Gettting beyond principles: partnerships are about people

Partnership is probably one of the most used – and most abused – terms in the ‘development’ world. It is also one of the core pillars of our work at INASP and something we strive to get right. In this post, Jon Harle offers his personal reflections.

Many initiatives have sought to define what ‘good partnerships’ look like, and to distil some common principles to guide how partnerships might be developed, and how they might prosper – whether they are across countries or across sectors.

In the UK, the Rethinking Research Partnerships group has convened some useful discussions and developed a ‘how to guide’ focusing particularly on how academics and practitioners collaborate.

These discussions have become particularly salient in the context of research funding initiatives such as the Global Challenges Research Fund. Conversations about partnerships, while important, tend to cover some familiar – but important – territory: the imbalances of power between Northern and Southern organizations, the extent to which there really is a commitment to co-design and shared decision making, the mis-understandings or competing incentives and divergent aims of different partners (particularly if different types of organisations are involved).

A partnership in progress

While there is no shortage of guidance on how to embark on a new partnership, or sober accounts of what went wrong, it seems that there are often fewer insights from within partnerships in progress.

Over the last couple of years, INASP developed a new partnership with seven other organizations to design and deliver a new project. Although it’s early days, since the partnership lies at the heart of this ambitious project, it seems useful to reflect on the process so far, as much as the results.

The partnership developed from some existing relationships between the organizations involved and at INASP we deliberately sought to harness those relationships to forge a new ‘family’ of organizations with shared goals –  but it was the first time all of us had come together in this way. By its very design, it’s a complex partnership, and, by its goals, ambitious: eight partners, spread across East Africa (with INASP in the UK), which seek to bring universities, business, communities and government together to create a better learning experience for students, and in doing so foster employable and creative graduates.

After a nearly two-year process of designing and re-designing our project – from agreeing on the problem to solve and sketching out initial ideas, to writing a bid for a competitive fund, to negotiating a complicated and lengthy period of detailed design and budgeting – we finally received the go-ahead to begin work in May.

In early June we brought the partnership together in Uganda to get work underway – and to resolve some of the issues that had emerged as a result of this long (and largely unfunded) process of design.

What does it mean to co-design a project?

As much as possible we, at INASP, tried to adhere to a key principle – that we design projects collaboratively with partners.

As the lead partner, this meant investing some of our own reserves to bring the partners together for design and planning sessions, and in travelling to each campus to meet each university’s team – and its leadership – to talk and understand each other’s priorities and interests.

Fully collaborative working hasn’t always been possible though. Pressures during the later stages of the project development process – prior to the grant being approved, and thus our ability to access funding – meant that we had to do some significant work ourselves, as the lead partner. Although we endeavoured to communicate regularly and share work in progress for feedback, there were limited opportunities for real collaborative work.

That wasn’t how we wanted to do things, but – thanks in part to the relationships we’d forged together as a partnership — partners were willing to place their trust in us to get the project through the final stages of approval.

Budgets

Budgets are often sites of tension in projects. Who gets what share of the cake? This is particularly true where projects bring together Northern and Southern organizations, with very different costs of resources and of time, and particularly where the Northern organization is managing the overall process.

Alert to this, INASP wanted to do as much of the initial budgeting collectively with partners, during a meeting in Tanzania. While we made initial progress this way, the pressures of a funding process, with deadlines to meet, alongside each team’s individual and institutional pressures, meant a lot of the work was still done by INASP (using basic unit costs provided by the partners).

This wasn’t ideal, so when we realized this was likely to be our only way forward, we discussed it face to face with the other partners, and sought explicit permission from the partnership to proceed.

Nevertheless, budgetary concerns haven’t gone away, and we will need to continue to discuss and adjust this as a partnership. As the lead we’ve made a clear commitment that we will reallocate budget amongst the partnership if any partner finds they have insufficient funds to do what they need to do, and been transparent about how the costs have been built up.

