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#AdaptDev workshop 2: Managing the donor-implementer relationship

Time (GMT +01) 16:00 17:30
Hero image description: Workshop post-it notes. Image credit:ODI, 2018. Image license:CC-BY-BC-ND


Trust and understanding between donors and implementers are key for effective adaptive development programming. This workshop explored challenges in this relationship, and generated ideas for how it can be managed and improved. Participants worked on a range of adaptive programmes, mostly from private sector implementers. The Engaged Citizen’s pillar of the Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL) programme in Nigeria was used as a case study to explore the dynamics of the relationship.

Background to PERL

PERL is a DFID programme that supports how Nigerian governments organise their core business of making, implementing, tracking and accounting for policies, plans and budgets used in delivering public goods and services to the citizenry, and how citizens themselves engage with these processes. The Engaged Citizens pillar works to ensure that citizens become increasingly more effective at influencing governance reform and service delivery. PERL builds on over 15 years of learning on governance in Nigeria, building on previous DFID governance programmes such as CBDD, SLGP, JWL, C4C, SAVI, SPARC and FEPAR. PERL is distinctive in its size and scope, coming to £100m over five years.

Problem-setting and definition

Stephen Fraser, Technical Director for the Engaged Citizens pillar of PERL, shared three principal challenges in the donor-implementer relationship for the programme. Participants then broke into groups to explore these in greater depth. The below reflects the general conclusions of the discussion, rather than the specifics of their relevance to PERL.

Issue 1: Payments by results (PBR)

  • Different parts of a donor agency have different (and sometimes contradictory) priorities when it comes to defining results. For example, the commercial arm may want a predictable blueprint of deliverables; the political section (concerned with the bi-lateral relationship between the donor and host country) may want reports of tangible impacts; and the technical teams also want process results that show and tell learning.                

  • Programmes need to build in and embed flexibility and a high level of transparency from the beginning. Participants highlighted that some donors are willing to be flexible around milestones. However, those who are in control of the contract/commercial aspects are typically not in-country and therefore lack understanding of the complexity of local dynamics and of the value accorded to flexibility by technical staff. Many participants perceive that the anti-aid agenda in the media has narrowed space for donor staff and led to more rigid targets.

  • The donor-implementer relationship exists within a web of relationships – within consortia of implementers, in-country governments and local partners. PBR has often failed to create good incentives for collaboration and sometimes actively dissuades organisations from doing so. What incentives are there for local partners to work with implementers that require payment by results when there are other donors/programmes without this requirement that they could partner with?
  • Annual contract amendments are burdensome on resources and can put implementation on hold, creating acute cashflow problems for small local partners. Implementers have commercial incentives to forecast predictable payments, especially if they are managing loans, working to business targets and reporting to shareholders. Predictability is therefore easier for most than adaptability.

Issue 2: Managing our time between upward accountability and programme delivery

  • Again, implementers perceive different demands coming from within a single donor. The political section asks for ‘real time’ information, the commercial section wants time spent on contract amendments and reporting; and the technical side wants to spend time on delivery. All of these add up to mean more time is spent managing the donor relationship instead of delivering the programme. Gathering evidence for payment by results can be particularly time-consuming for the programme – as well as for the donor validating this evidence.
  • In the case of DFID, a strong donor-implementer relationship has the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) at its heart. Implementers see it as the luck of the draw whether the SRO they work with is willing and able to work in a more adaptive way. Time spent talking to donors can be productive if it is spent developing understanding, a working relationship and supporting delivery. However, micro-management from the donor and commercial and political demands are more common.
  • Some participants pointed out that, although most of the conversation was about DFID due to the example used, DFID is in fact one of the more adaptive donors.  There are a lot others such as the EU, World Bank and UN can learn from DFID.

Issue 3: Visibility management

  • The Engaged Citizens team in PERL purposely take a ‘behind-the-scenes’ approach, supporting local partners to take the lead, take the responsibility and take the credit for whatever they collectively achieve. Programmes and donors which are more visible and take public credit for achievements can undermine local partners and diminish the credibility of the reform process itself. However, at the same time the donor needs to be able to ‘tell a good story’ about the programme – and these stories are framed to give the donor/programme responsibility and credit for achievements. This tension is there in all programmes – but the pressure is higher in PERL due to its financial size, its prominence in DFID’s portfolio of work in Nigeria, and DFID’s need to justify this spend.
  • In general, the group agreed that it is hard to show contribution and tell a complex story well in programmes that are trying to be adaptive and locally-led, especially where there is pressure to focus on regular reporting of tangible results for the purpose of payment. Implementers have to balance results and process, shielding partners who are already swimming against the tide to deliver complex change on the ground.

Action planning

Participants were tasked with thinking of possible solutions and things to try themselves.

What might donors do differently?

  • Speak with one voice as an organisation. This would require internal conversations to explore what different parts of the organisation are looking for and to come to compromises where necessary (e.g. between technical and commercial requirements)
  • Develop a crack team of adaptive donor staff who are fully trained in adaptive methods (including in procurement and contracting) and then empower them in-country.
  • Use programme-funded posts, where donor staff are seconded to work within a programme. This means the donor has a presence and close understanding of the programme, potentially reducing the need for constant reporting.
  • Recognise trade-offs in programme quality when new compliance requests are made (unless more management resources are offered to complete the task).


  • Only use payment by results where it is suitable. There are ways of blending contractual arrangements so that PBR is not so all encompassing.
  • Build trusting relationships between implementing partners as well as with donors. This could include non-competing relationships between programmes working jointly: for example, by having one annual review, ‘you sink or swim together’.

Indicators and results

  • Use milestones around an adaptive process of learning and reflection, instead of outputs.
  • Try menu based approaches, as in for example the EPI programme in Nepal.
  • Use contribution analysis ‘in a serious way’ to tell a complex story.

This workshop is part of a broader project on adaptive development practice. Visit the #AdaptDev project page for more information.