Two activists embrace in KwaMashu, an informal settlement north of Durban, South Africa. Christian Aid’s partner, Church Land Programme, works closely with the shackdweller movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo) so that people in KwaMashu can live without fear
Two activists embrace in KwaMashu, an informal settlement north of Durban, South Africa. Simon Hutchinson, Irish Methodist World Development & Relief

Leaving and learning: 3 things we learned collaborating with local partners

Calls to decolonise the development sector and development research raise valid and pressing questions about INGOs’ roles in perpetuating a development agenda which is set in wealthy countries and delivered in low- and middle-income countries.

While these calls are certainly not new, what do these debates mean for how we understand partnership and support locally-led development? How often do we reflect on how our work and relationships with partners responds to context; or explore how it evolves, depending on national histories and legislative contexts and their impact on the vibrancy, scale and maturity of national civil society?

Partnership is central to who Christian Aid is and how we work. In 2020, Christian Aid closed offices in 12 countries, leaving partners that we had walked alongside and supported for up to 60 years. As part of that process we captured learning from six countries (Angola, Brazil, Ghana, Guatemala, The Philippines and South Africa) about what partners valued in working with us, and how we worked in partnership in different country contexts and thematic areas of work. We’re using this learning to help us better support our partners in countries where we continue to work.

Three things our partners valued

  • Meeting partners at their point of need. Unrestricted funding (not tied to specific activities and projects) was instrumental to partners, especially in the early days of building partnerships. It meant we could strengthen their ability to deliver their own agendas, not impose ours, via strengthening institutional capacity, creating space for learning, innovation and risk-taking, and funding work unlikely to be funded elsewhere. Our relationship also meant our partners could leverage further funding.
  • Brokering relationships between diverse actors. In the Philippines, Christian Aid stayed in the background, while brokering new relationships between unlikely collaborators: scientists and grassroots communities, private sector and peoples’ organisations, government and climate activists. In Angola, human rights organisations are relatively new in the country, while churches have a strong presence within local communities. Bringing human rights and faith-based organisations together enabled each organisation to strengthen the other’s legitimacy, narratives and actions, through integrating a rights-based focus and attention on policy change, into the trusted value-based relationships churches held.
  • Connecting to global conversations and developing solidarity action. Our South African partners were strong and influential at the national level. Christian Aid drew directly on their analysis and practice in developing our global work on illicit financial flows, ensuring that we went beyond thinking about recouping funds back to the national budget, to considering how the funding could reach communities. This shaped both the policy and the campaigning elements of our work.

This approach had its limitations. As Christian Aid often played a “behind the scenes role”, we were not a visible player in the national development context, limiting our ability to fundraise for our partners. This became a more significant challenge in certain countries as donors began to shift their funding to favour national organisations over international ones. The lack of profile also meant we were not always as influential as we might be in terms of our national and global advocacy efforts.

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Another challenge was ensuring the longer-term financial sustainability of partners. This was not a key consideration in establishing and developing partnerships and was usually only actively considered around the time of programme closure. Our Brazil country programme was a notable exception here, where supporting partners to directly raise funds was a key element of its operational model. Overall, funds raised with partners that do not go through our accounting system are often poorly understood and valued, posing a real challenge to developing equal partnerships.

How can INGOs continue to add value to partnerships looking forward?

As national and local actors will increasingly hold the purse strings in the future, we need to rethink how we add value to and support local partners.

Although it will be challenging for INGOs, this process will help to shift power to grassroots and national actors who can invite us to work alongside them based on their own agendas and priorities.

So, what do we add? INGOs often make visible what is happening nationally, take on risk and support solidarity action, protect civil society spaces and join national debates to global ones. To do this better we need to pay closer attention to who sets the development agenda, whose knowledge dominates processes, and how historic injustices continue to be perpetuated in current day practice.

We need to build more equal and empowering partnerships, led by national organisations, while INGOs draw on their applied knowledge from working in range of contexts. Our connections and access to power holders can bolster how local, national and global civil society work together against poverty and injustice.

Read Christian Aid’s briefing: leaving and learning.