‘Partnership’ is a buzzword in international aid and development. But, arguably, it’s often overused and tokenistic. So how can we create real partnerships that lead to better development outcomes?

[Editor’s Note: This is a re-post of the original article on Doing Development Differently’s blog. It’s written by Arnaldo Pellini, Research Fellow at Overseas Development Institute and Lead for Knowledge to Policy Learning at the Knowledge Sector Initiative, Jakarta (apellini@ksi-indonesia.org) and Nicola Nixon, Counsellor, Poverty and Social Development, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Jakarta (nicola.nixon@dfat.gov.au).]

Most of the discourse on Doing Development Differently (DDD) focuses on the relationship between program teams and beneficiaries, yet also critical are the relationships between a donor and those implementing large development programmes. This is yet to receive much attention.

Last year, the Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI), funded by the Australian government, focused on precisely that.

KSI seeks to improve the lives of the Indonesian people through public policies that are more informed by research evidence and other forms of policy analysis. It does so by identifying and addressing, with its partners, concrete problems in the ways knowledge is demanded and used in government agencies, the ways knowledge is produced and made available by research and advocacy organizations, and, last but not least, in the public and private resources made available for research in Indonesia.

It is an innovative and experimental program. It engages with a range of partners including government, think tanks, universities and NGOs. KSI requires a flexible and responsive approach to test solutions to support the stronger use of evidence in public policies. We recognize that some of the solutions will work, while some will not. To take this approach, however, requires a high level of trust and shared understanding between the donor, the project team and partners. The partnership agreement, which we describe here, is how we have decided to consolidate trust, develop shared understanding, and build adaptation and learning into the programme.

In May 2015, roughly two years into the program, we engaged an accredited broker to negotiate the agreement. Unlike contracts, partnership agreements are brokered by a third party, giving both sides a chance to negotiate a shared set of working principles and systems. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, (DFAT) has adopted the approach in a number of instances to build and manage more adaptive and flexible development programmes.

The partnership broker met with the DFAT team in charge of KSI and the implementing team separately at first, asking about the major challenges and frustrations on both sides (a bit like group counselling!). A number of issues emerged which were impeding the implementation of the program. While some of those issues were external, we were struck by the internal dynamics between the teams, which were coming from a very low level of trust. The workshop allowed us to identify the reasons for that in the lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities of team members, the multiple and unclear channels of communication within and between teams, and decision-making processes which needed to be strengthened.

Armed with this information, the broker facilitated a workshop to identify and agree shared goals and a better understanding of each side’s contributions. It is fair to say a good part of the 20+ people who participated in the workshop from both teams were pretty skeptical about what it could achieve. But by the end of the day we left the room with an agreed set of working principles, communications practices and protocols, clear grievance procedures, and a recognition of risks to look out for. Each topic became a heading in the written agreement, subsequently signed and endorsed by all participants.

Immediately after the agreement was negotiated, and inspired by the positive sentiment it encouraged, the DFAT and the KSI teams worked effectively together to improve stakeholder relations. This contributed also to the KSI program turning a corner.

Six months after signing the written agreement, we had another visit from the broker. Again, she met with the two teams separately, before bringing us together to discuss the partnership’s ‘health’ – what’s working and more importantly what’s not and how can it be improved.

One striking difference is how much the two teams are invested in the shared vision for the programme’s future. There is also a notable improvement in our ability to receive feedback and to appreciate each other’s challenges. Communication is streamlined and more face-to-face communication is taking place. Six months into the new ‘partnership’, we have worked collaboratively to strengthen stakeholder relations, including with government, which has led to a clearer strategic direction, a fully functioning governance structure, and better methods for collecting and reporting on outcomes and learning.

Reflections from either side of the agreement

Embedding the partnership agreement in KSI has been – and will continue to be – a period of adjustment for both sides. But it strikes us both (sitting on opposite sides of the table) how beneficial and valued the process has been.

The ‘health check’ six months later was also a great opportunity to remind us of our shared principles and how they feed into our daily activities. To maintain a strong shared vision and partnership, it’s essential to create space to hold these conversations – as we spend most of the time just getting on with the daily grind.

Yes, this may sound like a whole lot of donor – implementing partner self-congratulatory waffle. And yes, it may be stating the obvious to say that for development interventions to be effective partners need to operate openly – with mutual respect and accountability – but there are inevitably differences of opinion that can quite quickly lead a programme off track.

What’s more, the relationship between partners often suffers from the rigidities and power imbalances of formal contractual agreements that undermine the possibility to do things differently.

Where traditional contracts can sometimes encourage development relationships based on output-driven accountability mechanisms, partnership agreements offer a way for partners to build mutual accountability and trust. This creates space for context-driven solutions, risk-taking and learning from failure.

The partnership agreement between DFAT and the KSI team will continue to evolve and hopefully continue to push us to develop a relationship based on sharing of information, open communication and, most importantly, greater trust – driven by the programmatic outcomes we are jointly trying to achieve. We hope that this will provide the basis for the program to remain problem-driven, adaptive and able to function iteratively within its political context.

We also hope that this process continues to push us to think differently about our roles in managing and implementing a development programme. Something that is not easy to do. As John Maynard Keynes once wrote ‘the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.’