"the reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps" (Bob Black)
This blog began as a journal of my family's time living in Saigon, Vietnam, but is now more of a repository of thoughts about work, family, and the incredible and often hilarious moments confronting ex-pats living in this weird and wonderful city.
I am originally from London (for anyone from London, I'm actually from Amersham, but this tends to mean not a lot to the vast majority of people I work with and meet in Asia).
In January 2013 I started a new writing project, following some changes in my life - www.definitelymaybe.me - and I welcome you to join in the discussion over there, too.
I am probably drinking a coffee as you are reading this. 'Cheers' for stopping by (I am lifting my cup as we speak) and enjoy today.
In the international development sector, it’s commonplace to read about “systems change”. This is a broad objective. There are many different types of systems in the world, and many ways to change them. There’s a system for how banks distribute money, and how utility companies manage the flow of clean water to households. A system for how to hold your government to account on social welfare measures. A system, more culturally nuanced, for how families inherit assets. A system for addressing global health pandemics. And so on. Millions of systems and ways to both disrupt them and to improve them.
Typically, the INGO industry champions those citizens directly facing marginalisation, vulnerability and injustice. At CARE International, where I spent thirteen years, the target group supported are women and girls. One particular area of focus that I worked on was how to bring the potential of businesses and markets to bear, for the women and girls CARE sought to assist. Many of you have been subjected to years of my posting here, on related experiences from this starting objective. For which I am most grateful.
Having recently completed a consulting assignment with a very special CARE team, based in Palestine, we’ve published a ‘Compendium‘ for those practitioners in the sector who are looking at systems change in the context of fragility and crisis. Better still, for practitioners who are also advancing their engagement with the private sector and their women’s economic development efforts.
The Compendium is titled “Resilient Market Systems” because its goal is to influence not just the economic opportunities for women and girls (enhancing their resilience to economic fluctuations) who are faced with crisis situations, but to improve the resiliency of the wider market systems, themselves impacted by the same crisis.
2020 has also produced Covid-19, a merciless ‘crisis’ that has touched the lives of everyone, and which calls for organisations to pull together. Enabling more ‘resilient market systems’ is clearly not an overnight project, nor something that CARE can do without collaborating with others. However, as a global confederation with a strong cadre of practitioners working in some of the world’s most complex crisis contexts, just aligning CARE’s own teams can be a challenge in itself.
In many ways, this Compendium is a call to action to us all to think about our own role in the market systems within which we operate.
What is a market system? Well, at the heart a market system (captured in the schematic below) exists goods and services value chains, running from production to consumption, and linking up national, regional and global markets. From essential services (eg banking or health) to the production of a range of consumable goods, the roles of the many stakeholders that participate in this chain, who are affected by each of the various external environmental, political and societal influences, are all inter-related.
CARE’s work sets out to trigger a range of improvements that make crisis affected market systems more resilient, inclusive, and profitable in such a way that addresses the previous inequalities which prevented women from benefiting from markets on the same footing as men.
The Compendium aims to help practitioners think through how to do this. From the type of analysis at the beginning of planning the work, through to considerations of how the work will transform gender dynamics favourably for women, to the ways in which the private sector can be engaged, through to how to test people’s resiliency to dynamic economic change.
I commend the concepts behind this publication, and the range of experiences and case studies (ten of which are featured in the Annexes) contained inside. Not just for the more technical components to the document, but because of the nature of how the contents and the spirit behind the work was conceived. Drawing from across the Middle East and North Africa region – countries including Palestine, Turkey and the Caucasus featuring prominently – but also wider, this Compendium walks the talk of how a large confederation such as CARE should be working collegiality across its teams, diversifying its thought leadership in the pursuit of the right solutions, for those most in need of them.
Aside from the plausible accusations that the Government’s merging this week of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office was a “media stunt” to distract away from their U-turn earlier in the day on free school meals, the announcement about DfID was depressingly predictable, and in-step with an administration, yet again, talking about their vision for “change” but acting in ways that only serve to drag the country backwards.
I’ve plenty of disparagement to channel at both Labour and Conservative leaderships over the last 20 years. However, under Claire Short for the first six years of Tony Blair’s Government, in my opinion we experienced a conviction and clarity about the role of DfID that has since to be matched.
Blair’s re-branding and re-positioning of DfID (previously the ‘Overseas Development Administration’) as having full departmental status, complete with a Secretary of State was, in itself, a turning point.
