What makes a good partnership? Transparency, trust—and a bit of patience!

community climate vulnerability assessment meeting in Tanzania
A community climate vulnerability assessment meeting to appraise the adequacy of flood and drought preparedness and the performance of responsible institutions, facilitated by community volunteer, Mzee Mdimi, as part of the Fair Water Futures Programme in the Wami catchment of Tanzania. Credit: Water Witness International

This is the fourth in a series on shifting power in international giving and what INGOs, NGOs, and funders can do differently to support and sustain more equitable partnerships. In the introductory piece, Pat Scheid frames the issue of shifting power, and in the second, Joe Asunka shares strategies for funders to foster equitable partnerships. In the third piece, Pat Scheid speaks with staff from the Accountability Research Center (ARC) at American University in Washington, D.C. and Centro de estudios para la equidad y gobernanza en los sistemas de salud (CEGSS) in Guatemala City about what happens when communities and their concerns are prioritized from the outset

In late 2020, the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) and Water Witness International (WWI) launched the Accountability for Water Action & Research Program, which aims to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water by generating usable knowledge about what works, where and why in terms of citizen oversight and accountability mechanisms for water services and water management. Twelve core partners[1], including African NGOs, research institutes, and European NGOs have selected research fellows who will answer a set of core questions related to how people impacted by poor water services and governance can better engage with service providers, regulators, policymakers, industry, civil society and community activists to identify problems and hold duty bearers to account in a more timely way. The program initially focuses its research in three target countries—Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania—although the partners expect their findings to be used across Africa and have already forged alliances with key regional bodies like the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) and the World Bank.

So, how will this address the concerns of real people in poor communities? Here are a few of the “accountability” questions that partners like Shahidi Wa Maji and KEWASNET, who work with communities in Tanzania and Kenya on water issues, have heard from community members that the program is seeking to find answers for:

  • How is COVID-19 response money for water and sanitation being used?
  • Why is the big farm taking all the water from the river?
  • Why is that factory still allowed to pollute our water?

In addition to answering these questions, the partners wanted to do things differently to address common inequities in research partnerships. They committed to “hard-wire” power and resource sharing into the partnership. I recently had a conversation with Martin Atela, Program Manager at PASGR, and Nick Hepworth, Executive Director at Water Witness International, to hear more about how it’s going in the early stages of the partnership.

Pat Scheid: What is the purpose of this partnership? What changes are you hoping to achieve, and how?

Nick Hepworth: The rapid expansion of water use to fuel Africa’s economic development, urbanization and escape from poverty, combined with the climate emergency and weak water governance present huge challenges. If we’re serious about inclusive and sustainable development and reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on water, we urgently need new approaches and tactics.

Martin Atela: First, when it comes to accountability for water service delivery, there is still a huge gap in terms of the quality of evidence available to improve decision-making. We want to narrow that gap. We believe that if countries and communities are equipped to deal with accountability issues that contribute to poor service delivery, this can significantly improve living conditions for people in poor communities.

Second, in an environment where resources are diminishing, it’s important that decision-makers are given the right tools and evidence to apportion the limited resources that they have in the best way possible.

Finally, decision-makers are often confronted with what to do in very difficult circumstances. By focusing our research on answering everyday problems that poor communities encounter, we can play a role in ensuring that those difficult choices take into account poor people’s experiences and concerns.

Pat Scheid: What makes you think that policymakers are actually going to use the evidence that you’re generating? Do you have some examples of that happening?

Martin Atela: From the beginning, decision-makers have been part and parcel of this conversation and what they think is important was taken into consideration. They contributed directly to the program design.

Nick Hepworth: We’re trying to re-shape the political economy of the water sector. The exciting part of the program is that it’s using research and knowledge as a neutral entry point to deal with some really difficult issues, power imbalances, and injustices. We’re seeking to equip future leaders with the confidence to talk about these issues in a constructive way, and provide people with evidence and tools that they can use to challenge and bargain for change.

For example, working in collaboration with stakeholders in Tanzania, we were able to push for a long-delayed water sector financing review study. We continually put up evidence showing that the set-up of financing for the water sector was all wrong. There’s not enough money, it’s spent on the wrong things and it’s not sustainable. This eventually led to changes in regulations and policy. In 2019, Tanzania reformed the way that the water sector is funded so that larger water users now pay their fair share for water use, which means they also have new incentives to manage water better.

Pat Scheid: What were you hoping to do through partnership that you could not do on your own, and how is it going?

Nick Hepworth: We’ve long known that the legitimacy of an outfit based in Edinburgh, working in Africa, has got a limited shelf life and that working with local partners to deal with some of these challenges is the way forward.

Martin Atela: The partnership gave us the opportunity to actually do what we do well – we work with about 20 African universities currently and this was an opportunity to deepen some of those partnerships, but more from a governance angle. The governance question is a difficult one. People don’t want to talk about corruption, holding the public sector accountable or how they allocate resources, and who is benefiting. However, increasingly we’re seeing public officials actually keen to try and bring change because it’s good for the next election cycle, and it’s also the global trend.

