Partnerships and Pivots: How COVID-19 is Changing Development Assistance in Indonesia

All Blog Partnerships and Pivots: How COVID-19 is Changing Development Assistance in Indonesia

Partnerships and Pivots: How COVID-19 is Changing Development Assistance in Indonesia

September 05, 2020 | Blog | By Andrew Thornley

One of the important takeaways from these early months of the COVID-19 pandemic is that partnerships and new collaborations will be more important than ever for effective and sustainable development assistance.

Why so? Early evidence in Indonesia points to the necessity of partnerships with a greater diversity of funders as a result of reduced funding from traditional donors. There will also be more reliance on national and sub-national partners for co-design and implementation, and the need to partner to be able to successfully pivot/adapt/innovate (choose your favorite term) due to shifts in funds to critical sectors.

In a survey of development professionals conducted by Saraswati, Polling Center and Love Frankie last month, respondents were more than five times as likely to say development funding in Indonesia would decrease rather than increase. Related to this, 38 percent ranked an increase in alternative sources of funding as one of the top three consequences of the pandemic.

Thirty-five percent of respondents had already had their employment negatively affected through reduced hours, role adjustment or unemployment. Globally, expatriate exodus and budget as well as staffing cuts among international development partners have highlighted the importance of “local first” approaches for effective implementation going forward.

A recent webinar with representatives from leading donor institutions in Indonesia confirmed a significant shift in development assistance to health services and economic recovery for the foreseeable future. This leaves many development partners and their professional staff with valuable experience and relationships but in out-of-favor sectors.

For most development organizations—and especially smaller and sub-national ones pivoting is easier said than done. Expanding partnerships and collaborations offers a viable and potentially exciting path to enrich interventions and promote sustainability.

The problem is that while development organizations share plenty of information and love a good coordination meeting or co-design event, we are not the most adept at strategizing partnerships. In the name of accountability, we operate in an environment in which the need to compete via serial tenders outweighs any motivation to systematically collaborate. Programs that focus on technical aspects of an issue, such as education, or a cluster of partners, such as civil society organizations, are important but have traditionally ignored incentives among implementers for cross-sector collaboration and created a talent pool with deep but narrow skill sets. This narrow skills base is reinforced through recruitment from top to bottom that prioritizes similar experience over valuable experience that could bring new perspectives and grease the wheels for new partnerships. And partnerships tend to be hierarchical, along the lines of funder—> grantee /contractor—> subgrantee/subcontractor.

The result is that few development partners have tried and tested strategies for driving partnerships, let alone the range of internal skills to realize these.

To be fair, financial sustainability and resource mobilization have been gaining traction as stand-alone or embedded elements of development funding. Deriving learning and facilitating training and mentoring to support collaboration and partnerships with a broader array of funders—from philanthropic institutions to private companies and even local governments—are inherent in these. But these are early days and we’re still learning the language. Even the best-intentioned company representatives glaze over at the mention of stakeholders, beneficiaries and other development speak.

As one attempt to tackle this issue, Saraswati has had the opportunity to work with Yayasan Plan International Indonesia (Plan Indonesia) over the past few months to redefine and improve the latter’s partnership strategies. This exercise has highlighted important considerations for Plan Indonesia, from defining shared values with potential partners, to engaging staff across the organization in contributing to new strategies, and assessing partnerships as more than just funding relationships.

This detailed process has involved assessing existing procedures, engaging a broad array of staff in an online design workshop, development of new processes, and an approach to potential partners in May. This last component alone resulted in forty-nine companies and organizations each completing a detailed online survey to define their interest in partnership with Plan Indonesia. While this reflects well on Plan Indonesia’s social capital its brand and relationships it is also compelling evidence of the appetite for, and importance of, partnerships in this current environment. 

Plan Indonesia is on the right path wanting to establish and strengthen partnerships that can enrich program design, suggest new areas for strategic collaboration, improve accountability of partnership processes, support reciprocal skills-building as well as open doors to new sources of funding. These all contribute to organizational sustainability. Looking inwards this requires attention to everything from leadership and planning, to procedures, social capital, human resources, and Plan Indonesia’s unique value proposition. Looking outwards this requires more nuanced understanding of a broader range of potential partners their resources and incentives, in particular as well as compromise.

The direction of development assistance is reflecting a world in great flux. While resources are diverted to address essential health and economic needs, skilled professionals will continue to lose jobs, and smaller organizations with valuable knowledge and relationships will remain vulnerable or close doors. Greater attention to internal and external incentives for stronger, more equitable and more diverse partnerships will help.


Saraswati welcomes new partnerships and provides technical assistance on partnership strategies. Contact us at