Working in Partnership — A Smart Choice but a Hard Task


During the past years, in particular, the discussions on partnerships has intensified, as this approach is increasingly propagated through policies and within the development cooperation community. Most importantly, in the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, UN member states identified the need for a stronger commitment to partnerships and cooperation as essential to achieving the other 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Why is this the case? — There is growing recognition, that most development issues are complex: the poverty gap in the world, hunger, and manmade suffering through wars and unplanned migration cannot be resolved by one actor, one organization or one sector alone. It is important to note that all of these complex issues require a sound functional market force (a market system that is regulated and respects the regulations) driven by a good and positive political will. Both the creation of this political will and the establishment of a sound market system are in themselves systems of complex standing. If we are to achieve for instance zero hunger, it means we need sustainability products (The outcome of Sustainable approaches or actions) within what we do that changes the situation — the impact of the work done by development cooperation. The system (Initiated processes must achieve outcomes that are owned by all), must be able to create an outcome that incorporates ownership, participation, and satisfaction holistically and inclusively. By uniting or linking the political will and the market forces, we are creating competition and to manage this competitiveness, there must be laws, policies, guidelines and structured processes to lead the sustainability breadth. This too is a complex model to sustain. With Civil Society empowered and strengthened, there is an assurance that they can bring the actors together and serve as a collaborative bridge for development.

This is why multi-actor partnerships (MAP) which provide the space for continuous exchange and providing space for bringing in complementary knowledge are important. However, setting up a functioning MAP is not an easy task.

First of all, it is imperative to note that MAP processes must start by very carefully identifying the key challenges or issues at stake and their root causes. The context analysis should go further down to determine those actors who show an interest in addressing the issues identified as well as those who have the influence to actually tackle them. The analysis should assess why actors have not been capable to address the issues at stake and what they need to be able to respond to future challenges of similar magnitude. In case they have the capacity to respond, it must be identified which other forces or challenges hamper the finding of a solution, the application of the solution and the resolution of the problem within a reasonable timeframe. This is important because, when development cooperation identifies a problem, usually those actors are involved in the intervention who show interest to contribute to the resolution. However, less attention is given to other challenges that could be relevant — sometimes resulting in important issues being neglected. For example, a group of girls educated and trained by a missionary school went back home and realized that for them to be accepted in their village as women, they needed to be initiated (female genital mutilation FGM). However, the missionaries initially identified illiteracy as the serious problem affecting the girls in the village. How do they address these new demands? Even though the girls knew that FGM was not good, the drive for belonging could not allow them to abstain from being initiated.

Recognizing that the problems faced by people are complexed and no matter what forms they take, there is a social dimension to them all. These is where Multi-Actor Partnerships becomes relevant as it brings diversity, and the issues are seen from different eyes.

In the framework of partnerships, it is vital to consider the content of the initiative (what do we want to achieve?); but the design and facilitation of the process is at least equally important (how do we want to achieve this goal?).

For a MAP to function, it is essential to create a sense of ownership for the common goal among the actors involved and a sense of collective leadership: realizing the value of complimentary, where everyone brings in his or her expertise and knowledge creating a space for joint learning and introducing a system to make the impact of such processes measurable.

An example: Let’s say, an organization is working on improving household nutrition in a very poor area. This could require the organization to decide to work with other partners who may have some specific skills. The organization may want to delegate a component or various components identified to other partners. In such a program design, it is important to first identify the actors with the power to resolve the problem, the actors who could contribute to the resolution and the actors who would benefit and thus, have an interest in the resolution of the problem. Consequently, it is required to analyze the problem as well as to gain a thorough understanding of what is needed to resolve the problem. Within this scope, six key issues come into play, which I suggest to refer to as “The Sphere of Intervention”.

The sphere of intervention is the compass around which the situation is circulating. It is this cycle that the interventionist needs to know to arrive at a sustainable impact. This sphere includes the following:

Adaptive management: As indicated before, many of the issues that development cooperation aims to tackle are complex. Complex issues or problems require complex solutions. This means there is no linear approach, no easy “one fits all”-recipe that can be applied. Often, there is not even a clear right or wrong, the effects of initiated actions cannot easily be foreseen. Consequently, there is the need to constantly reflect actions, their impacts and the need for adjustment of earlier planning. Managing complexity is a constant learning cycle; the initial context and actor analysis will continuously be enriched through new insights and changes in the environment (e.g. staff changes in government staff). Evaluation, Documentation, and Learning is also a crucial part of adaptive management. Complexed issues no matter their similarities will hugely differ from people to people and from place to place. As long as humans remain social and political, any problem affecting humans will carry on the nature of politics, and sociological dimension. However, when evaluated concepts are documented, interventionist have a clue on the complexity that is expected, and adequate measures will then be involved into the planning, execution, and monitoring of interventions with time and resource to study the context, the relationships and finding a common solution.