During her tenure, Short had plenty of critics, however a cornerstone outcome of these early years with her at the helm was the Partnership Programme Agreement (PPA). The PPA was a multi-million pound investment from DfID that was used to leverage their relationships with British INGOs (International Non-Government Organisations) – including CARE International, for whom I worked from 2006.
From first hand experience, I saw how effective these funds were for INGOs looking to build the capacities of their teams around the world and, in doing that, mobilising local community based organisations.
The PPA covered Latin America to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia, all the way to Vanuatu in the Pacific and funding wasn’t “restricted” – the term used by institutional donors which means money is earmarked only to be spent on certain items. Instead, it was more simply a requirement that funds complemented DfID’s priority areas of work – which initially included: conflict and peace building; women’s economic development; governance; and private sector engagement.
Following the Iraq invasion in 2003, and the Asian Tsunami in December 2004 and then, indeed, throughout the period I was based in London (from 2006 to 2011) DfID consistently updated the issues and geographies they felt to be of prime importance.
As DfID’s global coverage was reviewed under Cameron’s team from 2010, offices in Latin America closed first, deemed predominantly a region consisting of “middle-income” status countries and less in need of traditional aid. South East Asia was next (they closed their Vietnam office in 2016) and overall the nature of PPA funding and how it used was dictated by other criteria.
From here on it felt like DfID was re-purposed all over again. Whilst Cameron was committed to DfID receiving and spending 0.7% of GDP (the magical figure to which very few donor countries have aspired) he introduced an annual “value for money” evaluator which held back funds until organisations could prove they had delivered results on the ground.
On the one hand, he was calling out agencies on being more accountable (as well as trying to keep Daily Mail readers charmed for polling days, given the rising outrage propagated by the “Red Tops” about British aid money being sent to countries such as India – a nation with 350 million people living on less than one dollar a day, but also housing a nascent space programme).
On the other hand, it is ludicrous to measure meaningful change taking place in under twelve months. At the time, the previous 7-8 years of PPA funded work was only just on the verge of being able to quantify ways in which programmes had addressed gender norms, let alone to have fully rehabilitated a state such as Tamil Nadu, which had been destroyed during the Tsunami.
And so, in place of a more open, thoughtful and practical distribution of funds, through mechanisms like the PPA, the Tories instead focused on trade issues, on supporting ex-commonwealth countries (in particular Kenya, which hosted regular delegations of Ministers and their wives) and on gradually reducing the amount of money they were prepared to invest in partnerships with INGOs.
I don’t feel qualified to mention the fine balance – always there – with which the British Government has forever had to deal with being one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of high grade military weapons the world over, whilst at the same time being held up as a beacon of ‘know-how’ when it comes to their work on social injustice, poverty and inequality. Go figure. Perhaps that is for another blog.
What I do know is that, within that complex backdrop, DfID had many very progressive years of designing a new approach, and a more appropriate role for itself and for its international ambassadors, be they individuals or partner organisations.
Johnson and Co. have just rendered that progress irrelevant with this merger. Just as the Australians have done with their previous international development arm, now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in the process slashing millions of previously sacred aid money. Not that dissimilar too, to the stance taken by Donald Trump since he took office, and cut the legs off the US Government’s aid department (USAID) budgets.
These power-plays are related. They smack of Governments losing the foresight and the global citizenship credentials required to sit at some of the world’s most important decision making tables.
The DfID merger is sending the UK back in time – a core characteristic of the Johnson administration on many fronts – and it’s a terrible, terrible shame.
Thanks to technology, we have all kinds of information at the click of a button. Whilst huge numbers of population groups can’t access the internet, not long from now everyone will be connected in some shape or form.
Technology is helping us make better sense of our impacts on the environment, and how to resolve the negative aspects of these. Technology has enabled block chain systems to evolve, challenging how existing global market transactions work, and providing alternative methods for citizens to cast votes in elections. Technology is enhancing the way we communicate with each other, how we forge and maintain relationships, both professional and personal.
I’ve been working with The Partnering Initiative (TPI) recently and we’re seeing how technology can also be a positive vehicle for partnership work. In particular, between organisations seeking to solve societal issues, such as poverty, injustice and now, during such comprehensively macabre times, a health pandemic.
The current implications of Covid-19 are reverberating through every country of the world. We rely on technology to support our response to this virus, as well as to develop its vaccine.
However, there is one damning chasm that technology has failed to fill in: inequality.
American author, William Gibson, once said: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.
Inequality, on a global scale, rages on.
Recently, the stark extent to which our planet’s wealth is unevenly distributed has been shared wider and wider.
