Southern voices on northern NGO partnerships

MCC is committed to working through a partnership model in which the values and priorities of local communities are respected and supported. Within this model MCC provides programmatic support and funds for partners to implement activities. This is not, however, a linear donor recipient relationship. Instead, MCC strives for this partnership to be characterized by collaboration, accompaniment and engaged participation. MCC seeks to work and plan together with local partners to meet the needs that are raised from within the communities in which partners operate, convinced that community members are best positioned to identify priorities and the most appropriate and effective means to address those priorities. This collaborative process ideally involves multiple levels of accountability, including mutual accountability between MCC and local partner organizations and accountability of MCC and local partners to the communities in which MCC supported projects unfold.

For this partnership model to operate well, all parties to specific projects must be active participants, with the communities and individuals that are to benefit in some way from the projects proactively shaping project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. If local organizations (e.g. churches and community-based organizations) are to be truly accountable to the communities in which they operate, they must also be active partners with international donor organizations (such as MCC) that provide project resources (funds, material resources, personnel, training and more), not simply carrying out initiatives planned by donor organizations but instead taking the lead in forming those initiatives. These multiple layers of accountability and participation are reflected in the “Principles of Participation” agreed to by the Global Humanitarian Platform, a network that represents major development actors such as the United Nations and large NGOs. The key principles upon which to base partnership, platform members concur, include equality based on mutual respect, financial transparency and open dialogue, a coordinated result oriented approach, taking on activities responsibly and working together to complement the comparative strengths of different partners.

Amidst these principles of participation, partnership and collaboration, however, there remains an inherent asymmetry between donor organizations like MCC, on the one hand, and local partner organizations, on the other, regarding resources and funding. A central role of MCC as a partner is to provide funding for local organizations so they can effectively implement programming. MCC has a vested interest in ensuring that program and financial best practices and international standards are met (both because of MCC’s accountability to its donors and because these best practices and standards reflect long and broad global experience about what contributes to project success) and expects partners to engage with MCC’s questions about how best practices are being addressed in project design and implementation in order for MCC to transfer resources to those partners. Ideally, project reporting offers opportunities for conversation about project implementation and progress and helps create space for dialogue between MCC and its partners. It cannot be denied, however, that MCC has a greater level of access and control over key project resources and uses this power to shape how and when those
resources are used.

To overlook this imbalance is to do a disservice to MCC’s relationship with local partners and can harm participatory processes. Historically, so-called development has often been imposed upon communities based on a particular western-driven framework. Within these parameters, funding from international agencies has often resulted in institutional restrictions that limit the capacity and engagement of communities and partners (Pinnington, 2014). With the increasing prominence of participatory development approaches, the rhetoric of partnership is in danger of becoming tokenism without authentic follow-through.

One fundamental way in which MCC works to acknowledge its role as a partner within this broader context is to take tangible steps to listen to the voices of local partners and to seek out their opinions on whether or not MCC is fulfilling its mandate to facilitate mutually accountable partnerships. MCC’s participation in the Keystone Performance Survey represents its commitment to mutually accountable partnerships. Keystone is an independent organization dedicated to improving the effectiveness of social purpose  organizations through a focus on how participatory and mutually accountable the  relationships those organizations have with local partners are. In the Keystone Performance Survey southern NGOs rank and assess their northern NGO partners in a number of categories, including financial and non-financial support, capacity building support, administrative processes, relational approaches and commitment to understanding and learning from local partners and their contexts. This voluntary and anonymous survey is a unique way in which MCC can hear directly from local partners on how they perceive MCC as a partner and it presents MCC with an opportunity to assess whether the organization’s principles are translating into daily operations and program engagement. On the one hand, the Keystone Performance Survey revealed broad partner affirmation for MCC in a variety of areas, including cultural sensitivity, respect for partners and support for partner priorities. On the other hand, the survey also provided important insights into areas where MCC can improve and be more aware of the challenges faced by local partners. This includes understanding the dynamics of control over funding, for example. Slightly less than half of respondents felt that MCC often allows partners to make changes to specific grant conditions such as the way funds are spent (although the majority of respondents felt that MCC is transparent about funding). Additionally, one of the top requests from respondents was for MCC to offer increased support in accessing additional sources of funds.

How to acknowledge these concerns and still work within a funding system in which MCC is also accountable to its own donors (both individual donors and institutional donors like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, the Foods Resources Bank or the Canadian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) is an important discussion, and one that is necessary when working with partners. At the center of partnership and participation is this dynamic relationship that requires mutual reflection and learning in order to progress. Engaging with partners through a mechanism such as the Keystone Survey and acknowledging an imbalance of access to and control over funds are important first steps.

Allison Enns is Food Security and Sustainable Livelihoods Coordinator for MCC.

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

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