The practical magic of philanthropic partnerships

by Fatimata Sy, Ouagadougou Partnership Coordination Unit and Margot Fahnestock, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Monday, 11 April 2016 14:12 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Ouagadougou Partnership has greatly improved family planning and reproductive health services in Francophone West Africa. How?

In 2011, Francophone West Africa had some of the world’s highest birthrates. The region had for generations lagged far behind other developing countries in the realm of family planning –while about 56 percent of married women in developing countries around the world were using modern methods of contraception, only about 11 percent of women in western Africa were doing the same.

Thus the Ouagadougou Partnership was launched with the ambitious goal to increase the users of modern contraception in its member countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Togo) by one million women by 2015. Although one million additional users may not seem an ambitious increase for large countries and regions, for the region it represented an improvement of about a third over the total users in the region in 2011. Mission impossible? Apparently not.

Fast forward to December 2015, and the Partnership had not only met its goal, it had exceeded it by 20 percent. The number of users of modern contraceptive methods in the region had increased by 1.2 million women and girls. The Partnership’s next bold move was to set another audacious goal: for the nine countries to collectively add 2.2 million additional users of modern contraceptive methods between 2016 and 2020. This next phase was launched with voluntary declarations that member countries and donors would do whatever it takes – including improving funding, addressing National laws and regulations, and recruiting new partners – to keep the momentum going.

So what brand of magic caused governments, foundations, and multilaterals, and implementing partners (local and international organizations) to work together so effectively, rather than compete for resources or attention? The answer rests in large part on how the Partnership is organized and governed, and on three structural elements in particular.  

The roadmap: a common agenda

All parties in a potential partnership must pull in the same direction in order to succeed. As their first step, all nine member countries in the Ouagadougou Partnership developed costed implementation plans for family planning. Ever since, these plans have served as roadmaps – they provide practical, tangible goals for each participant that add to a larger vision for change in the region as a whole. They also set specific and time-bound targets, lay out precise steps to achieve those objectives, identify specific funding needs, and describe how the plans will be monitored with the same set of indicators as the other eight countries’ plans.

The engine: a backbone support organization

To make progress towards a shared vision, productive partnerships depend on efficient management by an organization tasked with keeping all activities on schedule and keeping the collaboration moving forward with streamlined processes and protocols. In late 2012 members of the Ouagadougou Partnership developed its Coordination Unit (OPCU) to provide just this type of support and to be the engine that powers progress. For instance, the OPCU sets agendas and manages logistics for monthly and annual meetings, donor visits, and country study trips. It arranges communication between partners, advocates for more resources for countries, shares best practices, highlights roadblocks and proposes solutions, and tracks progress. These activities may not seem glamorous or draw much attention when done well, but are crucial for forward motion.

The gas: well-publicized incentives

Partnerships in the social sector are often focused on difficult or nearly intractable issues, so it can take years or even longer to make progress. Initial enthusiasm for collaboration by partners can wane over time unless each participant and their constituency sees clear incentives for continued engagement. In the case of the Ouagadougou Partnership, incentives are the gas that powers progress. Since the Partnership’s launch, incentives for stakeholders to participate have been clear, and the OPCU and other supporters direct substantial attention to publicizing them.

For example, member countries have found as a result of participation that donors are more willing to make investments in their countries despite their relatively small populations – these partners know that progress in one country will benefit its neighbors. Countries have also found that this funding is better aligned with their needs and that domestic support has increased due to the attention generated by the Partnership activities and advocacy. Likewise, donors have witnessed improved results for their funding, resulting from deeper understanding of countries’ needs and priorities.

Of course, many other factors have been integral to the initial success of The Ouagadougou Partnership, and there is no guarantee that the collaboration will continue to run smoothly. But it is undeniable that this small Partnership has made enormous gains in an environment where many expected failure. With any luck, the region just might surprise the world again.

We look forward to sharing more insights with attendees of the upcoming Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, the largest gathering on girls’ and women’s health, rights, and wellbeing in more than a decade, in our continued efforts to ensure the successes of the Ouagadougou Partnership are real, lasting, and replicable.

Fatimata Sy, Director, Ouagadougou Partnership Coordination Unit and Margot Fahnestock, Program Officer, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation


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