Oxfam’s Inequality Campaign helps put the data into perspective – 1% of the world’s population own more than the rest combined. Other agencies have provided tools to help us determine how our own wealth fares, when compared to global median levels. If you are curious about your ranking, then The Giving What We Can platform calculates this for you here: How Rich Are You?
Covid-19 has exposed the pervasive extent to which social inequalities direct so much of what and how societies function.
Capitalist market-based models and patriarchal and cultural norms clearly also contribute heavily. Too many men in positions of power. Too many assumed entitlements, personified daily by too many people used to getting what they want, when they want it.
Which is, of course, where the remedial qualities of partnership working can play a critical role.
As TPI and others have experienced, on the topic of partnership working, it is not sustainable to broker a meaningful partnership with another organization if both parties refuse to embrace new methods, new approaches and new behaviours. Partnerships also won’t sustain if individuals don’t cede elements of control and influence to which they might intuitively feel they are entitled.
Instead, long-term, impactful partnerships will only succeed in their objectives if any aspects of inequality within them are not re-balanced.
Covid-19 should be seen as an overdue warning shot across a country’s bows, but specifically the world’s wealthiest ones.
The US and the UK are floundering with their responses to the pandemic. Caught up in political points scoring, unwilling to learn from the experiences of other nations, blinkered in their pursuit of populist messages.
There was a time when these countries took pride in their international development investments, a time when being a “global citizen” was worn as a badge of some honour by political ambassadors.
A time when signing up to the doctrine of partnership, that the Sustainable Development Goals got close to evangelizing (as part of the United Nation’s second round of fifteen year commitments to the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens) was taken ‘as a given’.
These times have changed. Those sentiments shelved.
And, one scenario perhaps, is that we won’t now see a return to that previous status quo. It’s plausible that the seismic nature of the shifts caused by Covid-19 are too severe to be fully repairable.
Gibson’s statement asks us to consider if our new normal will see more people living comfortably with wealth, or more people living uncomfortably with poverty?
Will our human condition – when so flagrantly put under the microscope and tested, as it could be argued is happening in 2020 – regenerate more altruistically as a result of Covid-19? Or, will the opposite scenario unfold, and a more self-centered and individualistic norm rise from the ashes of the pandemic?
That partnerships can solve complex social and environmental challenges is undisputed.
But partnerships, we also know concretely, won’t survive long, if those leading them choose not to believe in the power of the many, and in the spectacular innovation that comes from collaboration.
To hope for a future where collective action and shared goals are espoused by all (by organisations who traditionally function to benefit only their shareholders, or by governments who only crave election votes) is, of course, a version of a utopia state. And that hope itself carries with it many complications and flaws.
And yet, no amount of technological advances will ever truly make a difference in the pursuit of a more just and equal society.
Real change only ever comes from hearts and minds. Not from algorithms.
Last Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. The day the “American war” officially ended. Evacuations from Saigon continued for some time after 30th April 1975, but Reunification Day is the day that residents here hoist up their flags and commemorate the end of one era, and the beginning of another.
I remember talking to a friend a few year’s back, she was born in Saigon, and her family fled later in the ’70s, bound for Melbourne, Australia. She recalls the memory of being in a boat, aged 5, and can picture still the anguish plastered across her parents’ brows, and their clipped, firm instructions to her.
The plight of a family on the run isn’t something anyone would choose to put themselves through.
Just as no parent would want their loved ones to be victims of war over peace, violent conflict over dialogue.
And, yet, war and conflict riddle our generation, as they have every other one before us, and peace and dialogue so often resolve far less than seems possible.
‘Change’ in our society, as required by the human condition, thrives off of a combination of war and peace, reinforced and shaped, as these forces are, by various forms of dialogue and iterations of conflict.
There is a predictability around the cycles of these dynamics and conditions, and humans seem stuck in the cadence and inevitability of the ebb and flow of these things.
But we needn’t be stuck, dear reader.
I put it to you that we’ve gathered plenty of recent and favourable lessons about how to tackle societal issues (including addressing conflict and war) and one thing is certain: we don’t have enough women in charge.
It’s not necessarily that a Head of State (there are currently 29 female Heads of State out of 195 countries) always single-handedly makes the key decisions. Nor every corporate CEO the same. It takes many voices and influences to ultimately persuade a country to go “to war” in the first place.
However, with power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and men simply don’t care enough about the impacts of their decisions, when compared to women.
Forgive the sweeping generalisations but, for too long – forever – men have sat smug and uncontested, their creativity and compassion rendered, more often than not, lethargic and complacent when compared, in the cold and searching light of day, to that of women.
