Building partnerships based on trust: Q&A with ARC and CEGSS

Accountability Research Center team, Centre de estudios para la equidad y gobernanza en los sistemas de salud, and community heath defenders. Photo credit: Carlos Quiñonez, CEGSS

This is the third in a series examining questions about power and offering ideas for more equitable partnerships in global development. In the first piece, Pat Scheid discusses the conversation around shifting the power and the path forward, and in the second piece, Joseph Asunka shares insights on the role of funders in fostering equitable partnerships.

In my first blog, I shared some personal reflections on power imbalances in global development between funders, international NGOs, and Global South civil society and its harmful effects. And I proposed funders commit to cultivate solidarity and more equitable partnerships: Collaborations that value the expertise/talent that all partners bring to the table, share resources fairly, are governed by equitable decision-making, and are open to mutual learning and grounded in respect.

I recently sat down for a conversation with team members from Hewlett Foundation grantee the Accountability Research Center (ARC) at American University in Washington, D.C. and Centre de estudios para la equidad y gobernanza en los sistemas de salud (CEGSS) in Guatemala City to hear more about their partnership and what funders can do to help foster more equitable relationships.

ARC works in solidarity with human rights activists and action researchers in eight countries (Bangladesh, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Nigeria, and the Philippines) to build and share knowledge about how civil society and social movements create change so that governments are more responsive to their people, especially for communities that are distant from powerful institutions.

CEGSS is a civil society organization (CSO) that carries out research, advocacy, and capacity building in Guatemala around social participation, public health policies, and the right to health. A network of community activists that CEGSS trains and supports known as health defenders is a critical element connecting CEGSS to communities and their culture.

I spoke with Benilda Batzín (executive director, CEGSS), Naomi Hossain (research professor, ARC), and Walter Flores (formerly executive director of CEGSS and now an advisor to the organization) about some of the key ingredients that made the partnership between CEGSS and ARC successful: taking time to build the relationship and trust; exploring and naming their common values; flexibility; and grounding their relationship in learning and joint inquiry versus money. The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Luis C. Ribera provided Spanish-English translation.

What’s different about ARC’s technical assistance model, compared to other partnerships between international NGOs and civil society organizations?

Walter Flores: The main difference is that ARC is really a critical friend [to CEGSS]. ARC is actually listening to our challenges, our concerns, and also respect what we are doing. Other organizations we have tried to partner with don’t take the time to really listen. They just say, “Okay, why don’t we collect data and publish a paper?” Actually, our priority is not publishing a paper! Our purpose is to make each other better as institutions.

Naomi Hossain: [CEGSS] is also a critical friend to ARC! This is not going one way—it’s a mutual relationship that, in my experience, is unusual for research partnerships with North American universities. It’s all run on trust, isn’t it?

Benilda Batzín: ARC listens to us. I see our work together as links in a chain. CEGSS works in five regions of Guatemala supporting health defenders who know what is happening, work at the front-lines and are able to voice the concerns of their communities. The health defenders are the first link in the chain. The next link is CEGSS, we listen to the health defenders—analyzing what they are saying and working with them to prioritize actions. ARC is another link—they work hand-in-hand with CEGSS based on people’s needs, not something that is imposed.

Indigenous women in Guatemala suffer double or triple discrimination. It is not easy for us to arrive at the level I find myself now. ... My work was published in a journal, which elevated our experience. As a result, a broad range of people and institutions were exposed to CEGSS work, creating new opportunities.

Benilda Batzín, CEGSS Executive Director

Are there any surprises, unexpected benefits, or lessons that you’ve learned so far from CEGSS and ARC’s relationship?

Benilda Batzín: As an indigenous Mayan woman, I was surprised by the many opportunities I had with ARC. Indigenous women in Guatemala suffer double or triple discrimination. It is not easy for us to arrive at the level I find myself now. I started at the grassroots level, then became a health defender and eventually a collaborator with ARC. My work was published in a journal, which elevated our experience. As a result, a broad range of people and institutions were exposed to CEGSS work, creating new opportunities.

Also, the ARC team’s visits to Guatemala were unexpected, unique, and very welcome. Meeting the health defenders in person is very different than reading their work.

Walter Flores: We wanted to try new advocacy strategies to reach a wider audience. We shared two ideas with ARC and they helped us to develop them further and provided seed funding.

First, we wanted to learn to produce podcasts to expand our training of health defenders. We produced a series of five podcasts that explained the legal and constitutional framework for the right to information and the right to health in Guatemala. Community radio stations also broadcast the series and got positive audience feedback, and several NGOs are now using them as well. This year we plan to produce a new series in seven indigenous languages.

Second, we had hit a wall with the authorities—they refused to pay attention to the problem of illegal charges for ambulances, despite the complaints and photo documentation that we had been sending to them. We thought that making the information available to the general public could make a difference. We worked with credible investigative journalists and photographers, and their pieces appeared in a national newspaper that caught the attention of the Office of the Ombudsman; as result, we formed a new partnership to collaborate in monitoring the health and rights of indigenous people. CEGSS provided monitoring tools and the Ombudsman’s Office provided technical back-up to carry out citizen surveillance of public services.

We appreciated that ARC didn’t rush us. We didn’t feel pressured to use the funding before the end of the year. We felt the entire time that we were in control; we’ll learn together, but CEGSS was in control.