Getting roles and responsibilities clear

When we met for our kick-off meeting in Entebbe a few weeks ago, a lot of the discussion and planning revolved around the practicalities of working together. At an early stage in the process we’d collectively mapped roles for each piece of work, being clear who amongst the partnership would lead, who would support, and who would participate by providing information or contributing to discussions. This provided an opportunity to surface and resolve some important issues.

Of course, in today’s world contracts have had to be signed, between INASP and each partner, to cascade obligations we have to the funders. But having a clear statement of how we want to work together helps to ensure we aren’t simply structured as a set of legal relationships.

The partnership has constituted a joint leadership team, with a senior representative from each partner, and we’ll be meeting regularly to discuss progress, understand what is working well, and where we need to adjust plans or reallocate money and time.

The project has a strong monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) component, with particular emphasis on the learning element. Each team has a MEL lead, and will be gathering and synthesizing the emerging data and learning to help the leadership team understand where we are going and make adjustments.

Continuing to build relationships

Along the way it’s been evident how much relationships matter, and how much we all need to invest in these. That means being open, frank and willing to have difficult conversations together, tackle thorny issues, and push each other when we’re not happy or comfortable with the direction of travel.

It also means making sure we don’t all fall back into the easy habits of email – but picking up the phone or jumping on Skype, instead. Each time I’ve done so – sometimes frustrated about a delay or a silence – I’ve been able to better understand the problem and think together about how we could solve it.

But more importantly, I feel like we’re getting to know each other better and building the essential understanding and trust that will help us achieve some important but ambitious goals.

Discussing partnerships with a former colleague recently (after another conference presentation on the subject) I reflected that, while guides and principles can help draw attention to potential issues and guide a way forward, the most important thing of all is to connect as people – to respect each other, be open and frank, to listen and empathise, and seek to understand. And, while doing so, to be aware and explicitly mitigate the power imbalances.

Of course, these are my perspectives, and to really understand if we’re getting it right at INASP, we need to know how it feels to partners. I’m sure we will find some way to do that, and to provide partners with the space to talk about their experiences of working with us.

Projects may be time limited, but partnerships need not be. I hope that the relationships we are building and deepening are also laying the foundations for an enduring collaboration between each of our organizations.  

 

Jonathan Harle
Jonathan Harle is Director of Programmes at INASP.

3 Responses to “Gettting beyond principles: partnerships are about people

  • This is a great reflective article of the journey that the TESCEA team has undertaken. It is good to note that from this relationship, the co-design is an interesting process. We can actually explore how we term the process that TESCEA has gone through. Being distributed across the region and abroad, we have had to use virtual communication tools to ensure that the element of face-to-face is very present.

    Building a common-view/perspective as a team has not been easy but we are building on that through constant communication. I believe that this is where also culture comes in. The more we meet face to face and talk, the stronger the relationship. In our case it is not possible, but zoom/skype has been very helpful.

    • Thanks Mary, and I completely agree – finding ways to be ‘close’ even though we’re distant physically are really important, to get to know each other better as people, even if we can’t spend as much time as might like in the same room, or even city or country!

  • Vincent O. Odhiambo
    4 weeks ago

    Very well captured. Forging and maintaining healthy, meaningful relationships is at the center of any sustainable partnership. It is the foundation upon which meaningful and long-term engagement are established. As captured in the article, building the said relationship is a process and partners who eventually get it right are those who come ready to collaboratively and creatively solve issues that emerge at different stages of relationship building. This is what I have witnessed with TESCEA team and worth noting also is that where the lead partner understands that partners bring their best when they are not being instructed in a rigid way but when the lead brings structure and focus into the conversation at every stage. This is the understanding INASP team has demonstrated.

    In addition to the insights shared by Jon, we also strongly believe that a dose of empathy goes along way in anchoring these kind of relationships and it makes it easier to work collectively and creatively in seeking solutions for emerging challenges.

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