Creating a more effective development partnership


Over five years, a groundbreaking strategic arrangement used international development goals as a framework to reduce costs and improve outcomes


  • The search for more effective interventions has put development aid under pressure
  • The Strategic Partnership Arrangement (SPA) between Bangladesh’s BRAC, the UK’s DFID, and Australia’s DFAT is a globally significant innovation that can serve as a model for others
  • The arrangement changed the traditional donor-recipient relationship to a more flexible and cost-effective partnership between equals

International development assistance has come under pressure in recent years as the perceived failure of traditional aid has led to the pursuit of more effective interventions. Debates around aid are likely to intensify as the world gears up for the next round of global development goals and looks for improved models to reach these targets.

This briefing note suggests one strategy for forging effective partnerships by examining the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the Bangladesh-based development organisation BRAC, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). A recent research report by Social Development Direct, commissioned by DFID in collaboration with the other two partners, traced the evolution of the relationship between these organizations from 2008 onward and found the arrangement to be a globally significant innovation in several respects.

The story of the SPA provides a case study in how large organisations can forge powerful, long-term relationships that lead to better outcomes in terms of health, schooling, sanitation, livelihoods, and a host of other poverty indicators, while delivering cost savings, greater flexibility and an improved capacity to innovate. As we enter the post-2015 round of development goals, the lessons learned apply to any partners seeking ways of working together to reduce poverty and provide development solutions at scale.

Effective partnerships. Partnerships are a recurring theme in the current dialogue on aid effectiveness. The word is mentioned repeatedly in the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be launched at a UN summit in September 2015. Proposed SDG Goal 17 aims to advance “multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technologies and financial resources,” while promoting “effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing of partnerships.”

But competing strategies and mismatched priorities often make effective partnerships difficult, even when goals are shared. Donors are often unwilling to cede power and control over tactics to implementing partners, for instance. In negotiating their Strategic Partnership Arrangement (SPA), BRAC, DFID and DFAT showed a willingness to explore new paths. Working within a strategic framework, they discarded pre-conceived models and focused instead on pragmatic and opportunity-based concerns.

In 2011, when the SPA began, Bangladesh had been making good progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations’ set of goals and targets for 2015. BRAC, the largest civil society organization in the country (and indeed, by many measures, the largest in the world), has been credited for a portion of this progress. By the end of 2015, Bangladesh is likely to meet five out of eight MDGs.

In 2011, Bangladesh was lagging in several MDG areas, including hunger and poverty reduction, the generation of skilled employment, and the primary education completion rate. In the SPA’s terms of engagement, the first of four shared objectives called for faster progress toward the MDGs and any internationally agreed targets that might replace them. The terms specified a focus on off-track targets, unreached geographical areas, and women and girls.

Other shared objectives included institutional change within BRAC, better engagement and knowledge sharing between BRAC and its partners, and an improvement in the use of evidence and results in future decision-making. Each organisation also named its own goals within the terms of engagement, but these four shared objectives came to the fore.

Core budget support. Within this agreed strategic framework, BRAC, as the implementing partner, would retain control over how to allocate the funds and take the lead in delivering partnership outputs. The arrangement focused on outcomes rather than activities. DFID and DFAT committed £358 million in core funding to BRAC over a five-year period ending in 2015, with £226 million from DFID and £132 million from DFAT. The principal of providing core budget support rather than grants earmarked for specific programs signaled an aspiration for a more equal partnership than that which has previously been afforded by the traditional donor-recipient relationship.

BRAC itself made a significant financial contribution to the arrangement. From its own social enterprises, including microfinance, BRAC currently generates the majority of its overall programme costs, with donors partially subsidizing major programs such as health, education, and graduation from extreme poverty. As a result, BRAC contributed about 10% of overall costs for the programs supported by the SPA.

Objectives, means and outcomes

Among the central objectives of the SPA were greater efficiencies and lower programme transaction costs for all parties. Though the partners had a strong pre-existing relationship based on common interests and mutual trust, in order to broker and steward this arrangement, all three parties had to identify and mobilise “bridging leaders” within their organizations. Borrowed from the work of Synergos Institute, the idea of “bridging leadership” emphasises the role of the leader as a facilitator, convener and enabler, as opposed to the traditional command-and-control leadership.

According to the research study, the SPA resulted in measurably improved living conditions for large portions of the population. BRAC is now DFID’s largest single contributor of reportable development results.

Intervention outcomes. Partially as a result of SPA core funding, more than 280,000 households have been lifted out of extreme poverty. During the five-year period of the agreement, more than 1 million children have been enrolled in BRAC pre-primary schools, with 99.9% of children enrolled progressing to Grade 1 in primary schools. As a result of BRAC’s work, it is estimated that nearly 37 million people have gained access to sanitary latrines, with 2.3 million receiving safe access to drinking water. It is estimated that close to 150,000 cases of child stunting have been averted and thousands of maternal and child deaths have been prevented.

