How Meaningful Relationships Enable Growth for Local Partners
Donnah Midigo, Agrilinks
Donnah Midigo is the Advocacy & Communications Manager for Universal Intervention & Development Organization (UNIDOR), a local organization in South Sudan.
Disclaimer: This article was submitted to WorkwithUSAID.org as a guest blog post. The views expressed by WorkwithUSAID.org guest blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government.
Relationships matter. As the Advocacy & Communications Manager for Universal Intervention & Development Organization (UNIDOR), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in South Sudan, I have been involved in supporting my organization’s partnership relations with United Nations agencies, multilateral aid organizations, bilateral aid organizations, international NGOs, and other national NGOs. Based on these interactions, I have observed that deep and meaningful relationships in the humanitarian and development sectors have the potential to transcend programmatic collaboration to create self-reliant communities that can sustainably solve their own problems.
There are many reasons that organizations partner with one another. International organizations offer local organizations a global platform to be seen and heard, robust governing and accountability structures, and the ability to mobilize resources across the globe. Local partners offer knowledge and credibility and can leverage this relationship by strengthening their organizational capacities to be reliable, efficient, and accountable. Local partners, too, can operate with international standards—this is the vision.
Partnerships ought to be shaped by mutual interests and guided by humanitarian principles that form the framework within which humanitarian organizations operate. For instance, at the onset of UNIDOR’s relationship with Save the Children (SC) in South Sudan in 2021, SC conducted an organizational capacity assessment to determine our institutional capacity to successfully deliver on project implementation and to what extent our internal controls would support the process. This assessment informed the development of the Strengthening Effective Humanitarian Partnerships (SEHP) project, an online course program that targeted strengthening the organizational capacity of 40 national NGOs.
Two years on, UNIDOR has partnered with SC South Sudan on the Right2Grow project, a nutrition and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) advocacy consortium project that consists of four local partners and three international partners, operating in 3 out of the 10 states in South Sudan.
Strengthening Local Capacity through Collaboration
The organizational capacity strengthening that UNIDOR and other national NGOs received from SC was not only documented on paper—as is often the case in some partnership agreements—but it was also actualized through allocating resources and setting timelines to maintain traction. This has strengthened collaboration between SC and its national NGO partners.
It should be noted that local partners’ need for capacity-strengthening support does not come from incompetence but from a desire to learn and improve. Capacity-strengthening programs should be viewed from a growth-oriented perspective. As an organization, we have accelerated this capacity-strengthening agenda internally by using staff appraisals to identify gaps and reinforcing staff development by assigning online courses offered by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy at no cost. The outcome of this engagement has been evident in the delivery of project activities in the various thematic areas.
In collaboration with SC, our staff members are currently taking courses on safeguarding and fraud, bribery, and corruption on the Kaya platform, which will be followed by a review of our safeguarding and finance policies to align with international standards. Additionally, the courses come with reference tools such as guidelines and briefs that will be instrumental in the policy review process.
The support is not only in the form of training, however; there is also a strong element of mutual support that is more far-reaching. Once connected through a consortium, national and international NGOs have provided technical support to one another. For instance, most national NGOs lack media engagement expertise and do not know how to go about engaging the media. The international NGOs who have elaborate communications departments with media liaison staff step in to support the local partners in this endeavor and build the capacity of the local organization on media engagement.
National NGOs that are partners with SC have further collaborated on various projects beyond the projects with SC, which is a fruit of the relationship the national NGOs have with SC. In addition, collaboration at the leadership level has strengthened partnerships and prompted efficiency in addressing partnership issues as they arise. Consequently, partnership relations have improved, and so has the quality of programming between bilateral and consortium partners.
Enabling Local Leadership
For fragile environments like South Sudan, national NGOs have a comparative advantage; they are known to the communities, are trusted by the communities, and have access to community spaces. Therefore, international partners have embraced localization to ensure that aid gets to the grassroots levels and various hard-to-reach areas of the country through these national NGOs.
On the advocacy and policy front, partnerships have demonstrated strength in numbers. When seeking an audience with the government on various policy issues, it has proven to be most effective to lobby as sectoral or cluster partners vis-a-vis lobbying as individual organizations. The presentation of a unified front (on various issues) carries more weight because the local partners represent the interests of the communities while the international partners represent the donor community. All humanitarian and development stakeholders are on the same platform, and if there is a need for consultation, everyone is represented.
Are partnerships perfect? Of course not. There are funding challenges, turnover among national NGO staff who often join international NGOs, and, in the worst-case scenarios, a fallout between local and international partners. Nevertheless, I think successful partnerships are achievable. Just like with any relationship, there is a need for transparency, accountability, and management of expectations. With a solid foundation, both local and international partners can build prosperous collaborations that allow them to thrive and achieve more together than they could as separate entities.
SC is doing a commendable job in developing supportive partnerships with local partners. Other international NGOs should emulate this approach—and even seek to improve on it. SC does not only focus on its subgrantor role, but it goes the extra mile to strengthen the organizational capacities of its local partners as part of its partnership engagement. Establishing robust organizational capacities for local partners is the right step to advance the localization agenda.
Check out other articles in the WorkwithUSAID.org Prime/Sub Relationships blog series.