Diego Bonomo is Team Leader of the Brazil Trade Facilitation program. Lara Gurgel is the program’s Trade Facilitation Lead.
One could create the best technical solution possible, but without an agreement on how it will be managed and funded once it is handed over to the end-user, it will be, for all intents and purposes, useless. The UK-government funded Brazil Trade Facilitation (BTF) program, which is promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth in Brazil, built a digital platform that matches Brazilian businesses with services that help them export their goods.
The program is ending this year, and in order for the platform (called BRAEXP) to live on and continue supporting small businesses, it needed to be handed over to Brazilian stakeholders to finance and manage moving forward.
That handover wasn’t simple. The entity taking over BRAEXP not only had to agree on who will pay for the platform going forward, but also who would have legal responsibility over it and who would have the most say in its running. The number of stakeholders involved, with their various interests and potential roles, the legal implications of owning the platform, and the donor-recipient country dynamic made for complicated negotiations on what a handover would mean.
Of course, the challenges that come with the transfer of tech solutions aren’t unique to donor-funded programs. Technology is normally developed by one organisation and handed over to a different user organisation. But no matter the context, when the handover is done poorly, the technology often ends up underutilised or not used at all.
Our experiences with Brazil Trade Facilitation have shown just how important questions of governance and politics are for tech projects and provided lessons for any donor program developing an IT solution that is intended for management by public entities in the recipient country.
How to Ensure Sustainability in the Long-term
So, what can you do to ensure that solutions transferred from a donor program to national stakeholders are sustainable beyond the life of the program, when the take-up requires agreement on multiple issues between many different stakeholders, often with competing interests and agendas?
1. First, understand the political economy of the country or sector you are working in. Map all the key actors, organisations and individuals, including their incentives and levels of power, and have a good grasp of the dynamics between them. In the case of BRAEXP, for instance, all the actors are export service providers, competing and cooperating at the same time. In addition, some are government agencies or linked to the government, and also compete in public policymaking. It's critical to also remember that power dynamics may shift, as after elections or due to changes in business leadership, and this may require an entire ‘resale’ of the solution to new key players.
2. Next, form a coalition to try to align interests of the various stakeholders. This can initially be an informal coalition of technical staff who focus only on easy-to-discuss issues. Make sure to not exclude powerful stakeholders who could torpedo your project if they wanted to, even if they are difficult to work with. It is better to have them be part of the coalition and to work through tough issues together rather than risking them completely obstructing your work.
3. Create a space for negotiations. At first, this space may need to be informal – such as a temporary management committee, which is what our team set up for the negotiation of the financial, legal, and operational questions on BRAEXP. Over time, increase the level of formality by, for example, registering meeting outcomes in minutes and requesting stakeholders’ approval of these, and by moving up organisations’ hierarchical ladders to involve more senior decision-makers as a way to increase leadership buy-in for your solution.
4. Institute the single undertaking principle for the negotiations. Here, stakeholders negotiate as much as possible on each specific issue, but nothing is binding until the final agreement, covering all the issues, is ready. This prevents negotiations from getting stalled as every item of the negotiation is part of a whole and indivisible package and cannot be agreed separately. In our case, even without a final decision on the BRAEXP’s legal and financial models, stakeholders managed to move forward with negotiations on data sharing, services selection, and branding as they knew nothing was going to be decided until everything was decided.
5. Continually create ‘intermediate gains’ for stakeholders. Before the benefits of the solution being transferred can be felt, provide other, smaller benefits. This generates goodwill and reduces the likelihood that stakeholders will jump ship, as they become increasingly invested in the process and do not want to look like obstructionists who abandon an initiative that is already proving useful. Before BRAEXP was ready to be rolled out, for example, Brazil Trade Facilitation delivered the full digitisation and automatisation of a key BRAEXP trade service that allows Brazilian businesses to assess their export maturity and receive free tailor-made plans that identify the services they need to access or expand international sales.
Considering governance arrangements early on, in parallel with the development of the tech solution, and then steering the governance agreement in a politically savvy way, will greatly increase the chances of a successful transfer of your solution. For us, applying these ideas has paid off – in November 2022, the BRAEXP platform officially became part of Brazil’s trade policy, assuring its sustainability.
While technology projects bring with them some unique challenges, we believe these lessons are equally applicable to social and economic development programs more generally, whenever public service solutions need to be handed over from donor programs to local stakeholders. Without careful political maneuvering, programs’ impacts will be short-lived and unsustainable. The opposite is also true.
The Brazil Trade Facilitation program is funded by the UK government and implemented by Palladium. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.