Partnership Matters: A Reflective Guide is intended to help you to reflect on the way in which you and your organisation approach working in partnership. Each chapter ends with a number of questions which you may wish to ask yourself which will help you reflect on how you create, manage and develop partnerships. The questions are intended to stimulate thinking about why you do what you do and how you may wish to do things differently in future. At the end of the guide are some suggestions for how you might wish to take your reflections further.
To download your free copy follow this link.
Next month I will be launching a downloadable Reflective Guide which tells the fictional story of development project in Tanzania and the person who was inspired to set it up. At the end of each chapter there will be questions and exercises to stimulate thought and discussion. The guide can be used on your own or to shape a group process within your organisation or a group of peers.
The content in the guide is inspired by years of work as a development practitioner and countless conversations with all kinds of people from researchers to other practitioners, and from people with good ideas to those who think that development is doomed. My hope is that the guide will, if you choose to read it, encourage you to think about your practice with some new perspectives and ask questions about how and why you do things the way in which you do. It will look at how you came to be working in development in the first place and what your values and motivation are as well as looking at organisational narratives and practice. In some small way this guide is my contribution to helping you to keep thinking and questioning so that we all stay alive to change. I believe that by looking at the world and our work in new ways we can stay open to the possibility of change which enriches what we do.
If you are interested in being one of the first to hear about the guide when it is read please sign up to the Partnership Matters mailing list, who will hear about it as soon as it is ready.
A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of development practitioners which was called to discuss the increasing emphasis on charity as opposed to justice.
Many there felt uncomfortable about the way that development is being portrayed by many INGOS and governments as ‘aid’. The resurgence of a charitable ‘aid’ approach, can be seen, for example, in the kind of fundraising campaigns which have returned to our newspapers and televisions depicting desperate children and suggesting that a small amount of the public’s money can save their lives. It can also be seen in the increasing pressure to measure results too quickly and to over-simplify the ways we demonstrate the ‘value’ of development work.
I went to watch the handball in the Olympic Park last Friday and watched Angola beat the Team GB women and end our hopes of qualifying for the next part of the competition. I found myself wondering as we watched the Angolan women beat us convincingly and deservedly how many of the people in that stadium knew where Angola was? How many of them knew that Angola is one of the world’s biggest producers of oil? That Angola has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world?
While I understand that the Olympics is not supposed to be political, I found myself troubled by the de-contextualisation of the game. I heard no one asking anything about Angola. No one wondering why so few Angolans were able to be there to support the game. It was as if there was no context to the other team, they were simply opponents to be conquered!
This sense of not knowing who the ‘other side’ were reminded me of the simple messages aid agencies feed the public in fundraising campaigns. These normally go something like ‘this person in this foreign land is desperately poor. Give us money and they won’t die’. Such campaigns tell us little about the context of poverty or the real causes of it, nothing about the partner organisation who may also be involved in trying to do something about the situation and nothing about the details about how money might be able to help.
The problem with this de-contextualised and de-politicised approach is that it often misses the real problems and in fact it can often do more harm than good. Focused on a simplified understanding it may ignore both the reasons for disproportionate wealth and poverty and solutions with real potential to create positive change. Approaching partnership with a political understanding of development, we are forced to understand and question the context of what we do. I think this would almost certainly mean telling the public more about the really situations of the people with whom we work – so that rather than reducing them to pictures of people living in extreme poverty, we are instead able to promote our shared humanity through development work. This would require us to think about the power implications of the decisions we make and about how we present our work with partners as well as how we interact with them. Ultimately it might also mean that solidarity would become our focus and so we might also choose different partners, prioritising social movements and new thinking above the ability to fit a narrow ‘aid’ driven agenda for change.
