An Ecological Approach to Partnership

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This learning paper explores insights and questions on partnerships from the perspective of the Oxfam Australia (OAU)-led program in South Africa. It examines four issues: power, contestation, trust and adaptive practice. It also presents an emergent partnership model drawing on this learning.
   1   An Ecological Approach  to Partnership Allan Moolman November 2015   2 Introduction General consensus in the development community is that, in order to ensure a just and equitable future for all people on the planet, there are immense challenges to be overcome. This agreement extends further: to accept that in order to address these challenges successfully, civil society organisations are compelled to be collaborative and act in a mutually reinforcing manner. This acceptance is normally articulated in the catch-all concept of ‘ partnership ’. This often (mis )used term has come to encapsulate a range of cooperative behaviours, all the way from donor/implementer relationships to loose alliances and platforms. This generic use of the term is often cause for confusion. So what does partnership mean in the real world? How different is the conceptualisation of partnership from its application? What facilitates ‘good’ partnership? This  learning paper explores these and other questions from the perspective of the Oxfam Australia (OAU)-led program in South Africa. It reflects on the articulated model of partnership put forward by Oxfam globally, how the model has been applied in South Africa, and how the experience of implementing the model influenced its evolution to what it is in 2015. It examines four issues: power, contestation, trust and adaptive practice, and finally, it puts forward an emergent partnership model drawing on learning from OAU program practice in South Africa. Context: Oxfam and Partnership Oxfam understands partnerships as mutually empowering relationships, which are aware of power imbalances and focused on mutual growth, organisational development, institutional strengthening and above all, on achieving impact. We believe that programs implemented in partnership increase the collective knowledge, skills, reach and experience applied to an issue or challenge. Programs implemented in partnership are likely to be better at encouraging and enabling the real participation and investment of people living in poverty … 1   This rather long and ambitious statement is the definition of partnership as understood by Oxfam globally. The definition, as is the case with most international non-governmental organisations’  (INGO) definitions, is difficult to fault as it gives explicit recognition to power, and has a strong focus on impact. This definition is further supported and expounded on through a set of core Partnership Principles, which further recognise that multiple forms of relationships exist, determined by contextual factors: At Oxfam, we strive to ensure that these principles underpin all our work  –  with local communities, with local civil society organisations, with other actors  –  both in funding and non-funding relationships. While differences in context may require different approaches, we strive to ensure that all of our work respects these six Partnership Principles: ã Shared vision and values ã Complementarity of purpose and value added 1  Oxfam Great Britain, February 2012, Working Together  , Prepared for Oxfam International, 3   3 ã Autonomy and independence ã Transparency and mutual accountability ã Clarity on roles and responsibilities ã Commitment to joint learning . 2   The principle statements are again comprehensive, rational, inoffensive and easy to agree with. From the idea that we work with those with whom we have ‘ shared vision and values ’ , to notions of ‘ transparency and mutual accountability’ , and ensurin g ‘ autonomy and independence’, there are no points of contestation here. This would be the same if we interrogated any INGO ’s  partnership principles, policies, charters or whatever form or framework used to articulate how they would like to work with others. Why then experientially, is the state of partnership in the development sector so poor? Why does the practice of partnership meet with such criticism? The Challenges of Principles in Action As touched on above, these principles seem intuitive and should be easy to adopt. They provide a positive and empowering backdrop against which partnerships can be developed. They are in line with the broader ideological rights-based frameworks that guide the development sector. They are rational. However, these principles do not sufficiently take into consideration the ‘ human ’  factor  –  accepting that relationships/partnerships exist between  people . These principles and frameworks treat organisations as completely rational agents unbound by emotion. In practice, the rational agent, totally compliant with stated governance and operational principles, does not exist. Relationships, and because of this, inter-organisational partnerships, are complex and can often be fraught with emotion. Development organisations have to accept that partnerships, whether these exist between individuals or organisations, are difficult and dynamic. Partnerships are driven by self-interest and gain, are sometimes temporary and expedient, and are neither value nor power-neutral. Because of this, partnership principles and the resultant practice they inform have to address issues of power, contestation, trust and complexity for all parties involved in a partnering arrangement. It is insufficient to assume that partnerships will work because they are well articulated in formal contracts or (on the other extreme) guaranteed by long-term relationships. Partnerships require active management, constant interrogation and regular reinforcement. The formation and management of a partnership is an active exercise. The following sections examine the limitations of the Oxfam Partnership Principles based on the experience of delivering the OAU program in South Africa. Shared vision and values These shift and change over time. The ideals, principles and issues that bring organisations together into a partnership in the beginning may become less compatible over time. This is 2  Oxfam Great Britain, February 2012, Working Together  , Prepared for Oxfam International, 3   4 natural. In practice it is rare that the commonality of vision and values is ever assessed beyond the primary partnership agreement being reached. While an extraordinary amount of time and energy is put into building commonality in the beginning of a program, very little, if any energy is put into revisiting these through the lifespan of the partnership. Complementarity of purpose and value added Value is often determined by the dominant partner, with the lesser partner being assigned into roles that complement the achievement of the stronger partner ’s  ambition and goals. Control of resources  –  financial and intellectual  –  is a critical factor that allows dominance in the partnership. It is often the case that one organisation or a cluster of organisations within the partnership comes to dictate the agenda and actions of all members.  Autonomy and independence Power differentials always exist in partnerships but often go unacknowledged or ignored because of the discomfort many development organisations have with the idea of having ‘ power over ’ . As a result, many development partnerships suffer low levels of accountability. The excuse  –  of respecting autonomy and independence  –  often subverts accountability. Transparency and mutual accountability At the best of times, achieving transparency is difficult without extremely high contact between partners. Given time and resource constraints, the practice of accountability is far more compliance oriented than is generally accepted. Organisations are straining under the weight of cascading and increasingly complex compliance processes being snuck into the sector under the guise of the accountability agenda. Mutuality is also not particularly well practiced, with these masked compliance practices favouring the more powerful parties in the relationship. Clarity on roles and responsibilities This is probably the easiest of the principles to achieve. However, in many instances, role definition (and the consequent resourcing) is a point of contention. Partners with higher workloads often feel like they carry the burden of delivery without a fair share of the resources. While roles and responsibilities are often made explicit, they are sometimes not accepted and remain a point of contestation and conflict. Commitment to joint learning What learning means is often poorly described, and practiced in a way that is extractive and instrumental, in favour again of the larger, more powerful partners. Learning is undertaken to meet a compliance need and very rarely embedded into strategies and plans. Events and documentation are set up and run as proxies for learning. Joint learning is highly reliant on mutual trust and respect and the valuing of all insights. In practice though, stronger partners, looking for bigger impacts, overlook the insights emerging from others’ practice.  The examples above, point to the centrality of power in partnerships, to the need to invest in trust building and to manage relationships actively. To build better, stronger partnerships,
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