Would you like to be my partner?

Blogs, 31 May 2011

Hunting for and engaging with the right partners has become a serious business for those who engage in sustainable development. The Millennium Development Goal 8 calls for the international community and the private sector to “DEVELOP A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP FOR DEVELOPMENT” to achieve six key targets by 2015.

The UN reports have yet to provide a clear overview of the progress made and for many of us directly involved in the business of creating credible partnerships the daily routine oscillates between excitement and frustration.

Shortlisted for another call for another big international fund … the excitement will be soon be replaced by the boredom of filling up unrealistic monitoring and evaluation frameworks and the rush to identify suitable local partners.

The art of making a square out of a circle begins.

Frantic calls and strings of emails will follow to set up anything but straightforward agreements with accountable, understanding, smart, responsive and trustworthy partners. We urge partners to be able to have a holistic and integrated cross-sectoral approach (something that it is often not even possible in our own countries) to fill the gaps and build bridges.

BUT these same partners need to be from marginalised groups, be in need, ideally survivors from natural or manmade catastrophes, and yes, it’s even better if they are female!

Basically we need the suitable partners to tick the boxes of our call without considering that discriminated and marginalised groups aren’t always able to perform the often unrealistic tasks of our terms of references; whereas responsible and responsive partners often do not need international cooperation aid.

The reality is that beyond the ‘politically correct discourse’ we are often squashed between donors’ agendas and ‘cooperation trends’ and it is hard to be honest and realistic when choosing projects’ priorities, outputs and partners.

I see this happening daily, in calls for proposals and in progress and final reports: we seem to fall into the same trap. We tend to speak about success stories and are oblivious to the incredible amount of time spent managing the partnerships — the time spent ironing out misunderstandings, editing or rewriting reports, getting subcontracts approved and getting money transferred to ‘financially unsafe places’… not to mention the nightmares of the digital divide, power cuts, political unrest, etc. etc. etc.

The reality is that there is often a huge gap between what our projects aim for, what we request from partners, what partners want to get out of it, the deadlines and the reality on the ground.

We are taught by first hand experience that partnership building boils down to relationships between individuals, and that key ingredients of any relationships are TRUST, TIME and EQUITY. So why not admit that this is a very sensitive and lengthy process?

Why not admit that the ‘do ut des’ rule applies universally and it works better than ‘take it or leave it’? Too often partners don’t have a choice but to accept unrealistic deadlines and workplans …. and be grateful for it!

It is our duty to bear in mind who our partners are and who we are. Let’s get out of our comfort zone, let’s stop talking about success stories, let’s stop involving the usual suspects … it might take us longer, we might fail… but we might also learn something new…