Sustainability is an interesting concept to me. Sometimes it seems as if it is the holy grail of development projects. It’s also something that we often claim to be a benefit of working with partners overseas. By working with local organisations and ‘building their capacity’ so our investment of time and resources will, we assert, have a more sustainable impact. I suppose we usually mean that in some way, by doing things in a certain way we believe that the impact of what we do will last longer. But I find it curious that we seldom interrogate and critic the assumption that things that last longer are somehow intrinsically better! And whilst it makes sense to make the planets resources more sustainable so that life on the planet can continue for our children and our children’s children does it automatically follow that development actions should have the same logic applied to them? I’m not sure that it does. Whilst ‘sustainable development’ in it’s strictest sense is about’ a pattern of economic growth in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment’ we have grown accustomed to banding the term ‘sustainable’ about in relation to everything we do. Of course we should be trying to create Sustainable Change? But it doesn’t automatically follow, I don’t think, that the actions themselves should be ‘sustainable’? Nor perhaps that the organisations we support are somehow better if they go on forever. Quite the opposite perhaps, shouldn’t we be trying to trigger change so that things are never the same again? What does this mean for partnership working? Should our partnerships last forever? Should we be trying to make sure that our partners always remain the same? I’d suggest not. We need ways to ensure that partnerships are flexible and allow the parties involved in them to change and grow. It might be that as a particular situation changes the partner, or we, no longer need to exist. AfriKids has a future in which the UK partner no longer needs to exist as a specific aim. You can read more about it in the Partnership People section where there in an interview with the Director, Georgie Feinberg. Or it may be that the activities we engage in change radically over time? The support we offer partners should not necessarily be about making them or the particular approach to working ‘sustainable’ but about together creating ‘sustainable change’ – in other words about helping them make sure that nothing is ever the same again.
I’ve written about trust today in the Partnership Matters newsletter, specifically about how the lack of trust is self-perpetuating, breeding more and more distrust.
It seems obvious on one level that cultural development partnerships need to be based on trust. Yet a basic lack of trust, often dressed up as “cultural differences” seems to me to be endemic in the sector.
To manage this mistrust INGOs often seem to operate with mistrust mitigated by an often complicated set of checks, policies and procedures meant to reduce risks and identify offenders.
Time and again partner agencies don’t measure up to the standrads we set and need “capactiy building” to do a better job.
And perhaps because we don’t trust our partners to come up with effective solutions, we end up providing our own? Or because they don’t do exactly what we want, we offer to train and capacity build them?
What would happen if, for a change, we simply asked, ’what do you really think would make a difference here?’, then gave them the financial support they needed to put their plan in action?
No difficult questions asked, just as an experiment?
Because the truth is that so far, development hasn’t transformed poverty, and lots of it has been pretty useless. So rather than replicating processes and systems that by and large haven’t been working, why don’t we see our work as an experiment? And let people experiment with their own ideas?
In 2010 I visited Mozambique for the first time in 15 years. I was on a monitoring visit and had also arranged to meet with possible new partners. Not speaking Portuguese, I found working Mozambique pretty tough. I had a very different feeling to that which I have in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda where I feel that, by and large, I understand what is going on around me. This is partly because I speak fluent Swahili and partly because I have visited so many many times I feel ‘at home’ rather than ‘at sea’. I feel I can communicate and come close to understanding situations, problems and solutions. I feel that in this space ideas and plans and even transformation are possible.
In Mozambique I felt different. I felt isolated and I felt that my experience was almost entirely ‘translated’ for me by my very kind a courteous hosts.
Two things served to emphasis this. On a visit to a market we had stopped to ‘take a soda’ when a well-dressed man approached us offering his business card.
Arnaldo Nyanala Director describes himself on his card as ‘Sworn Translator of Portuguese/English Vice-Verse. My first investigative question to Arnaldo, ‘Do you speak English?’ was met with the interesting reply, ‘No, I only write! No I only write!’
I particularly liked the more in depth explanation on the back of his card:
‘We do all document translations, simultaneous interpretations, touristy guides for Males, and Females during all hours in Mozambican territory, profissional work and confidential’
As this wasn’t enough to persuade me just how much language matters something much more important got lost in translation as I prepared to leave Mozambique. Upstairs in the airport tapping away at my report on this very laptop I inquired of one of the airport staff whether it was time to board Kenya Airways, the reply, ‘not yet’, assured me that I still had time to waste – ten minutes later, to my dismay, after a tip-off from a member of the public I discover, aghast that my bags had been removed from the flight and it was about to take off without me, the ‘lost passenger’ who had checked in 2 hours previously but whom they had apparently been unable to find upstairs. Many hours later, after a frosty standoff with a man from Kenya Airways who accused me of lying and falling asleep before eventually conceding some responsibility for the unfortunate mishap, I found myself once again by the ocean, eating seafood and reflecting that, sometimes life imposes a timely pause.
