Technical cooperation: Operational implications

An emerging joint consensus

Perspectives on technical co-operation today, whether from partner countries or donors, globally recognize a number of building blocks to future agreement on more jointly acceptable approaches. Basic elements include:

  • Use technical assistance to support and stimulate partner country processes
  • Progressively shift management to partner countries, as possible
  • Improve technical co-operation action by adopting a capacity development perspective
  • Jointly manage technical co-operation actions flexibly but around results
  • Use evidence based learning as a longer term, central feature of future policy and action

Implications for partner countries and donors

“Jointly select and mange technical co-operation…” AAA paragraph 14b (i)

“… promote the provision of technical co-operation by local and regional resources, including through South-South co-operation” AAA paragraph 14b (ii)

In reviewing the implications of evidence to date on the use of technical co-operation for capacity development, it is important to emphasise the generally donor-centric focus of reports, evaluations or other forms of documentation, including this Perspectives Note. Because of the current interest in shifting action in this area to partner country perspectives as a starting point, a first overarching implication for all partners is that any future effort be re-oriented to take this into account1.

The implications and options below that are drawn from current evidence appear to be a reasonable foundation for a broader based approach to partnership in technical co-operation. These options are not necessarily new, but now can be brought forward more meaningfully in the context of the aid effectiveness agenda. Today’s agenda is less a question of “what” to do, but rather “how” to do it. This is brought out most forcefully at the level of country experience.


RETHINKING ROLES: Technical co-operation effectiveness ultimately requires strong partner country involvement and concrete investment of its leadership in decision-making and management of technical assistance, but also training and educational grants. Donors increasingly are ready to adapt their systems and procedures so as to permits this type of partner country role. To ensure that informed decisions are made at the country level there needs to be full transparency about the alternatives available, including strengths and weaknesses of different options and cost implications.

STRATEGIC DIALOGUE – The issue of technical co-operation should be discussed openly wherever required (e.g. where funding is large, or where there are potential distortions of effort or other dilemmas) at the appropriate levels between country stakeholders and external partners. It is a strategic issue integral to the discussion on aid effectiveness, capacity development and public sector reform, and as an item for mutual accountability. Partner countries can demonstrate commitment in visible and high level ways (offer champions, engage society). In their strategic dialogue, country partners should require clarity about the actual purpose of the technical cooperation. Opportunities to engage donors on technical co-operation issues at the operational level can occur through organized participation/leadership in substantive, results-based management or in sector level forums.

PLANNING AND HRM: One frame of reference for technical co-operation engagement and planning is that of human resource planning and management within the local public service. Within that context it may be possible to think more strategically about the use of all forms of technical co-operation as instruments for sustainable capacity development. It also is a logical bridge to use of technical co-operation in relation to public sector reform. Local planning instruments, including sector development plans can offer a useful more specific reference for assessing capacity and determining the potential contribution of donor technical co-operation.

DONOR SYSTEM CONSTRAINTS: Donors agencies need to assess their own capabilities for supporting capacity and change processes in the field and for ensuring the effective use of technical co-operation personnel, training and educational grants. This includes examination of systemic constraints and dilemmas as well as human resource considerations, especially in the country offices. At a more detailed level, this could imply: deployment of specialised staff to country/regional support offices; more systematic training; better sharing of analysis and action in the (often fragmented) donor national systems; better sharing among donors and partners, in headquarters and the field. Donors need to ensure that performance criteria for staff provide incentives for consistent application of this policy (e.g. as part of the staff annual work plan) and may imply rethinking of overall staff and performance planning.


BEGIN WITH OPERATIONAL VISION: Technical co-operation for capacity development begins with partner country strategy and donor activity design must work from that perspective. Operationally specific local strategy/plans (country, system, sectors) can be pragmatic entry points. Subsequent (or simultaneous) harmonisation of action with other donors around these entry points may be another. Depending on context, it needs to be remembered that there are limits to what any specific external intervention can achieve, especially in complex and politically sensitive environments.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITY DESIGN: More detailed activity design, including those of technical cooperation, should include proper diagnosis and understanding of the context. Other issues that can be addressed at this level include: the appropriate mix of technical co-operation approaches and knowing when to shift from one to the other; the benefits of flexible and iterative programme approaches; appropriate approaches to results accountability and learning; how to provide the right incentives. At this level, partners can identify ways to build in greater flexibility in accommodating evolving needs and demands.

LOCAL OPERATIONAL ENGAGEMENT: Partner country participation and/or leadership are integral to technical co-operation management. Depending on local preferences and sharing of responsibility this involvement could include review/selection panels, development of criteria for selection (personnel, training, scholarships) or performance appraisal. Donors have a collective responsibility to ensure that local choices to their activities are made as openly as possible, including attention to donor tying practices and greater attention to local, regional and broader South-South options, where relevant.

TA QUALITY CONTROL: In addition to making sure that TA personnel have facilitation, training and coaching skills at the time of selection, insist on quality standards and seek to improve upon them over time. Practical suggestions from field experience: insist on a counterpart to work through; don’t participate in workshops, meetings etc without a counterpart; don’t start new reform processes (unless there is a lot of buy in) but support existing/planned processes – go where the energy is; work with local capacity development service providers rather than bringing in outside orgnisations; link training with changes in systems, procedures, policies; work at multiple levels, individual/organisational, practical/strategic; consider part-time but long-term TA modality (although can be management intensive).

EXPERIMENT WITH POOLING: Donor pooling arrangements can be a simple, operational means for country partners to think collaboratively and more strategically about technical cooperation, its use and composition. Technical co-operation pooling arrangements have some obvious efficiency and effectiveness implications, but will be possible only to the extent that donor processes and motivation locally accommodate them.

RESULTS BASED ACTION: Locally derived and jointly led frameworks for monitoring and evaluating the role and performance of technical co-operation, are key to its use and management. External support for local management of this process can empower country partners to assume full and legitimate responsibility for it, while pragmatically building their own organisational capacities. This includes use of properly structured results frameworks for individual technical cooperation, and measures that increase accountability between technical assistance and local supervisors. More broadly, donor support of learning systems at the local and regional level are potentially one key way to anchor successful capacity reforms in the local landscape.


1 One case in point is the April 2010 “Dili Declaration” which identifies capacity development as a pillar of its action plan, but where partner countries reflected their own, different, focus on donor hiring and procurement practices at the local level.