3 Ways Development NGOs can Increase Their Impact in 2016

By John Sauer, Senior Technical Advisor for PSI’s WASH program

First the good news: the number of deaths of children under 5 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 those of us working in the field of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), the benchmarks for improving sanitation and fecal sludge management services for 2.4 billion (or possibly more) people, remain seriously off track. And with the expansion of the MDGs from eight goals to the 17 contained in the SDGs, many actors in differing sectors will have to think creatively about how to meet the need for resources, innovation and collaboration.

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 these 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 Government’s 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 doesn’t 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. We know from experience in the sanitation sector in Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore that when governments are dedicated consistently over time to hygiene, cleanliness and public health, achieving total sanitation and hygiene is attainable.

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.

According to The World Bank Water and Sanitation Program’s 2013 “Tapping the Market” study, governments should do two things to incentivize the private sector to launch more business activity focused on improving sanitation: 1) invest in market intelligence; 2) invest money in private sector R&D to improve products and services. Unfortunately, evidence is slim that this advice is being followed.

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 health challenges that NGOs wants 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 health 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 (particularly those in sanitation).

#3. Bringing It All Together: Collective Impact

Collective impact is 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:

  1. Common agenda: coming together to collectively define the problem and create a shared vision to solve it;
  2. Shared measurement: agreeing to track progress in the same way, which allows for continuous improvement;
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities: coordinating collective efforts to maximize the end result;
  4. Continuous communications: building trust and relationships among all participants;
  5. Strong Backbone: having a team dedicated to orchestrating the work of the group.

Collaboration for impact is considered one of the preconditions for making faster and better progress in development, but no approach has been mainstreamed yet. 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 (if not turn them entirely on their head) to succeed at ending poverty in our life times? It’s clear that many of the pieces of the puzzle (strengthening governments, market development, shared value, collective impact) are on the table already. To create even more transformation in the international development space in the next several years we must learn how to fit them together.

Clean Water Supply

Children in Sindh, Pakistan, play at a water pump in a village near Dadu, in Sindh, Pakistan. Photo Credit: DFID/ Russell Watkins/ Department for International Development