Emma Crewe is an anthropologist and development practitioner currently based at the School of Oriental and African Studies carrying out research about the House of Commons. She is also a Trustee of Practical Action.
Tell me a bit about your experience with partnership working in international development?
When I began working for INGOs in the late 1980s we saw ourselves as minor partners within development initiatives while national NGOs, movements and governments were in the lead. We aimed to offer something extra – funding, technical advice, advocacy support – but nationals made the important decisions. The UK-based INGO sector has become greedy for funding and arrogant about its role in the last twenty years. Now INGOs set the goals, impose incredible bureaucratic demands and decide what is a success or a failure. They sometimes even by-pass national NGOs, movements and governments and charge in themselves to tackle poverty, working directly with the private sector (very fashionable). Our understanding of partnership and governance within international development has greatly increased but our good sense and integrity is on the wane.
What do you think are the key things that need to be in place for a partnership to work well?
It depends on what you are trying to achieve and with whom. Recently I worked at ChildHope (UK); we aimed to support NGOs in Africa, Asia and South America to promote social justice for girls, boys and youth. In that context we found that these helped our partnerships: (a) honest discussion about our distinctive and complementary goals and ways of working, (b) ChildHope recognised the limits of what it could do with only five staff based in London, (c) clear agreement about roles and responsibilities of different agencies involved, (d) strong shared culture of respect, consideration and trust, (e) commitment to innovation, reflection, continual learning and understanding why things go wrong rather than performance management and reward/punishment, (f) mutual accountability – so that both sides have a chance to give honesty feedback and can expect changes in practice as a result. About 90% of our partnerships had these characteristics – it meant in practice that ChildHope staff had very frequent and honest discussion with partner staff about how we could best support their initiatives.
Can you tell me about an experience you’ve had which you felt was partnership working at it’s most effective?
I managed one of our partnerships with an NGO in Africa for two years. ChildHope was the intermediary between this NGO and the donor in London. In public we supported and trusted each other through thick and thin; privately we gave each other constructively critical feedback and worked out how we could both improve our practice. During one feedback session the Project Managers in the African NGO voiced a complaint through their manager that ChildHope was only visiting (mainly) two out of the twelve projects they run. They all relished the kind of critical reflection that these visits entailed and demanded a fairer distribution of ChildHope’s time. Subsequently, ChildHope staff made a point of visiting all the projects over the course of a year.
Are you willing to share an example of something that you were involved in that didn’t go well?
An INGO I worked for adopted a mediating role when two of our partner NGOs fell out. The national NGOs’ Directors were scarcely talking to each other and although we meant well when we tried to fix their relationship, we failed. The two NGOs had different understandings and approaches to development and had only come together at the suggestion of the donor of the joint project. It might have been better to employ a dedicated mediator in the country concerned. It would probably have been wiser to allow national NGOs to choose each other rather than allowing the UK donor to do so.
What are the key things you think need to happen to improve partnership practice across the sector? For partnerships at the national level in Africa, Asia and South America:
First, national NGOs in the South should be given the time, space and resources to develop their capacity in ways that they design. If a Northern NGO is involved in an initiative, it would either not interfere (i.e. merely acting as a conduit for funds), or it would offer useful ideas or expertise but without creating an artificial, unnecessary or domineering role for itself. Northern NGOs should have to prove their value, so their Southern partners – who are best placed to judge whether their contribution is useful – should be given opportunities to evaluate the performance of the Northern NGOs. Donors could even insist that evaluation includes as assessment of the quality of service provided by the Northern NGOs. Meanwhile, it would be up to Southern NGOs to be responsive and accountable to their own constituency groups.
Secondly, a different approach to planning and management would help partnerships. A good plan would have an analysis of socio-political and economic context – including what the state, civil society and the private sector are doing and why – and set out what needs to change. Rather than projecting a linear pathway into the future, with controllable causes and predictable effects, there would be a statement of broad intentions and the possibilities for action, and reflection on possible winners and losers. This would be in place of a rigid five-year plan with a hierarchy of aims. Intentions should be designed by the Southern rather than the Northern NGOs, and they should drive the process of consultation with stakeholders and write the final plan. The emphasis should be on focused and efficient process monitoring, encouraging continual learning, review and adjustment, rather than an expensive and complex monitoring for measuring impact for donors. This would encourage innovation and responsiveness.
Thirdly, effective consultation with constituency groups would go beyond seeking their views and instead allow them to take an active role in decision-making, recognising diversity (on the basis of age, gender, class, ethnicity, [dis]ability) and finding ways to resolve differences. If the intended beneficiaries are portrayed as the principal actors – with rights and responsibilities – rather than victims to be rescued, then empowerment has a far better chance.
Fourthly, more effective approaches to the management of change would enable the development of agencies’ capacity to innovate, learn and adjust. Learning is not just about capturing information and putting it into documents; rather, it is about reflection across boundaries, responding to experience and change, resolving conflicting interests, and appropriate communication strategies. Learning would be given adequate time, space and resources to develop in unplanned ways and for a range of purposes – including process monitoring, advocacy and coalition-building and understanding impact. It would be based on the assumption that learning goes in all directions; that is, Northern agencies and individuals recognise that they have as much to learn from the South as they to teach.
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