System-based approach: However, acknowledging this complexity and finding ways to deal with it (e.g. by involving all relevant actors in the solution through multi-actor partnerships) has the potential to yield longer-term impacts. While many projects seek short-term gains, it is important to note that the outputs achieved may not be sustainable if the underlying root causes have not been addressed For example, towards the end of the 2010th, an increasing number of evaluations revealed that technical investments in the water sector did not result in reliable water and sanitation systems: On average, an estimated 30% of installed hand-pumps were found to be non-functional and another 40% only partially working after three to five years of installation. In traditional development thinking, the installation of the pump and the handing-over to a user committee with management functions were not seen to be part of a larger WASH system. A system that has many parts which are connected, have relationships to each other and are affected by context. In practice, the systems approach leads to a shift in the focus from only building infrastructure (pumps and latrines) to also supporting service authorities in the planning process. The approach also focuses on strengthening and using national systems instead of creating parallel ones, using only one monitoring and mutual accountability platform and thinking about sustainable financing strategies.

Solution lab, involving in particular affected citizens: Since no one organization can do it all, the systems approach also increases the potential for collaboration between external support agencies; it points to the importance of bringing together all interested and influential stakeholders to exchange, to bring in their perspectives and to elaborate possible solutions together (“collective intelligence”). Such a collaboration can function like a “solution lab”: a process where the ideas proposed undergo the scrutiny of all actors involved. The active participation of interested citizen is key in this process; as otherwise the solution may not be sustainable or may not address the root causes of the issue at stake. For example, following a large-scale land investment, rural women were left without areas for collecting wood and harvesting non-timber forest products; activities which had contributed to family livelihoods before. Without consulting the women, they were encouraged to improve incomes by undertaking poultry and were given chicken. However, just two years after the intervention was initiated, the chicken got old and there was no market for fertilized eggs and breeding chickens. Egg production stopped, and the women were again left without a source of income. If the village women were consulted, this gap would have been noticed and their suggestions could have changed the situation. This is why many civil society organizations are demanding that large-scale investors should use a different lens by developing share-benefit models (where local farmers only lease out parts of their land and use the other part for their needs)

The capacity of the system to adequately respond to future needs call for joint partnership between government (policy maker, duty bearer) and citizen (rights holders and taxpayers) as well as research (ensuring evidence-based debates; contributing innovative ideas) and private sector (investors; provision of good and services).

Appreciating cultural differences: However, such a system-based, adaptive approach that involves multiple stakeholders requires time. Every actor must be given sufficient space to contribute his/her expertise, experiences and formulate demands. This is easier said than done if stakeholders dispose of very different levels of resources (to organize themselves, to travel to meetings, to bring in evidence and expertise) and diverging sets of skills and knowledge. A cultural bias valuing academic education and expertise higher than practical knowledge and experience may lead to a marginalization of citizens affected by the issues at stake, particularly if in addition language barriers come into play. In such cases, additional efforts must be undertaken to guarantee a legitimate representation of citizens’ interest and their meaningful and effective participation.

Measuring the impact of partnerships: According to the “traditional” project logic, an intervention is successful if a pre-defined objective is achieved and outputs can be measured according to initially established indicators. Within the framework of MAP processes, the goal of the intervention will only be defined in the course of the formation and consolidation of the partnership, since it must be shared by all, based on the context analysis that is undertaken. Systemic change and the emergence in collective processes are difficult to measure. How can we trace back change in a complex, dynamic environment? — However, one indicator for collective emergence may be the functionality of the partnership itself: If the actors involved appreciating the initiative, if they show ownership for it, if there is evidence that there is increased communication and collaboration between the different actors, it is much more likely that the partnership will yield results. Still, even though, in the case of a MAP, process-related indicators such as ownership of the initiative, the participation of stakeholders or pooling of resources suggest an active partnership, further indicators are required to track emerging impacts of the partnership.

Defining roles of the partners involved: Hence, MAPs often have two layers of objectives: a process-oriented objective (strengthening an existing or respectively supporting the formation of a MAP) and a content-oriented objective (e.g. sustainable resource management, increase efficiency and collaboration in value chains, etc.). When international and national organizations partner to facilitate such initiatives, the roles of all partners involved must be defined at the onset, based on the specific expertise and requirements in the given context. For example, if the initiative aims to strengthen or support the formation of a multi-actor partnership to improve land governance, the national partner organization, representing citizens affected by the poor land administration, has the expertise and the legitimacy to engage in dialogue with the government. In such a case, the international partner rather serves as background support, assisting in the financial administration and supporting regular reflection and (re-)planning of the processes initiated by the national partner. Since the process-orientation of the MAP-approach, including its management requirements in terms of adaptivity, flexibility and regular reflection-(re)planning-cycles, may be new for the partners involved, it may be advisable to involve experienced process facilitators from the onset to support the initiative and to coach the key staff involved (e.g. Civil Society Academy).

Working in partnership is often encouraged and accepted as a smart choice. But putting this approach into practice is a challenge.



M Sahr Nouwah- The Hunter’s Grandson

Using poetry and storytelling to challenge issues affecting women and children within modern society, focusing on human development and fighting poverty.