Naomi Hossain: Two things really stand out [from ARC’s perspective]. One is deeper learning about how identity, a sense of belonging and being part of a collective is an important aspect of social movements and their struggles for accountability.

Another is from CEGSS work on using storytelling. This took the form of photo-journalism, which combined beautiful images and stories to reach a wider audience and really captured the imagination. In accountability work, we tend to focus on laws and financial accounts—we like statistics. CEGSS discovered a lot can be achieved by adding narrative and visual stories.

How is the partnership between CEGSS and ARC structured? You mentioned that this is a trust-based partnership. Is there a written agreement?

Walter Flores: It’s all based on trust. We only have an MOU when we receive a seed grant. Most of our partnership happens outside of the MOU—learning together and from each other.

Have you ever had conflict that you had to resolve?

Walter Flores: No, not really. ARC and CEGSS do not fundraise together. I have noticed that one main source of conflict in partnerships is when a Northern NGO only seeks a partner with whom they can submit a one-time proposal versus seeking a longer-term relationship with them.

Let me turn to funder behaviors and practices that affect how some of these partnerships are governed or structured, which can sometimes be sources of conflict. How has ARC managed some of the adverse incentives and constraints in order to create more flexible partnerships? Are there funder practices, including any of Hewlett Foundation’s, that enable or disable these kinds of partnerships to flourish?

Naomi Hossain: Our starting point at ARC is that people who know what they’re doing should be setting the research agenda. Working with people in the Global South, rather than treating them as subjects of research—more engagement. Research should be useful and people should learn from it. At ARC, we have mostly flexible funding that enables us to have open-ended, trust-based research partnerships, and I think this is where some of the more creative and pioneering work comes from.

Benilda Batzín: In addition to trust, with ARC we have had space to adapt and respond to changing conditions in Guatemala. For example, last year we had a well-defined plan but didn’t expect COVID-19 to happen. Inequities in health became worse. We could not just wait and do nothing. We could not do the same in-person community monitoring and had to find other ways to know what was happening in our communities in terms of health and health services. Communities were left to recover from the impact of the lockdown and had to deal with other health needs because all the resources had been diverted for the COVID-19 response. Some human rights agencies who are allies observed rights violations and our health defenders had to adapt to new realities.

Walter Flores: The ARC funding was just five to ten percent of our budget. The flexibility was more important than the amount of money. The small grant from ARC proved crucial to obtaining larger funding since we were the only CSO that had already collected and analyzed data on how COVID-19 was impacting public services in rural communities.

What changes would you like to see funders make in their policies or practices to support equitable partnerships? Are there specific changes you would like to see?

Walter Flores: Yes. First, funders should introduce procedures to monitor the partnership. They should ask a few simple questions, like when did you meet? Have you worked together before? If partners don’t have much history, that’s already telling you there is a small chance it’s going to be an equal partnership.

Second, funders should ask about the governance of the collaboration. There is often no formal way for airing and resolving concerns among partners. For instance, if any of the partners say, “Sorry, but after six months I cannot really work with this organization.” Or, “I don’t feel respected and don’t want to continue.” That’s okay, because you do not want to force a relationship that is not working.

Naomi Hossain: It’s like being stuck in an unhappy marriage.

Yes, a graceful exit clause. What one piece of advice do you want to give to other international NGOs, research institutes or civil society organizations about forming and managing equitable partnerships?

Walter Flores: There is something that we haven’t talked about and it’s an important reason why CEGSS works very well with ARC and other partners—we have confidence in ourselves and our own work. It is not easy to find organizations with the confidence to say “we can set the agenda, we just need the opportunity.” We built this confidence through cycles of collective reflection, learning, and improvement. CEGSS will be very interested in helping other organizations in the Global South build their confidence to demand equal partnerships.

Naomi Hossain: I would add that it is as much about the way funders structure their support for research programs and partnerships. How often are we hearing the voices or ideas of people on the frontline from the Global South—people like Benilda or any of my colleagues in Bangladesh speaking about their experiences? We could all do a lot better at making that a priority.

Benilda Batzín: We all agree that trust is key—and good communication. In addition, the agenda needs to be constructed based on the desires of the people you are trying to serve—and to have the solutions come from the grassroots. When they are more involved and committed, this reinforces trust.

Benilda, as the new executive director of CEGSS, you get the last word. Tell me, what does the future look like? Is there anything on the horizon that you’re excited about?

Benilda Batzín: My greatest desire is to keep working on and improving our collaboration with ARC. We are counselors and give guidance to community groups that defend the right to health. In Guatemala, the health system has benefited certain groups for many years, and CEGSS wants to ensure universal health coverage (UHC) is achieved—to be inclusive, equitable and that the laws are respected. Our challenge is to ensure health care policies are responsive to our cultural heritage. We have Mayan therapists who are not included in health policymaking. There have been increases in criminalizing the work of human rights defenders and we need to protect them. We want to continue and expand our citizen health monitoring program beyond the five regions where we are now. We need to continue to generate new ideas and strategies to follow up on reporting of violations of women’s and children’s rights. We want to expand to more transversal rights—environment, health, food, and education. We will continue to unite and raise our voices to defend our rights.

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