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What does true partnership really mean?

A perspective from Ethiopia

We, local NGOs/CSOs in the ‘Global South’ have a nickname – ‘donor-driven CSOs’. This is not a positive moniker but there is reality in it. We have our own cars – organisations. We are sat in the drivers’ seat, but we are not the true (actual) drivers of the car. The true drivers sit behind us, and even outside of the cars, they drive the cars from behind or from outside. We have our own visions, missions and values but we often only have them only on paper or on our website pages. These visions, missions and values are not lived out. Some of us have strategic plans too, but we place them on dusty shelves which are not frequently visited. We are forced to forget about our identities and values. We have had our visions stolen and our niches and areas of expertise and interest snatched away. Instead, we always think about what makes our donors very happy and open their hands for us just so we can exist and do something for our constituencies and target groups. We settle for this, as something is better than nothing.

Funding organisations, from small to big donor agencies, including some international NGOs come up with their own priorities and strategies. Some of them openly call us ‘implementing partners’. We are implementing partners as they need us only to implement their projects and programmes – not ours. Everything is top-down. They impose and dictate to us – Do this and that in this and that way. We do not have a say even though we know more about the local context and understand what is best for our destitute communities. Like a dry leaf floating on the surface of water, we float and go where the donors go or they want to take us. We frequently change ourselves (at least our ‘clothes’) to meet their rapidly changing requirements. After all, we are just implementing partners for most of them. We are grantees, grant recipients, sub- recipients and even sub-sub- recipients.

Apart from this, some of the donors who need us to implement their programmes are not happy to cover core costs. What a paradox! Some of them also seem interested in capacity building or organisational development for local organisations and will conduct different organisational capacity assessments. However, they are not interested in filling the capacity gaps identified. If there is any capacity building/development work for the local organisations, it is mainly characterised by ‘a one size fits all’ approach, and the main purpose of it is to enable local organisations to ‘effectively and efficiently’ implement the programmes/projects of the funding organisations – not to transform and develop the local organisation so that they can stand on their own two feet. Moreover, most of the donors are only interested in short term ‘partnership’ (one to three years) which is a source of instability .

One may ask us, ‘Why don’t you be yourselves, maintain your identities and accomplish your missions to realise your visions?” It is good to ask such questions. Most of us operate in the areas where severe poverty reigns and is deep-rooted. It is very difficult for most of us to mobilize resources locally. Some of us also lack the experience and skills in local fundraising. If we want to be ourselves, we rarely get support from funding organisations. So, whether we like it or not, we are mainly dependent on the donors as it is a survival issue for most local charities or community based organisations trying to create change.

However, we have recently heard about a different approach that entirely addresses the aforementioned problems. This solution comes from a small but brilliant UK based international NGO. This NGO works in partnership with local organisations in Africa and Asia. It has not got its own programmes or priority thematic areas, but instead supports local partners to maintain their identities and implement their own poverty reduction and development programmes in line with their own missions and visions (strategic plans) as they know the local context very well. The support of this organisation, that strongly believes in long-term partnership (more than 10 years) for its local partners, involves true organisational development support and coverage of core/overhead costs. What a true partnership and reliable development partner!

This organisation recently requested that its new local partners in Ethiopia (one of the targeted countries) should come up with their own proposed plans and programmes for the coming five years. All of the new local partners struggled to do so as they had been dependent on donor driven programmes and initiatives for many years – they forgot to design and implement their own poverty reduction and development projects as per their own strategic plans. The organisation is now trying its best to support partners to reconstruct their identities, values and niches that have been degraded by other funding organisations for many years.

Therefore, we, development practitioners working for and/or with local CSOs/NGOs in the Global South beg relevant award giving organisations to open their eyes and look at the unique approaches and great work of this exemplary organisation. It is worthy to recognise such a paradigm shift in the NGO sector. We also beg big donors and governments to stretch their hands to support such extraordinary initiatives so as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the international community.

Before finalising this brief witness, it is very, very important to mention the name of this small but great international organisation, All We Can – an organisation that matches its name with its deeds!

About the Author Ayele Ashagre Gebre

Ayele Ashagre Gebre is All We Can's Local Coordinator for Ethiopia and is a development practitioner in Ethiopia with more than 15 years of work experience in the sector. He has worked for different local and International NGOs including Mekdim Ethiopia National Association (MENA), Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and Civil Society Support Programme-CSSP/British Council Ethiopia as a Programme Manager and Capacity Development Manager.

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