Best practice in partnerships with small NGOs in development
Anita Cheria and Edwin, OpenSpace, Bangalore
If you are reading this note, it probably means that you are either from a
• Large organisation planning on working with a small NGO or already working with one
• Small organisation planning on working with a large organisation or already working with one.
In either case, the relationship is one of an elephant and a mouse—it can be done, but even with the best of intensions, this is a difficult balance. Both must constantly be alert to ensure that the elephant does not step on the mouse.
1. Partnerships or relationships?
When people talk about ‘partnerships’, in reality they are talking about relationships. While all partnerships are relationships, not all relationships are partnerships. Partnerships are a special kind of relationship. It is not for nothing that in a gender equal world, we talk of ‘having relationships’ but of our ‘significant other’ as our ‘partner’. In development parlance too, it does retain those specific characteristics. International agencies (IAs) refer to the small local organisations (SLOs) as ‘partners’ but the same is rarely the case in reverse.
Relationships can be between any two or more entities. Partnerships are relationships between equals, with mutual respect. Partnership pre–supposes transparency, accountability and solidarity. A partnership in development is based on a commonality of values, interest and action. The ‘base document’ for such a partnership is the common ground between the development policy of the iNGO, bilateral or multinational agency or a ‘donor agency’ and the local (Indian) NGO. For simplicity and consistency, in this note the term International Agency (IA) is used for the former, and Small Local Organisation (SLO) is used for the latter.
2. What goes wrong: the how and why
Unfortunately, such ‘partnerships’ go bad right away. The reality is that the IAs see themselves as the agenda setters and the SLOs as implementing agencies. A World Bank document noted long ago that while the bank started off partnerships with NGOs due to their flexibility, adaptability and creativity, the NGOs became much more rigid due to their relationship with the bank rather than the other way around. The situation regarding other asymmetric ‘partnerships’ is, sadly, the same.
The reason is that these relationships centre around money, which the IAs have and the SLOs don’t. In the development sector, as everywhere else, those who pay the piper call the tune. Armed with money, ‘suggestions’ become virtual dictates. Immature ‘field officers’ with fancy degrees but little field experience sit in judgement over those with decades of experience in the field who are not as articulate. Given the employment desert, the fragile economic security of the employees (and often the CEO too) and the total lack of social security nets, the SLO agrees to practically anything required to get the all important funding. Ironically, the ‘field officers’ of IAs are often viewed as ‘people sitting in air-conditioned offices’ by people actually in the field, or as the IAs would put it ‘at the grassroots’—many of whom would love to exchange places.
Relationships where the point of relationship is the weakness of one part relates to the strength of another will always be abusive. The development sector is no exception.
3. Getting it right
The key change required is to relate on an agenda and platform where both are equals. The relationship needs to be on the strengths of both the IA and the SLO. Help with knowledge and expertise—including for institutional fund-raising. Money changing hands should be only after many levels of trust, complementarities, interests and strategic goals have been passed. If the rest of the relationship is not the overwhelming dominant part, financial transaction irreversibly changes the nature of the relationship from one of solidarity to one of donor and recipient.
The core competencies of IAs and SLOs are different. But they need to find common ground. There is often sufficient overlap in their vision, mission, policy and objectives. Each wants to fulfil the same agenda, and there is much more that unites us than divides. While the values and interests remain the same, there is a vast difference in skills, culture, and geo-political area of work. IAs work in the global north, and the SLOs in the global south.
For instance, the IAs are better at fund-raising (or have more access to funds), documentation and systems. SLOs are better at innovation at the grassroots, working where there are no systems or theory—often developing models and the theory on the run.
4. Coming together: the organisation
The complementary skills and areas of work are ideal for synergy—if some ground-rules can be agreed on.
• Recognise that working through SLOs means that you will need to build up their capacity too!
• A degree of transparency to start with, moving progressively higher.
• Understanding that there will not be agreement on all things by everyone on everything.
• Work together when and where possible, moving to higher levels.
• Shared objectives are good. Agreed up on values are non-negotiable. Micro-management is taboo. Dictating the process is forbidden.
5. Working together: the programme
5.1. Beyond vocabulary, into action
As mentioned earlier, IAs refer to the SLOs as ‘partners’ but the same is rarely the case in reverse. It goes much beyond just semantics. We have mastered the vocabulary of partnership (and human rights and political correctness, and ….) but action often remains feudal and dictatorial.
