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In Governance of New Global Partnerships, a new CGD Policy Paper, Keith Bezanson and Paul Isenman shine light on an important feature of the international aid landscape – a cohort of international organizations established in the last two decades which tend to have focused mandates and large complex governing boards. This paper is a welcome cautionary note to those who want to start new international initiatives, counseling them to ask hard questions about the added value of starting a new organization and the downsides of inclusiveness. They also provide a good set of lessons and positive messages for designing new initiatives when that makes sense.

Bilateral agencies are run by their governments. UN agencies and development banks tend to have countries as members and respond to other interests by creating consultative mechanisms. The new global partnerships, however, seek to include as many voices as possible in their governing bodies. While increasing “voice” in this way has clear benefits, the downsides in terms of complexity and conflicts of interest are frequently ignored.

For example, Bezanson and Isenman explain that the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) was created as a partnership of donors and recipients, private and public sectors, state and non-state actors who initially served in different ways on four different boards. This complex arrangement was eventually simplified, in 2008, by creating a single board – though it still has 28 members, two-thirds of whom are elected by constituent partners (e.g., representing a particular category like donors, recipients, NGOs). The Fast Track Initiative (now the Global Partnership for Education) has a membership of 46 developing countries and over 30 bilateral, regional, and international agencies, along with development banks, private sector groups, teachers, and civil society organizations. Like GAVI, its 19-member board is seated on the basis of election by different constituencies. Perhaps the most dramatic story involves the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which was governed exclusively by donors until 2002 when it sought to “become a 21st century partnership organization” by introducing NGO and private sector representatives. The new arrangements collapsed in 2002 when the partners were unable to reconcile tradeoffs between the demands of research, attention to poverty reduction and commercial interests.

The paper also discusses how these partnerships can generate conflicts of interest. The effort at inclusion often seats countries and organizations on boards which are making decisions that stand to benefit those very same countries and organizations. For example, the World Bank’s legal counsel pointed out that it shouldn’t take funds from GAVI if it wanted to keep its seat on the GAVI board. It chose to follow that advice and no longer receives GAVI funding. Countries which receive funds from the Global Fund Against Aids TB and Malaria (the Global Fund) are also prominent in that organization’s governance, leading to potential conflicts of interest when the Global Fund assesses their performance and allocates funds.

From my experience both with serving on and creating new boards, there is a more insidious problem with partnership arrangements that rely on constituent representation. Too often, board members in these multi-stakeholder organizations see their role as representatives for competing interests rather than as directors responsible for setting strategies that best serve the organization’s mandate. When serving as a board member, the individual’s primary allegiance should be to the organization. They can bring their outside experience, perspective and understanding to the table, but they shouldn’t be tempted, or instructed, to serve as a spokesperson for this particular foundation or that particular government.

The answer is not to restrict membership of governing bodies. Voice is important. Diverse perspectives are also incredibly important. But after reading this paper, I think most readers will agree that designing a new governing body requires thinking not only about inclusion but also about undue complexity and conflicts of interest.