Is the Global Partnership Ready for Action?

The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation was born at a global conference held in Busan, Korea in 2011 to confront concerns that old-fashioned aid (ODA) was not working. Billions were being spent and the Global South’s poor and vulnerable remained frozen in their fate. Grant aid had to be understood as a necessary but not sufficient condition. Out of the Busan conference came a more inclusive concept, Development Co-operation, embracing elements such as trade, private sector, human rights and environmental sustainability.

Western donors, including Canada, had warily signed on to another part of the answer, ‘country ownership’, which implies that aid succeeds only when programs are designed and implemented by the beneficiaries rather than being imposed by outsiders. Another set of actors, the BRICS and other emerging economies, has now entered the donor arena as well as being seen as the West’s saviour from the worst impact of the global financial crisis. The past decade has seen them become a major force in development co-operation.

The Global Partnership contains the powerful donors of the North, but they are not adequately exercising the leverage of which they are capable.

The presence of these new actors provided both an opportunity and a geopolitical challenge for the Global Partnership (GP) as a bridge between industrialized North and emerging South. But moving on is proving complex and demanding. The GP has not failed, but success is far from sure.

A key opportunity is almost ready for prime time: this September will see enactment of the UN’s Post-2015 Agenda, the principal goal of which is a world free from extreme poverty. The GP has made a substantive contribution to the implementation of Post-2015 its prime objective.

The GP’s first High Level meeting, hosted in April 2014 by Mexico, had 1500 participants: old donors, new providers, an increasingly differentiated array of recipients, civil society organizations (CSOs) and not least the private sector. The stakeholder-mix wins a prize for inclusiveness, but is still far from being successful effectiveness. Indeed, in a crowded field of competing actors, elements of a surprisingly more assertive UN system are challenging the GP on relevance. Some in the G77 (the UN caucus of developing countries) see it as lacking legitimacy and being just a revamped OECD donor instrument.

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2015 will be a challenging year for the GP under its new co-chairs, the Netherlands, Mexico and Malawi, who are working with a very modest support team of officials from the OECD and the UNDP. The next six months will see the GP trying to establish its credibility as an organization that can deliver innovative support on the ground and transform from talk-shop to delivery vehicle.

But many of its members worry that the GP still has too little depth. It is fine to hold conferences and regional workshops, but the ultimate test is whether Southern partners see relevant and credible action that helps brings poverty-reducing programming and better governance at the local level. Trust was reported as a shaky commodity inside the GP, yet is essential for success. CSOs who clapped at Busan when they were formally recognized as independent development actors now grumble at being often excluded on the ground.

The key breakthrough–engaging the new emerging countries—has not happened. They do not even contribute to set-piece global meetings, except via the occasional junior official sent as a note-taker. GP thinking is still dominated by OECD countries who seem hesitant to share or boldly step forward. Equally wary ‘new’ donors see no real merit in taking up the challenge because they see no real partnership on offer.

The time frame is getting tighter, with September set for the Post-2015 Agenda Summit sign-off in New York. In July, GP member donors, Canada included, must find the will to reach consensus on how to pay for the implementation of Post-2015 at the UN global conference on Financing for Development. They are hoping to finesse this by talking of ‘innovative financial mechanisms’—which significantly means diverting scarce grant ODA to subsidize quasi-commercial lending to ‘leverage’ a stronger role for private foreign investors.

Any resolution will be a hard sell. These are hard times for OECD countries. Low-income developing countries are also wary, even if impatient to get back on the growth ladder. They know they need to raise more resources domestically, but they also need a bigger share in assured increases in grant aid (especially given that most of the proposed ‘innovations’ seem likely to only benefit middle-income developing countries rather than themselves).

Are too many eggs being placed in one rather shaky basket? Most private companies, even the big multinationals, do not see ‘pro-poor development’ as their thing, wanting open markets and more opportunities for profit. Canada’s Harper government seems more confused than most: it essentially wants already-diminished grant aid further diverted in order to facilitate Canadian commercial interests.

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So what more can one hope for from the GP beyond better monitoring systems or small pilot programs called Voluntary Initiatives? To be relevant to the remaining billion poorest and to Post-2015, these initiatives need to be quickly scalable.

The GP contains the powerful donors of the North, but they are not adequately exercising the leverage of which they are capable. To succeed, they must demonstrate their commitment to partnership starting with high-level dialogue with key new donors and leading partner countries. The Partnership is only just now getting its troops together, (including the senior officials who still effectively shape the agenda of the World Bank and other multilateral institutions) to sell the practical merits of an effective Global Partnership.

Time is running out to make the partnership concrete. Hesitant steps, worse a stumble, could leave the GP unable to deliver its now core mission of becoming a key partner in implementing the Post-2015 Agenda.

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