Monday, April 26, 2004

Where are the partners?

About a month ago I took part in the annual staff conference of a small UK NGO. The focus of the first two days was on identifying the main development issues that NGO should be addressing for the next three years or so. This was part of a wider strategic planning process that was just beginning. During the meeting the CEO made a point of distinguishing the NGO from others by the degree to which its approach was led by the views of its southern partners. If that really was the case, then I think the NGO would have had a justifiable claim to radicalism, something it was well known for in the past. But how could we verify such a claim? As I listened to the ongoing discussion about a range of important global issues, including HIV/AIDS, globalisation, fundamentalism, etc I notice how little, if at all, I could hear of the partner’s views on these issues. That the partners were not physically present in the meeting was not my main worry. I felt the CEO, and other staff, were well aware of the need for appropriate engagement with their partners. What concerned me more was that the discussion about global development issues made no reference to which partner thought what about which issue and why? Assuming the partners did have views, and had been consulted about them in the past, why was there no evidence of that process impacting on how the staff were presenting the development issues in this meeting? I would have thought that citing their partner’s views would have given extra weight to the views being cited. Associated with this concern of mine was a related feeling of far too much ungrounded analysis, that would then be very difficult to convert into a strategy that could be operationalised by the NGO.

The radical alternative would be to focus on the their partner’s views, and to talk explicitly about the areas of agreement and disagreement, both between their partners and with the UK NGO. This is where the NGO has some strategic choices to make (and choices it could fudge). Whose views should it support in future, how and why? And how should it respond to differences between its partners? Where should it seek new partnerships and why? Answers to these questions would help support claims they would like to make about working with, and even being led, by some of their partners. On the other hand, a continuation of talk about global issues without a focus on their partners views on those issues, would suggest they are trying to work through them, simply using them as means to an end.