives. This has never been more true since the adoption of the SDGs. These national, city and district governments are looking for partners now that will stand by them for the long term and help them get there.
The challenge with some donor funding—and there are important exceptions—is that it is restricted to a specific time frame and does not always enable the flexibility NGOs need to be a true long-term partner with governments. When the funding ends, so might that specific relationship with the government. This is not what governments need or want.
International NGOs need to find ways to be reliable partners to governments without depending on donor funding cycles. This would then empower NGO country offices to make long-term commitments to their local governments, so that results are achieved on governments’ and local institutions’ timelines. Collaborating with governments and local institutions without being tied to a particular project, but rather to the long-term vision, could transform the way we work. Positioning ourselves in this way might also mean that local governments would see NGOs as a partner worth hiring themselves.
2. Engaging the Private Sector
In the past several years, we have seen a host of private sector companies, both local and multinational, begin to create specific business units targeted at exploring how to sell products and services to the so-called “base of the pyramid” (BoP)—the poorest socioeconomic class. The business community has at its disposal exponentially more resources compared to traditional development donors, along with the ability to make solutions sustainable by creating a market for their demand and supply.
But there is still a long way to go before these BOP units are mainstreamed in the business world. Donors, governments and NGOs have an important role to play in influencing and supporting private sector players to shift towards serving these too-long-ignored customer segments.
Partnerships like the Shared Value Initiative provide a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of working with private sector companies—both multinational and local—in a new kind of partnership to bring the power of the private sector to bear on the challenges that NGOs want to solve. A key part of this work includes doing market development, which can help build the enabling environment for private sector success. Another piece is helping companies define, measure and implement what a “triple bottom line” means for different areas.
Making shared value happen will—similar to working with local governments—require longer program cycles, as well as identifying and influencing donors to support this work. It is a welcoming sign that some donors are beginning to ask for this type of programming from development partners.
3. Bringing It All Together: Collective Impact
Collective impact is a deliberate and disciplined framework to bring government, private sector and civil society together to foster social change. The conditions of successful collective impact are simple enough, but often not all are present and aligned in traditional partnership efforts. These five conditions, as listed on the Collective Impact Forum, are:
- Common agenda: coming together to collectively define the problem and create a shared vision to solve it
- Shared measurement: agreeing to track progress in the same way, which allows for continuous improvement
- Mutually-reinforcing activities: coordinating collective efforts to maximize the end result
- Continuous communications: building trust and relationships among all participants
- Strong Backbone: having a team dedicated to orchestrating the work of the groups
In the coming years, NGOs should champion and push for collective impact in their work globally. This will not be easy and will require writing collective impact work into proposals as well as identifying new sources of flexible funding whose stewards understand the leverage such work brings.
The development sector is at a crossroads as it figures out how to work differently to realize the SDGs. How will it have to adapt and evolve its practices to succeed at ending poverty in our life times? It is clear that many of the pieces of the puzzle—strengthening governments, market development, shared value and collective impact—are already on the table. To create even more transformation in the international development space in the next several years, we must learn how to fit them together.