Towards solidarity: Saferworld’s partnership journey13 December 2022
Many international NGOs are questioning what it means to be locally led. How and where to start? We share six things we’ve learnt on our journey to put our partnership commitments into practice.
“Partnerships should be transparent on ideas, policies and financial issues.” – Naripokkho, Bangladesh
“Solidarity means having the ability to work together through challenges, sensitivities and difficult topics and address them. It means providing support in difficult moments.” – Civic Union, Kyrgyzstan
1. It's an urgent need.
In 2021 we stated our intent to reflect on the power imbalances within partnerships between international and national NGOs. Teams across Saferworld are testing different ways – including new ways of funding – to support a wider spectrum of groups, networks and organisations, as well as research and advocacy on the importance of supporting locally led approaches in conflict.
While our commitment to equitable partnerships is not new, there is a renewed energy to critically reflect on where we should be more ambitious. It’s an important time in the international aid sector. We welcome conversations, debates and movements around locally led responses, ‘shifting the power’, anti-racism, and dismantling of colonial mindsets and patriarchal norms. These debates have led to reflections among colleagues: how to act in solidarity based on shared principles, how to provide genuine accompaniment and two-way capacity exchange, and how to co-create mutual and respectful accountability between donors and partners.
2. You must start somewhere – so why not start with your commitments as an organisation?
As a learning organisation, we continuously assess whether we are ’walking the talk’. We don’t believe in delivering programmes ourselves in the countries where we work. Instead, we work alongside our partners to support people to play an active role in preventing and transforming conflict and building peace.
Our first step was to develop a set of commitments that partners can hold us accountable to:
- partner with and accompany a wider range of groups, coalitions and organisations, particularly those led by women and young people;
- act in solidarity and provide support – whether that’s financial, technical, facilitation or fundraising support;
- advocate with partners, not on their behalf ;
- reflect on and asses our added value to partnerships with our partners, and share resources accordingly – including in budgets that go beyond overheads/indirect costs (for example, through flexible funding lines that our national partners can use for their own organisational development);
- multiply and spread our partners’ ideas and solutions through our communications, linking up our partners with the media and relevant platforms to tell their stories, challenge perceptions and change narratives;
- develop transparent mutual accountability processes and mechanisms.
Our commitments are reflected in our organisational strategy and results framework, which we report on to donors every year. This holds us accountable – including to those who fund our work.
3. Ask your partners how you’re doing.
We asked 46 civil society partners across Asia, Africa and the Middle East what they wanted to see in our strategy for 2021–2031. We asked them about:
- the direction they think we should take over the next ten years as an international peacebuilding organisation;
- whether we (still) have value to add in the contexts where we work together;
- the values and principles that should underpin how we work together – including what it means to partners to work in solidarity;
- their thoughts and recommendations on how we should work together as allies and peers for change (including what is currently working and what we should strengthen).
Some partners told us that this was the first time an international NGO had asked them to participate in an organisation’s strategic planning process. This highlights the needed work to decolonialise and reconfigure aid systems and partnerships, and to devolve power to organisations in the countries where we work. Our partners asked us to continue to ask for feedback, and to do so on a more regular basis – not only during strategic planning cycles or project- or country-level discussions.
4. Learn from others doing it better and listen to what people and movements in the Global South are asking for.
As we developed our new strategy, we spoke to people who challenged us to think differently. We wanted to hear what others thought we needed to change, to make sure we were guided by people who have lived experience of conflict. We also learnt from colleagues and peers already piloting different ways of working: the NEAR network, the RINGO project, Accountable Now and the Global Fund for Community Foundations.
5. Turn strategy commitments into action.
Money talks. While partnership goes beyond funding, particularly in places affected by conflict, civil society organisations and movements require resources – and resources in the right places. Like international NGOs, partners need contributions to their overheads to run and invest in their organisations. This process should be transparent and in line with partners’ priorities. Without such contributions, it can be challenging for our partners to remain financially stable and therefore retain important administrative staff who can support essential areas of work (including compliance and reporting aspects that can secure further funding). This should be paired with advocacy with donors for better cost recovery practice and policies. Sharing overheads doesn’t replace the need to adequately support partner staffing and running costs and to include lines for institutional development. It’s crucial to ensure that there are enough resources (as per each partner’s priorities) to support partners financially, and any decision on what this looks like must be taken jointly with each partner.
6. Meaningful change isn’t easy – it’s political and won’t come from box-ticking.
Organisational culture change takes time and isn’t a linear process. Some of the steps we took:
- being clear about what our added value is to our partners and restructuring accordingly;
- rethinking how we set our priorities – on policy, project design and accountability processes;
- using our advocacy and fundraising efforts to support partners to secure funding that they can use flexibly;
- valuing accompaniment, consensus-building and shared leadership skills in our recruitment processes;
- being prepared to restructure our teams and leadership groups and to simplify our processes where required;
- adjusting our operational footprint to ensure we play an effective supporting role and provide more resources for our partners ;
- adjusting our fundraising strategy to make sure our targets mirror our commitments (including on sharing resources equitably) and rethinking what success looks like (it doesn’t always have to be ‘the bigger, the better’)
We’re not perfect – as our partners continue to remind us. We still have more to do to put our strategy into practice – but being bolder gives us an important framework to work from and for our staff and partners to hold Saferworld to account. Support from leadership is critical, but the collective and individual actions of colleagues is central to approaching things differently as we put our partnership commitments into practice.
If you have any questions about Saferworld's partnership approach, commitments or journey, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are keen to learn what others are doing too.
Read more from our series on equitable partnerships.
Illustration: Tinuke Fagborun