Nick Hepworth: PASGR is very good at networking and linking the Water for Accountability Programme to African academics that are committed, knowledgeable and credible. That’s proven to be a really important part of the program.

We also worked hard to identify the risks during the preparatory phase. We sat down with the wider group at meetings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to say, “Okay, what could go wrong here? And how do we head that off proactively?” Our ability to stay agile and make decisions, even in light of COVID-19, and demonstrate co-leadership has been important. Addressing the risks explicitly and recognizing where the power imbalances might be and addressing those in the planning stage was key. Also having clear agreements around responsibilities. We’re responsible for the technical quality assurance and Martin and his team for the governance, administration, financing, and oversight.

At the same time, we take counsel from each other in a good way. It’s not just about clarity of roles – it’s how we enter into those roles. We ask open questions rather than making closed statements or passing judgment in a truly collaborative way, and importantly, we keep a cool head.

Martin Atela: There were some difficult conversations for sure. Nick spent about two days in Nairobi working with us at PASGR which gave us a chance to get to know each other. I also had an opportunity to visit Edinburgh and work with Nick and some of his colleagues in their office. Along the way, you begin to build a level of trust.

One thing that I’m glad we did was to work with the program Advisory Group to jointly agree on their Terms of Reference. The group is playing an important role in opening up spaces for the partnership to share what we are finding with a larger community outside the partnership thus extending program reach and learning.

Pat Scheid: How did you work out a balance of power between Africans, Europeans, and North Americans?

Nick Hepworth: The challenge came from the Hewlett Foundation during the development phase when you asked: “How will you ensure that there are equitable governance arrangements that balance decision-making, influence, and power?” I think that was something we would have aimed for anyway, but the foundation’s guidance sharpened our intent. We have a numerical balance between African stakeholders and stakeholders from elsewhere.

Pat Scheid: How grant funds will be shared is often a pain point in such partnerships. How are financial resources being shared and how are those decisions made?

Nick Hepworth: The fact that PASGR wields the power of the purse, and they do that judiciously, is really helpful in getting the actual power balance in the partnership!

Martin Atela: It has been a difficult process. A lot of back and forth. The [12-month] planning grant provided by the Foundation allowed us time and space to think about those issues before launching the program, which helped to ease a lot of the tensions. In terms of decisions about resources, it’s very transparent and the budget is known by everyone. We make consensus-based decisions around moving resources if we feel we need to do so.

Nick Hepworth: Once we designed the program collectively, we said, “Well, how much is it going to cost to deliver this?” The team had crafted a tight budget that could just about deliver the work that everyone was happy with. And there was a night in Addis Ababa when we thought we cracked it. The problem was, we’d embedded some assumptions about the unit costs of some of the partners, including PASGR. So, the lesson is to check the assumptions. When we took it to PASGR, we learned that their overhead costs were higher than we’d expected. At that stage, we were on the doorstep. The partners could have easily said, “Well, they want too much money,” and it could have unraveled. It was high stakes, but we re-negotiated and agreed on a way forward.

Pat Scheid: What funder behaviors or practices make these types of partnerships more difficult or easier?

Martin Atela: The reality on the ground is that most of the donor funding is project-based, whereas institution building requires more. It’s a conversation a lot of international NGOs in Nairobi are beginning to have. It becomes very difficult when everything that you’ve worked hard for within projects doesn’t have a place to anchor itself in the longer term.

Nick Hepworth: If more donors took the time to build up relationships of trust AND provided long-term, strategic core funding, we could get on with doing the work rather than chasing the money for it – it’s a no-brainer. It’s so refreshing when that happens, but still too rare. Another important role for funders is to bring together like-minded people and organizations that can get things done.

Pat Scheid: What advice would you give to other international NGOs or civil society organizations about forming and managing equitable partnership?

Nick Hepworth: It’s like a marriage. First, keep yourself in shape, and make sure you’ve got your finances sorted out and that you’re a credible partner. That’s when you’re going to be attractive to others and what’s going to make for a positive relationship. No one’s going to partner with you if you’re in a mess.

Second, invest in the courtship. You’re going to be with this organization through some difficult times, so invest in finding out who they are, and checking that you’ve got shared interests. Finally, make sure that you don’t walk away when you have a fallout. Be resilient and keep talking. Accept that you’re different and have different views and keep talking.

Martin Atela: You have to partner with organizations with shared goals and vision. That is what keeps the partnership going when the going gets tough. Second, it will take time, so please be patient with one another. Look beyond individual organizational interests. Finally, building trust and mutual respect is really important. Absolutely critical for me is knowing that I can trust the other person to trust that what I’m doing is right, and that we’re walking on the same path. Even though we might hold different opinions about how to approach a particular challenge, the overall vision is knit together by trust and mutual respect.


[1] The 12 core partners are: PASGR, Water Witness International, African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW), Ethiopian Social Accountability Program Phase 2, Kenya Water & Sanitation Network (KEWASNET), End Water Poverty, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sanitation and Water for All, Shahidi Wa Maji, Oxfam, WaterAid and Water Integrity Network.

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