Team Work Makes the Dream Work: How Development Agencies Can Work Together for the Global Good

In an era defined by complex and global challenges that cannot be addressed by any country working alone, there is a need for broad cooperation-and ideally, collaboration—across actors to put the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) back on track. The good news is that there are now at least 85 countries with institutions for managing outward or “dual” cooperation, meaning that the range of knowledge, skills, and resources that can be leveraged to advance development outcomes is more diverse than ever before. The bad news, however, is that despite this growing number of countries with agencies for development, cooperation across providers—particularly between members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and non-DAC members—including in response to acute global crises, has not yet become mainstream. 

In this blog, we outline findings from a new paper that explores the barriers to deeper cross-provider cooperation for development and how such challenges can be overcome. Ultimately, we show that cooperation between providers is limited by differences in their visions and principles for cooperation, low capacity to engage, low political appetite, and crucially, a lack of trust. In this context, any efforts to build better partnerships to advance shared development goals—including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—must start by re-building trust.  re-building trust. 

What are the barriers to cooperation for development?

To understand the challenges that limit cooperation across provider agencies, we used a combination of surveys of officials from DAC and non-DAC provider agencies, and interviews with senior officials from development agencies and international organizations. The aim of this dual approach was to complement broad perspectives captured through the surveys with more nuanced explanations obtained via our interviews. 

When asked about the main barriers to cooperation between DAC and non-DAC providers, the most common response pointed to different “visions or principles for cooperation”—including on conditionalities, tying, or measurement—as a key challenge (see Figure 1), yet noted that heterogeneity across non-DAC providers means that some are more or less aligned on key issues. Consider, for instance, that many Arab providers report their development spending as official development assistance (ODA) to the OECD-DAC and participate in Arab-DAC dialogues, while other non-DAC providers (including Indonesia, South Africa, and several Latin American providers) have participated in key joint initiatives such as reporting under the Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (TOSSD) standard. Despite clear differences, some interviewees noted that DAC and non-DAC providers do share core goals and values for development which could provide a basis for cooperation—on effectiveness or the pursuit of the SDGs, for instance—yet differ in their approaches to implementation.

Figure 1. What are the main barriers to cooperation between DAC and non-DAC providers? 

Note: Based on 28 non-DAC responses and 14 DAC responses. The percentages represented between the two surveys are not entirely comparable; while both surveys asked the same question, the non-DAC survey asked respondents to rank from predefined options, while the DAC survey asked for open responses in text format, without imposing a limit on the number of options listed. For the non-DAC survey, all responses have been combined, regardless of how the option was ranked.

Other top responses pointed to capacity challenges and low political appetite as further barriers to cooperation. Interviewees were particularly concerned by political barriers, noting that the perceived political “risks” associated with such partnerships meant that the incentives for joint action were often low. For non-DACs, cooperation with DAC members was seen as potentially harmful to their credibility as “Southern” partners, while for DAC members, engagement on development cooperation with some non-DAC partners—particularly China—was also viewed as challenging due to broader geopolitical tensions.

Crucially however, interviewees also identified low trust across DAC and non-DAC providers as a fundamental barrier to cooperation. In particular, they noted that historical injustices between “North” and “South”, and a history of broken promises and unmet commitments on development—such as the 0.7 percent of Gross National Income ODA target as well as broken promises on climate finance—had created distrust and reduced the perception of reliability across actors. More broadly, the trust deficit highlighted by interviewees mirrors global trends of declining trust, raising important questions about how collaboration to address shared challenges can be built without first investing in rebuilding trust.

How can these barriers be overcome?

Taken together, the picture emerging from our research shows that while cross-provider cooperation is occurring, building better cooperation across providers will require re-thinking current approaches to overcome persistent barriers. With this in mind, our research points to three key ways to strengthen cross-provider cooperation in the years ahead, each of which aims to re-build trust through investing energy in developing shared standards, spaces, and activities.

  1. Co-create shared standards and practices for development that reflect the preferences of the current provider landscape. That differing principles and visions for cooperation between DAC and non-DAC actors remain a key barrier to partnerships suggests that, even as the balance of power in the development landscape has shifted alongside the proliferation of non-DAC providers, this has yet to fundamentally impact the norms, standards, and practices that guide cooperation and form the basis for development partnerships. In a context where many of the current development standards are seen to reflect DAC principles—to which non-DACs did not contribute and which do not reflect their concerns or constraints—several interviewees argued that there is a need to invest in co-creating new norms and standards to better account for differing provider visions. 
  2. Design a forum to foster “neutral” and “legitimate” cross-provider dialogue for development. To meaningfully co-create shared development norms, interviewees argued that there needs to be a multilateral space that has the mandate and convening power to foster cross-provider debate, suggesting that current forums remain insufficient. The result is a cooperation landscape where the impetus for cooperation is met without an institutional arrangement that can meaningfully facilitate cross-actor discussion on shared development issues and standards. To correct for this challenge, some interviewees suggested that there was a need to rethink the development architecture for cross-provider collaboration and consider building a new multilateral space designed to foster mutual respect and encourage conversations that occur on an “equal footing”. While there are questions about the feasibility of creating a new institution, it is difficult to see how shared standards and principles can be developed without a space for meaningful dialogue and co-creation.
  3. Invest in re-building trust through shared action on smaller and more discrete projects of mutual interest. In a tense political landscape where competing interests and low trust impede cooperation (particularly at the multilateral level) engagement on discrete and technical issues of mutual interest could provide a concrete basis for partnership and a way to rebuild trust over the shorter term. Noting that technical exchanges can often be more “stable” in complex political environments, some interviewees suggested that targeted engagement could create opportunities for providers to talk, listen, and learn, both about, and from, each other, as a way of building trust through small, shared activities. While the value of such action is the ability to foster relationships through working together towards a clear project or goal in the short term, it should not be considered a replacement or alternative for more difficult political cooperation which is ultimately needed to enable meaningful progress towards building a more collaborative development system.

Despite cross-provider differences, the SDGs provides a common framework for collaborative action

Throughout this research, we were often reminded that the development goals that underlie the actions of DAC and non-DAC providers alike—to support and achieve the SDGs—are fundamentally shared across providers and serve as a basis for partnerships and collaborations that promote mutual interests. At a moment when the SDG agenda is in trouble, there is a need to place common goals front and center, as all actors consider ways to make better use of the resources available across the diverse development system to support achieving these shared aims. Working together is never easy, but going alone will surely fail to meaningfully harness the value and potential of an expanding provider landscape.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.