Cost savings. The partnership has achieved measurably greater management efficiency and lower transaction costs. BRAC estimates that it has saved more than $2.3 million over five years that would otherwise have been spent on donor relationship and programme management. Likewise, DFID’s most recent annual review of the partnership found that it had reduced management and staffing costs while improving key outputs such as sanitation coverage and the number of poor households graduating from extreme poverty.

Flexibility. Moreover, by providing a more predictable, flexible and harmonised single source of financing, the SPA gave BRAC greater freedom to set its own funding priorities. By devolving programme funding approvals to BRAC, the SPA enabled faster response times, more strategic programme planning, and longer term thinking within BRAC. This flexibility allowed BRAC to act nimbly on shared development priorities. The SPA also created opportunities for richer, more systematic technical and policy engagement between the partners.

Reaching the unreached. The strategic partnership has extended BRAC’s programme coverage in hard-to-reach areas and populations in Bangladesh. For instance, BRAC launched an integrated development programme to address the multiple dimensions of poverty and vulnerability in the most marginalized areas. Moreover, a groundbreaking program to graduate the ultra-poor out of extreme poverty, supported by the SPA, has gained the attention of the international development community, with adaptations of BRAC’s methodology yielding positive results in several countries.

In May 2015, Science magazine published the positive results of a randomized control trial involving 21,000 people in six countries involved in these graduation programs. The vast majority of participants were found to have graduated from extreme poverty following an intensive intervention period designed to boost confidence, skills and livelihoods. Further innovations and refinements are underway to improve the effectiveness of these graduation programs. This progress would likely have not been possible without the support of the SPA partners.

Rights focus. The SPA also brought a renewed emphasis on rights-based work, with investments in programmes in human rights, community empowerment, gender, and women’s and girls’ issues. Despite being a core organisational objectives since BRAC was founded in 1972, securing funding for such programs has often been difficult. Over 95% of BRAC stakeholders surveyed in 2015 reported impressive progress on programmes to improve the status of women and girls. It is estimated that 325,000 women have been empowered to advocate for their rights, partially as a result of the partnership. The SPA was also pivotal to the creation of BRAC’s migration programme, which reaches over 1 million people with programs to promote safe migration and the rights of migrant workers.

Policy advocacy. Aligned closely to national development priorities, the SPA has strengthened policy advocacy and engagement with government at both district and national levels. To broker better coordination with government, civil society and the media at the local level, BRAC has introduced a system of district BRAC representatives managed and supported by a partnership strengthening unit. This unit works nationally to build relationships and collaboration with government agencies, NGOs, media and other stakeholders.

Evidence-based innovation. The SPA has also nurtured new mechanisms to strengthen a practice of evidence-based innovation, including an impact assessment unit. The scope of BRAC innovations has grown. Examples include the development of a mobile phone application as a platform for women and girls to access vital information and make their voices heard on issues that affect their lives, a skills development programme that is already moving large numbers of disadvantaged youth into jobs, and a national nutrition programme.

Institution building: SPA donors have made strategic investments in a organisational and capacity development initiative at BRAC. To counteract a tendency for many large or fast-growing NGOs to work in programmatic silos, BRAC has used the funding provided by the SPA to foster cross-sector collaboration between programs. It introduced a human resource framework, including a performance management system. Concurrently, the SPA has supported forward thinking about BRAC’s sustainability and succession planning. As one BRAC senior manager pointed out, BRAC is now developing better as an institution rather than a collection of programmes and projects, partly as a result of the SPA.


The most important lesson from the SPA is that it is possible to build development partnerships that are both more effective and more equitable. These relationships take time to grow and cannot be built from formulaic, off-the-shelf designs. Through sustained dialogue and reflection, partners must, over time, negotiate and renew a common vision, shared values and an agreed framework for collaboration.

In the traditional aid framework, the relationship between donors and implementing organisation is one in which donors buy the results they want to see. The arrangement between BRAC, DFID and DFAT shows that it is possible, over time, to change the nature of that relationship to one resembling a genuine partnership between equals, each of whom brings something to the table. This requires vision and commitment, a willingness to take risks, and an openness on the part of donors to cede some power and control to implementing partners.

In the next phase of this arrangement, the parties have pledged to build on the lessons learned so far, moving beyond immediate outcomes to create a “knowledge partnership” that marshals their combined data, evidence, research capacity, networks and convening power. The partners believe they are well-positioned to challenge mindsets around partnerships and push the boundaries of development practice in the post-2015 era.