Pause and think about it. How much is lost in translation? How sure are you that you know are communicating effectively with your partners? How possible might it be to effect transformational change in an absence of shared understanding? How much do language barriers impede your work? Is there ways you could help salvage what might be lost in translation and improve the way you communicate with those with whom you work?
When I first worked in development for LCI in the 1990s much of my administrator role involved faxing important documents to 5 training and development offices around the world. Communication was often slow and difficult. It sometimes took me hours to send a fax. There is no doubt that in those days communication hampered attempts to involve people ‘on the ground’ in decisions affecting their lives.
We forget sometimes how much had changed. It has changed beyond belief. Now, if I choose to be connected, I get daily real time updates from people all over the world via email, web alerts and social media. Though sometimes we may feel swamped by all this communication, there is no doubt that now, we can communicate in ways that change our ‘business’ entirely.
At the same time, recent research by Huyse (2011) with 11 Belgian INGOs shows that though they most ‘appreciated the usefulness’ of learning, reflection, feedback and visits they planned more ‘future investment’ in technology; intranets, extranets and virtual platforms, than in the learning they valued.
I wonder why? They thought reflection was more useful but nevertheless they planned to invest in technology. Is it easier to raise funds to invest in technology? Is there something useful about looking and feeling ‘up-to-date’? Why don’t we invest more in reflection? I wonder in fact whether we fear reflection because it might mean we have to question our own worth. We might have to ask ourselves why, in an ‘age’ of rapid and regular communication, do INGOs need to exist at all?
It seems to me that its increasingly feasible for donors to ‘cut out’ INGOs and communicate directly with local NGOs working in the countries and on the issues which they want to support. So what are INGOs for? I think we need to reflect more honestly are the value that we might be able to add. Are we really able to build more equitable approaches to partnership for example? Can we develop ways in which to do that? Can we advocate for and with local NGOs on the issues that matter to them?
As far as I’m concerned making our Partnerships Matter should be a key part of the value we add. Our Partnerships could and should be a living demonstration of how to build fairer connections in an ever more connected but still desperately unfair world. But to make them that we must be willing to reflect more honestly and to face the places where we our relationships aren’t working well. And we need to make Partnerships that work more effectively a key criteria when measuring the effectiveness of our work.
There is a new document in the research section of the site. It’s a piece of research commissioned by BOND about different approaches to partnership in the International Development sector. It tells us much about how the 22 ‘agencies’ consulted view, manage and assess their partnerships. Because of resource constraints it tells us little about what those ‘partner’ agencies actually think. I sympathise with BOND, who commissioned the report. I’m sure resrources were tight and all their own remit is to be the network for INGOs here and so it’s the agencies based in the UK who are their direct concern. Yet I can’t help feeling uneasy about any attempt to analyse partnership which doesn’t look at what partners actually think. I’ll go further, I’m uneasy about any attempt to understand the effectiveness of development which doesn’t ask partners what they think. In my mind I sometimes draw comparisons with the corporate sector. An INGO who works with partners but doesn’t ask them what they think is a bit like, it seems to me, a company that produces a product but doesn’t ask the customers what they think of it. But the analogy stops there. Because in the corporate sector not asking a customer what they thought would most likely be commercial suicide at worst – and very lucky at best. In addition customers who didn;t like the product would simply vote with their feet! But in international development its possible to exist for years without ever really asking the partners we work with what they think. I’m not suggesting that this is what all INGOs do but I do think its a position which is possible. Its possible because the partners, our ‘customers’, are not usually providing the funds. And so if we have an effective fundraising outfit we can continue to obtain resources even if the partners, whose work we support are unhappy with the support they receive. This situation makes me sad and it makes me angry. Sad because it means that our partners opinions, thoughts and feelings can be ignored. Angry because when this happens we are listening to ourselves and those who fund us instead of the people, whose work, we purport to support. It should never be this way and that’s why I really supported the Keystone Accountability Partner Survey, which was also part-funded by BOND in which for the first time 25 ‘northern’ NGOS got a third party (Keystone) to ask their partners what they thought and compared the finding. You can find the report in the research section now too. The major findings of the study were that using partner surveys in this way produced data which INGOS found helpful and also which was comparable. The authors felt that the collection of this sort of data collected anonymously which could be both structured and comparative should become ‘a new standard for reporting the performance of NGOs that work in partnership with southern organisations. The standard could create a powerful new basis for funding decisions, so that funds are better directed towards those NGOs that are seen as working most effectively by their southern partners’. They also found that ‘Respondents want northern NGOs’ help to become strong, independent and influential organisations. They contrast this with being contracted to implement northern NGOs projects and priorities.’ Food for thought for us all!