When IAs initiate a process of working with SLOs, there would need to be some mentorship and accompaniment process for building capacities and systems to make the interaction mature into a true partnership. It involves some intense engagement, but is a prerequisite for taking the relationship to the level of a partnership.
5.2. Building critical mass
For advocacy, there needs to be critical mass. Encourage SLOs to form partnerships with each other. Avoid dividing on IA boundaries, and on IA agendas, as is too often the case. IA turf wars in the north often get transferred to the SLOs in the south who cannot withstand such pressure.
5.3. Advocate for us where we cannot
There are many places where SLOs have no access, but IAs do. The obvious arena is geographical. Not many SLOs can afford to come to the home countries of the IAs and effectively lobby. Where SLOs can, they will. Where they cannot, they depend on solidarity. They also depend on solidarity of IAs to open doors within the SLO geographic area of operation, sometimes corporate bodies, but oftentimes other vested interests too.
The Swiss support would be that much more meaningful if Swiss civil society could lobby their government to release the list of tax evaders from India who have stashed their loot in Swiss Banks; or the British civil society if they could lobby against the weapons sales that diverts large amounts of national wealth from India, just to shore up a few thousand British jobs… the list could go on.
5.4. Bring in the community
Have an agreement with the community too… so that the commitment is to support them till they reach a certain standard of living (a ‘SMART’ life with dignity). Bring them on to the table so that they will also make reciprocal commitments: no more female foeticide, no caste discrimination or untouchability, no dowry… A social contract where each have roles and responsibilities, not where one community is the burden of another is needed in a solidarity relationship. The democratisation of society must be the focus and there needs to be a clear mechanism in place to carry the process forward in case on of the parties is unable to fulfil its role.
5.5. Agree on the non-negotiable minimum standards and stick to it
The legal requirements are the obvious non-negotiable ‘minimum standards’. Always ensure that everyone involved does get at least the minimum wages, the maternity/ paternity /annual/ medical leave, adequate insurance and social security. This is too often overlooked by the SLOs who are more focussed on the ‘cause’ and ‘task-at-hand’ leading to an almost criminal neglect of the team’s social security. Sometimes not meeting the non-negotiable minimum standards is camouflaged by some deft definitions (such as ‘volunteers’ for underpaid staff). IAs should not overlook this blind spot, nor turn a blind eye to the misleading wordcraft of the SLO but ensure that these social security provisions are incorporated into the systems and resource allocation.
Another set of non-negotiable minimum standards are the international human rights standards. The donors of IAs too should be made aware of these standards, and it should be incorporated into the programme. For instance housing cannot be done without meeting Sphere Minimum Standards for Humanitarian Relief, no matter how high the demand. Especially in disasters, the need to show numbers and scale is crippling the adequate allocation of resources for restoration of a life with dignity. Once the hut is shabbily ‘repaired’ the aid bandwagon moves on, leaving the affected people without the required assistance. Focussed attention meeting standards to ensure a life of dignity must always be maintained.
The ‘adjustments’ in the partnerships should always be for the benefit of the community.
5.6. Addressing differences
Dissent and different opinion needs to be actively encouraged. A free and frank exchange of ideas and opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect strengthens a partnership. The opinion of a person with the money is not the right one (or the wrong one either!). Recognise that SLOs will be reluctant to contradict IA opinion—even when they know it is erroneous—for fear of jeopardising their funding. Do not use (the threat of) finance cuts as a tool to ensure compliance. The Damocles sword of funding being cut off is all too real.
Do not open up an issue unless you have the political will, technical skills and the wherewithal to see it through to resolution. Respect local knowledge and culture. Unless you can make a significant difference, don’t interfere. The way of doing things would be different, ‘participation’ may not be the way you imagine!
5.7. Give it time
Good partnerships take time to mature. The ‘commitment’ to support is often of short duration. This does not make the community sustainable, nor does it enable the local NGO to engage with the community in a constructive, mutually beneficial partnership. The engagement becomes one of implementing (impossible to attain) ‘targets’ with little informed consent. Sometimes even the local NGO is not aware of the whys of a project being implemented.
6. … and the icing on the cake…
SLOs have highly motivated, tight-knit teams. Red-tape is virtually nil. The organisation structure is flat. Multi-tasking is the norm. They are dynamic and are capable of a quick response on a shoestring budget at great personal risk. They are much closer to, and have more intense engagement with, the grassroots. They are fanatically loyal to ‘the cause’.
Building a partnership with SLOs takes time, and a lot of personal investment. But once done, the results are rewarding for all. It is well worth the effort.