The role contractors play in meeting sustainable development goals

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at one of the sideline events during the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / UN

Co-written by Betsy Bassan and Charlie Bell

We have watched with great interest the varied reactions to last month’s Rio+20 summit, where nearly 600 government representatives gathered to hammer out a blueprint on sustainable development. There was, inevitably, some concern about the lack of detail and specificity of targets. But for international development companies such as ours, a key takeaway relates to the profound role our companies can and must play in establishing and meeting sustainable development goals.

Rio+20 again made clear the need for transparency, accountability and measurable impact in the delivery of development assistance. It also reaffirmed the long-standing premise that meeting those needs will require enduring, integrated, collaborative partnerships among the entire ecosystem of public, private not-for-profit, and private for-profit organizations. To maximize the benefits of these partnerships, it is critical to identify and match the appropriate implementation instruments and funding vehicles to the specific objectives of a given program.

Smart development policy should leverage the best the world has to offer, regardless of whether it comes from nonprofits, large companies, small companies, universities, think tanks, or the public sector. The fact is, the best resides in all of these places – often working in tandem. Rio+20 again pointed out: It’s not about who, it’s about how well.

International development companies can and must play a pivotal role in supporting countries’ efforts to achieve sustainable development goals. Through the use of contracted services, international development companies will be able to help operationalize and achieve the ambitious goals associated with Rio. For example, we can help:

  • Foster an integrated “ecosystem” approach

Achieving sustainable development goals will require coordination and partnerships (which will need to be clearly negotiated) among various groups. International development companies are well positioned to work with all the key players in a country’s economy – business, NGOs and government. We recognize that each has a role to play in advancing national change. We are comfortable working with government and helping it modernize to better serve national objectives. We are at ease with business, and understand that profit and development are synergistic because businesses help achieve public objectives and social goals. We are comfortable working with NGOs at the national, local and grassroots levels.

International development companies have for decades navigated the “ecosystem” of key national organizations and experts – local businesses, associations, chambers of commerce, NGOs and governmental agencies – with our technical approach and detailed implementation plans. We reach out extensively to bring these organizations on board, often in non-exclusive relationships, and develop their local capacity. More than 90 percent of our staff are local nationals. Between 25 to 75 percent of our contract funds are used for local grants and other capacity building initiatives.

  • Promote innovation, transparency and accountability through contracted services

Through competitively awarded, results-oriented contracts, international development companies deliver accountable and transparent development projects that create sustainable solutions and local capacity. Through contractually obligated terms of reference, we have successfully increased exports, domestic sales and employment in sectors relevant to Rio+20: energy, agriculture, and water resources. Competitively awarded contracts lower costs, assure greater responsiveness, and often offer better value to the countries and communities in the developing world. The “scope of work” provisions of these contracts make international development companies accountable because they are, by law, subject to rigorous scrutiny and audits.

Properly designed requests for proposals for contracts – which is how we compete for work – motivate and require companies to propose innovative technical approaches that fully factor in local perspectives and realities. This competitive process fosters new methods and technical solutions that do not yet exist “in country.” Some notable examples of this include: new and improved agricultural production practices that increase farm yields; branding and consistent delivery of high-quality health care services that reduce diarrheal diseases and overall child morbidity rates; and new public administration skills that improve the responsiveness and accountability of public administrators.

  • Measure success and the accomplishment of the client’s (country’s) goals

Clearly defined objectives and the ability to monitor and evaluate progress are critical to operationalizing the sustainable development goals agenda. International development companies – building off of their integrated “ecosystem” capability and the accountability associated with contracted services – are able to establish comprehensive, practical and operational monitoring and evaluation systems. We know how to clearly define responsibilities among the various partners, balance short with longer term initiatives, and carry out cost-effective evaluations that properly and accurately validate the progress made towards priority objectives.

International development companies are committed to advancing sustainable economic development and eliminating poverty. Our mission statement is transparent and accountable – to serve our clients through contracts that have clearly defined outputs and measurable results. We seek to provide innovative solutions that build national capacity and ownership. We pride ourselves on ensuring that our work becomes part of the national fabric by the end of the contract. We believe that we best serve our clients when we successfully work ourselves out of a job – in turn allowing us to apply these success stories to new challenges elsewhere around the world.

Betsy Bassan is the president and founder of Panagora Group. Charlie Bell serves as group vice president for The Louis Berger Group. Both are members of the Executive Committee of the Coalition of International Development Companies.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

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