So much, it seems to me, of the potential for disagreement, conflict and confusion in partnerships relates to funding. Local partners that have been independently established and created by an individual and group of people will naturally usually some idea or plan about what they were established to do. Perhaps an organisation was envisioned by someone with a clear idea of a situation or policy which they wanted to change? Perhaps it was created to meet a need felt by a group, individual or community?
Enter an international NGO which wants to support the partner. Because International NGOs have their own visions, missions, goals and criteria the development of a partnership is always a negotiation. Too often, in my experience, that negotiation starts with an explanation of the strategies and approaches of the international NGO. When a conversation starts in this way local NGOs necesserily ‘adapt’ their plans to ‘meet the needs of the INGO’. Those needs might be working in a specific way or with a specific issue. They often mean adapting the original priorities of the local NGO.
Sometimes this can feel to the INGO like a ‘win’. Sometimes this does mean that a local NGO is working on an important issue they wouldn’t have tackled or in a way that they wouldn’t have thought of. This may reap benefits. However it may also mean that the local NGO faces some difficult choices. Does it divert all it’s energies to doing what the INGO wants? Or should it continue to do what it originally planned for and seek to manage the expectations of the INGO? Often it may try to do both. And feel exhausted trying.
What we all want, INGOs and local NGOs alike, is sufficient resources to implement our vision. We want to give our ideas a try. We want to see what works and improve our effectiveness. Usually it is a struggle to convince ‘donors’ that what we really need is a free reign so that we can figure out what really works. Worse still many institutional donors have a policy of match funding. Here we must not only invent a project that fits their criteria and policies but we must also convince someone else to give us the remainder of the money to do exactly what the first funder wanted us to do. More often than not significant resources must be invested in seeking such ‘match funding’. Often organisations who have some unrestricted money find it easier to do the so called ‘matching’ from their own precious funds.
Behind the concept of match funding is the assumption that our work will be better if we are great persuaders able to convince a range of people to support the same thing. In fact to be successful at this ‘game’ of course we must make ourselves in to great ‘adapters’. We must fit our work in to the frameworks favoured by funders at any given point in time. Local NGOs face the same problems. Resources are avalible to those able to be great adapters. Yet if my vision is strong and clear and I am committed to my purpose I may not be willing to adapt.
I have been saddened in the past few years to see the demise of both, Healthlink and One World Action which I viewed as examples of organisations where the need for positive partnership principles and practice were recognised and applied. Then sorting through my emails over Christmas I found one from the late Bernie Trude, who was my mentor and who had shared with me a diagram that was created – I think when he worked with Healthlink – about the characteristics of both Strong and Weak Partnership. I had a bee in my bonnet about partnership before I met Bernie but somehow when I was working with him I developed the confidence to make positive partnership a key element of my own work with AbleChildAfrica. The chart clearly contrasts Strong Partnerships with values and shared understanding being critical elements with Weak Partnerships where communications are one way and dependency is encouraged.
In the context of these recollections I’ve been thinking this week about why I started Partnership Matters and my vision for it in 2012. Why does this issue you matter to me and what does it mean for my life and my work? The saddest thing for me is when development work rather than sharing values with poor and marginalised people recreates a dependence cycle which perpetuates their poverty and marginalization. I think this diagram which I got from Bernie can help us to start to think more clearly about how to avoid and tackle this. To think about the ways in which many of the very procedures and processes popular in the sector may, often inadvertently, be reproducing a kind of subservient dependence which perpetuates and replicates everything which is so unfair about the world we live in. Somewhere deep inside me I know that as long as we continue to find such approaches acceptable we resist the genuine possibility of the creation of a fairer world. In the face of the current cuts and challenges facing the sector and the pressure on resources worldwide it’s increasingly important that we keep on remembering the importance of living our values and making them meaningful as we carry out our work.
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