On the nature and quality of partnerships: the assumptions we made

December 16, 2019
Organizations Involved:
CDA Collaborative Learning Peace Direct Search for Common Ground
Author: Isabella Jean

Since 2017, the Stopping as Success team has examined responsible and successful INGO exits and transitions. In this blog, Isabella Jean, independent consultant for the learning project, reflects on the assumptions made by the consortium members at the beginning of the project.

We knew from the start that our understanding of what enables responsible transitions will need to go beyond examining the procedural aspects of transitions such as the legal, financial, human resources, and governance decisions made by international and local entities impacted by such transitions. Hence, we also paid attention to where the triggers for exits came from, how strategic decisions about continuing or ending an organizational presence were made, and how internal champions and emerging leaders influenced the organizational culture, priorities and future direction.

The forthcoming Stopping as Success case studies include examples of external partners shifting to a different role, moving to a different set of partners or leaving the country altogether. We asked about the long-term impact of such transitions on the institutional development of local entities and their capability to drive development and social change agendas forward. It is no surprise then that the nature and quality of partnerships between insiders and outsiders emerged as an essential ingredient for responsible transitions throughout our case studies.  As the SAS team wraps up this collaborative learning effort, we are developing a synthesis of our findings, and producing briefs and practical resources on a range of topics, including on transitioning partnerships.

As we prepare to share the main findings of the projects and practical resources, it is a useful to revisit and reflect on the assumptions we made at the beginning of the project and see how they have been tested by our case study evidence and learning process.

The assumptions underpinning our lines of inquiry were rooted in the recognition that INGO transitions directly impact partnerships and hold the potential for advancement and strengthening of local organizations, as well as for detrimental effects on their capacities and reputation. These assumptions were drawn from experience and evidence gathered by our consortium members as well as from dialogue with local organizations and USAID Local Works team.

The assumptions underpinning our lines of inquiry were rooted in the recognition that INGO transitions directly impact partnerships and hold the potential for advancement and strengthening of local organizations.

We assumed that it is possible to find a balance between the impetus to leave too soon and the temptation to stay longer than is useful. We also assumed that such decisions will be based on reliable local information and joint analysis and assessment conducted with local partners and stakeholders.

We knew of multiple examples where local realities were distorted by the continued presence and dominance of outside actors. As my colleagues and I posited in the Time to Listen book (2012) the act of developing mutually agreed exit strategies requires starting with the question: How do we determine when our assistance is no longer welcome or needed?

So, did we see mutually agreed exit strategies? In the majority of documented examples, the initial decision-making or triggers for exit sat largely with the external actors, sometimes informed by consultations and assessments conducted at the local level. We’ve also documented the many ways that local staff, local partners and communities stepped in and claimed roles, responsibilities and ownership over the strategic and practical decisions regarding the exit or transition once the initial decision had been communicated and planning began. Unsurprisingly, both the impetus to leave and the temptation to stay longer were often linked to availability of funds for a country or thematic area of work as noted below.

In naming our project “Stopping as Success,” we assumed that local people and organizations are best able to determine what success looks like and to judge when and if expected changes are occurring.

Our consortium did not seek to directly evaluate the outcomes of different types of transitions. Our colleagues at Local Works asked us early on to strive to temper the ‘tyranny of experts’ with local knowledge. They suggested we do so by sourcing our evidence of what makes a transition a successful and responsible one from the experiences of local organizations, community members and local researchers who observe and live with the impacts of these transitions. By design, our case study approach elevated the insights and voices of local practitioners by going to the source of their transition stories and collaborating with local researchers in the process. The local expertise and wisdom were complemented by our wide-ranging conversations with other observers of external efforts and debriefs with USAID mission staff in each country we visited. The online consultation  and review meetings in Washington DC, Bangkok and Nairobi provided additional opportunities to gather feedback from local practitioners on our initial analysis of lessons.

By design, our case study approach elevated the insights and voices of local practitioners by going to the source of their transition stories and collaborating with local researchers in the process.

We expected that the incentives for continued funding will not get in the way of international actors deciding to exit and transition to locally led development efforts. 

We have seen how dependency on international aid distorts perceptions and measurement of progress, and the disconnect between locally and externally determined indicators of success. For the Local Works team, this dynamic was particularly problematic because of recognition that the impact of external support to local systems and the increasing social capital among local development actors are not effectively measured by the commonly used indicators. And the typical grant cycles prohibits meaningful measure of change in these dimensions because the timeframe for ‘success’ could mean years or even a generation.

Why is this important? How we define and measure success of development programs is inextricably linked to how we understand success of organizational transitions and institutional legacies and capacities to advance positive social change.  Without a better understanding of these aspects, we assumed a certain level of risk of unintended harm to local initiatives by external organizations that, as a norm, prioritize programmatic outcomes above others. Early on, we also recognized Local Works’ aspiration for the country missions to embody a culture where stopping is seen as success, either because self-sufficiency has been achieved or because the missions recognize that continuation would be harmful, an awareness that should be seen as a success in its own right.

We found that even in cases with significant elapsed time since the INGO exit or transition, success was perceived and defined in different ways by those who’ve closely observed the trajectory of local entities since the transition. Some put a heavy emphasis on institutional sustainability of local entities borne out of the transition, and even more specifically on financial sustainability, others on growth in organizational size, programmatic footprint and financial resources, and still others spoke about indicators of success being “integrity, quality of work and staying true to the mission.” There was no consensus and certainly no universal indicators. Our understanding was enriched by the thought-provoking insights shared by case study hosts and review meeting participants regarding the notions of self-reliance vs. solidarity and interdependence, and about the sustainability of locally led efforts vs. local institutions, challenging liberal democratic notions of what civil society looks like and the effects of externally driven aid system (i.e. “civil society vs. project society”).

And finally, we assumed that partnerships and collegial relationships are not confined to funding and that ongoing support and collaboration can extend beyond the conclusion of direct funding. 

This was an important assumption to explore. There is no shortage of examples of abrupt exits or severance of partnerships in our sector. As we describe in our forthcoming thought piece on partnership transitions,

“As the international system of support for development and peacebuilding has evolved around donor-grantee power dynamics, in some institutional quarters the terminology and practice of partnership has gradually lost its authentic meaning.  It has too often been reduced to transactional, short-term mechanisms for contracting funds and project labor to the best suited organization. In such cases, partnerships are short-lived and often narrow cast within the results-based management and program delivery frame.”

We explored the full range of continued relationships, collaborations and types of support offered after the exit or transition. Examples included continued collaboration on advocacy and resource mobilization, joint learning processes, shared knowledge management platforms, sustained participation in organizational governance structures and standing advisory roles for former local partners to provide input on strategy development within a wider federation.  This is part of our ongoing analysis of the different ways relationships between international and local organizations evolve and adapt to the changing global realities and the pressures from within the aid sector.