One for All, All for One? A gentle nudge towards partnerships and collaborations in development sector

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Very recently Michael Rosenkrantz published ‘Developing Partnerships” an article in Himalayan Times’ Perspective, and also on Sharing4good Building Partnerships Through International Volunteer Sending Agencies centered around the key ingredients, i.e. trust, commitment and willingness to work together as indispensible factors in forging cooperative frameworks among organizations and institutions in the development sector.

As the author made it crystal clear, it is not easy to develop and implement collaborations and it is quite rare to see substantial and effective partnerships established among development actors.

One of the reasons behind this backdrop is that organizations are currently very focused on their own survival, with strong efforts being put into fund raising.

Organizations can certainly not be blamed as the economic situation in many so called development countries, where most of their income comes from, is so precarious that their existence is often in peril.

In this scenario it is quite challenging for organizations to invest time and resources in thinking collectively for common initiatives or even the implementation of joint projects, although, paradoxically, the same economic downturn is forcing many of them to rethink their survival strategies through mergers or even “acquisitions’.

Despite the downsizing of the sector, there are still thousands of organizations working in their own “silos” with no serious efforts being made towards partnering.

When organizations discuss cooperation and synergies, they immediately think almost exclusively in terms of new funding opportunities or they approach potential cooperation without strategic thinking. Call it the survival instinct or maybe “development” greed.

The undeniable reality on the ground is that there is stringent competition for funding. While this quest for resources positively pushes organizations towards continuous improvement in order to excel and hopefully get rewarded, at the same time the process is squeezing space for collaboration and cooperation needed to solve the major problems faced by developing countries.

Competition within the development, not for profit sector must be radically different from the private sector, i.e. while competing for funding is a necessary “evil”, all organizations share the same goal of poverty reduction and all are focused on making the world a better place for all, not just for few.

On the other hand, private sector companies, compete for market share and profits in a process driven by accumulation of wealth.

The two approaches are radically opposed but still, not for profit, development organizations are too often bogged down in the narrow vision of their mission and work, too much focused on maximizing their footprint, getting bigger, with more funding in a quest for visibility and fame.

The problem does not lie in expanding and getting bigger (as long as you are good at your job) but in working in a way that precludes potential tie ups with likeminded organizations often seen only through the lens of competition.

Even cooperation with the private sector, in most cases, is seen only in a philanthropic perspective of “corporate social responsibility”. Not for profit organizations are focused only on donations rather than in engaging in conceptualizing new ideas and solutions, making the best of companies’ know how and maximizing the market outreach to offer viable and sustainable solutions that could improve the living conditions of the poorest.

Nevertheless there are quite a few pragmatic ways to bring development organizations together. These are inexpensive, e.g. promotion of advocacy efforts, knowledge creation through sharing of best practices and division of labor based on expertise and success stories.

Through advocacy, development organizations can define common agendas and join hands to establish conversations and dialogues with the state and civil society on ways to overcome major challenges.

Through networks, organizations can maintain their own independence and visibility while pooling a bit of their ‘independence’ and identity for a common cause. 

One example is the National Network on School Health Nutrition, a platform of international and national development partners and the government playing an important role for the promotion of healthy habits in schools throughout the country.

Another great example of networking is the national campaign on violence against women with a great variety of organizations and importantly individuals pressurizing the government to take actions against perpetrators of gender violence.

Networks can be effective but are also time consuming and require lots of dedication and passion, something that you do not find often in the job descriptions of many development agencies.

In the best examples, members can decide to step up their commitment and willingness for cooperation through alliances, a higher form of engagement and cooperation.

Sharing best practices should be also greatly encouraged among peers as organizations can greatly learn from each other. While I was an active member of AIN, the Association of International NGOs, I immensely benefited from this kind of joint learning with many organizations genuinely interested to help and capacitate other peers.

Fortunately in the sector there is no magic coke formula to be secretly hidden but there still is a need for a stronger commitment to generate better knowledge through peer to peer efforts.

What is currently lacking is institutionalization of sharing and learning and standards should be raised in this area.

This leads to the recognition that, inevitably, very few organizations have the resources and expertise to work through multi-sector approaches in areas, e.g. education, health and livelihoods.

Many development organizations, doing a bit of everything, have not realized that specialization and division of work are inescapable and much needed in order to increase the overall level of efficiency of the sector.

Positively at a global level some of the major donor countries have accepted the limitations of their own impact and have pledged to work only in specific areas where they offer added value thanks to proven expertise.

By collaborating, development organizations can set aside misconceptions and unnecessary rivalries and genuinely build substantial understanding that might lead to advanced forms of partnerships.

It is time for developing actors to put more efforts into collective solutions. We all need to be on the same page for development impact to occur.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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