Partner ownership of participation

Think about participation and immediately images from MCC’s history come to mind: young adults in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program circled by their host families; community groups gathered under umbrella trees; community members distributing food and mattresses; cycling groups raising awareness of peace commitments; relief sales; and more. These images reflect an MCC rooted in community and dependent on strong relationships in villages, towns and cities around the world. So as participation caught on within broader development and humanitarian assistance work, it comes as no surprise that many within MCC would view participatory approaches as operations as usual. How MCC has worked to promote meaningful community participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of relief, development and peacebuilding initiatives has shifted over time. Before the 1980s, MCC workers (typically from Canada or the United States) were the primary agents facilitating participatory processes in the communities where they were placed. With the shift to a partnership model of operation, starting in the 1980s, MCC’s local partner organizations (churches, national NGOs, community based organizations, etc.) began to take the lead in animating community participation. This led MCC to focus on partner capacity building for community ownership and less so on how service workers facilitate direct community participation. As MCC has shifted to partnering with local organizations and churches, what are the habits and practices that encourage active participation?

Classic approaches like Participatory Rural Appraisal pioneered by Robert Chambers and newer shorthand guidance like the Emergency Capacity Building Project’s Good Enough Guide use practitioner case studies and participatory methodologies for involving communities and individuals in all project stages. These participatory methods often focus on practical ways to engage a community. MCC should and does promote these resources with partners. But how do international NGOs promote participation when two steps removed from the community? It begins with acceptance that local partner organizations, not MCC, are the agents driving community participation. MCC’s role is resourcing and reinforcing partner participatory practices; carrying out that role well requires creating space to listen to our partners and for them to share together. This space can promote partner-community participation by modeling partner-with partner and partner-with-MCC engagement.

One helpful practice for enhancing participatory relationships among MCC and its partners is for MCC to organize regular learning events, gatherings where the agenda is largely sharing and listening. Many MCC country programs have begun holding annual partner gatherings, for which one of the main purposes is to create learning and sharing opportunities among partners. Almost always, partners report that their most valued takeaways from these gatherings is the chance to network with each other. While those partner connections sometimes yield cross-fertilization of relief, development or peacebuilding approaches, more often the gatherings generate enthusiasm for future learning and collaboration. For example, Michael Chapman, MCC Representative for Guatemala, observes that MCC Guatemala’s annual partner gatherings have been relational learning spaces that led partners to independently send their staff to other partners and projects to provide trainings, learn, do evaluations or just visit. MCC Guatemala also used the partner gathering to listen to partners’ expressed mutual interests and then support a local learning tour: perceiving a lot of traction around agroecology work, MCC planned and sent three staff members from each partner that works in agriculture to an agroecology training center in Guatemala. MCC’s role in Guatemala has been to convene the space for partners to identify and explore their mutual interests (unconstrained by project parameters), to listen actively and intently and then to support initiatives that emerge from the mutual engagement of MCC’s partners.

Arranging annual partner gatherings does not by itself make engaged partner participation happen: that depends upon good facilitation. As CDA Collaborative Learning Projects has insisted, engaging people effectively requires specific skills in listening, facilitating problem solving and managing conflict. At MCC orientations, we are rethinking how to frame program development from an evaluative capacity perspective to include skill-building in each of these areas along with a familiarity of basic project planning and implementation. This comes naturally out of an emphasis that project planning, monitoring and evaluation is a process, not fundamentally a bureaucratic exercise in filling in templates. By building staff skills to facilitate learning processes, we open the doors to creativity and equip workers to look beyond what the problem is and what is needed to fix it. This has a ripple effect. As staff listen and engage with partners, partners perceive the importance MCC places on local engagement in the midst of immediate and urgent work.

To take this engagement process to the particulars of participation and learning at the project level requires explicit space to review and analyze project implementation data and information. Sharing together in project analysis is a form of MCC’s participatory work with partners, but it can be hard to realize when time is short, staff is limited and deadlines loom. Just as MCC’s partners must spend long hours with community members to ensure that they are active participants in shaping relief, development and peacebuilding projects, so must MCC staff dedicate significant time to building relationships with partners, relationships that involve shared analysis of project directions and discussions about critical questions about project vision and implementation.

Like MCC, Lutheran World Relief (LWR) works in collaboration with local partners. LWR has developed a Reflection Meeting guidance tool to facilitate conversations between LWR and local partners working on a specific project in which they together review and analyze project implementation data and information. The desired outcome of these time-intensive Reflection Meetings is for LWR’s partner organizations to come away with a completed progress report that both captures vital project learnings and meets LWR’s reporting requirements. One of the main obstacles to involving multiple people in reflection and analysis is the pressure of report deadlines; LWR’s Reflection Meeting tool addresses this obstacle by providing a needed product (the completion of a required project report) and structured time for joint project analysis. By only involving key project stakeholders and focusing on reviewing and analyzing a specific project, LWR staff and partner representatives can focus their discussions on analysis of project learnings, strengths and challenges. Such structured meetings could potentially be adapted for use within MCC.

Engaging with our partners and encouraging them in their community involvement is not complicated but neither is it easy. Because our circle of primary engagement is with partner staff, we need to create and conserve the open spaces for relationally listening to our partners while also intentionally modeling and affirming feedback loops and dedicated times for reflection and analysis. Building MCC workers’ skills of facilitation, listening and analysis will strengthen not only MCC’s relationship with its partners but also build the capacity of partner organizations to mobilize participation in the communities in which they live and work. While doing so, we should also pay attention to MCC’s role in networking partners, MCC’s responsiveness to partner feedback, and creating times and spaces that shift attention away from doing in order to give opportunities for MCC and its partners to engage in reflective assessment. For MCC as a partnering organization, the recommendations from Peace Direct’s Local First in Practice report are particularly relevant: creating relational learning spaces, brokering relationships and looking for assets and capacities among our partners are some of the ways international NGOs like MCC can enhance practices of participatory engagement with partners.

Kristen Zimmerman is Learning and Evaluation Coordinator for MCC

Learn more by reading the Spring edition of Intersections – Participation.

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