The Mars vs. Venus analogies neatly document the critical differences between men and women. We have this data. Men don’t care as much as women do. They don’t care as much.
The alarm bells have been ringing loud and clear on this point for a long while now. But nothing changes.
Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckeberg, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Pope Francis. A plethora of male power brokers. Angela Merkel the one female counter-part over the last ten years whose influence is comparable.
More recently, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has captured the attention of many. Because she cares. Because she is self-aware and because her ego, unlike the inflated zeppelins of her male peers, doesn’t take over how she makes decisions.
In the archives of these posts you will find attempts to describe CARE’s solutions to poverty and social injustice. The #1 proof of concept that CARE has? Put more women in charge. Put gender equality at the centre of all poverty programmes, of all campaigns to tackle social injustice. Done. It’s that simple.
Put more women in charge of balancing a low-income household budget and we know they will think more about healthcare and education, than they will about spending that budget on consumption. They will care more about the welfare of their children. There will be less violence and conflict.
Putting more women in charge of everything can only reap dividends for everyone in the longer term. The stock market, the military, the media, the respective governance structures of every country in the world, the political systems, which toxically cause pain and suffering for so many people. Hell, we’ve even the evidence now that investing more in girls’ education is one of the most important counters to the effects of climate change.
Women make up 51% of the world’s population and yet we are leaving seismic decision-making about the planet’s extractive industry, the planet’s nuclear capacities, the planet’s healthcare and financial systems, dis-proportionality to men. Who we know care less about issues of humanity and welfare than women do.
Patriarchal social norms, everywhere, dictate this status quo. Capitalism only worsens the effects of inequality, and of gender bias.
The world, we are told, is constantly changing. Covid-19 our latest gruesome illustration of this. And yet nothing has meaningfully changed in terms the gender inequality. It rages on.
The #MeToo movement, and the wave of awareness which followed about domestic violence, workplace harassment, and gender-based violence more generally, was long overdue.
But it didn’t stop the election of Donald Trump. It hasn’t resulted in root and branch changes to how some of the world’s most powerful nations staff their top tier of power holders. It hasn’t influenced the accepted norm, the world over, that men can use violence against women as a weapon.
In Vietnam, as this week’s commemorative anniversary of the end of a brutal and protracted war draws to a close, the government continues to flagrantly lead from the front in terms of the male-female ratios of its leaders. And they are not alone in doing that. It’s the same everywhere.
Everyday, unchallenged, predictable and disastrous decisions are made by men.
Yesterday, in an interview with Peter Tufano from Saïd Business SchoolPaul Polman concluded that covid-19 had “shown the gaps that exist in our society”, and that a “global crisis like this requires a global response”.
Polman, who stood down from running Unilever at the end of 2018, is a seasoned businessman when it comes to discussing sustainability issues. Under his leadership, Unilever helped lead the charge, on behalf of large corporations, in defining why pursuing a “shared value” agenda (coined as such by Porter and Kramer in the Harvard Business Reviewalmost a decade ago) might end up being more than just a newfangled public relations exercise.
From designing a unique global sustainability charter (The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan) for their business operations, and investing in their own accountability frameworks and evaluation metrics for this, through to chairing the private sector group who influenced the UN’s shaping of the current Sustainable Development Goals, Unilever’s ten year sustainability trajectory under Polman paved the way for many other industries.
Way before this last particular decade, many of Unilever’s brands had more than dabbled in the “CSR” space. One of the first tie-ups I learnt about, when I joined CARE International in 2006, were the hand-washing initiatives led by Dove soap in south Asia, and which engaged local CARE teams in finding innovative ways to distribute health messages to rural communities.
It was clear to me, during my initial years with CARE in London, that Unilever had an omnipresent feel about it as a company, in terms of its presence on the sustainability scene.
When I joined the WSUP management team in 2008 for CARE, Unilever were one of the most active private sector partners, determined to prove that the answer to global water-sanitation issues lay in the collaboration between government, private sector and civil society working together.
And then, by 2010, CARE had launched JITA, a rural sales programme in Bangladesh that relied on everyday products being sold by local tradeswomen. No surprise, then, that Unilever had pioneered the earlier pilots to JITA, adapting certain products for harder to reach communities (also no surprise that it was Professor Linda Scott from Saïd Business School who championed a significant investment in measuring the impacts of JITA’s work).
Indeed, in the arena of the emerging partnerships and collaborations, which I saw take shape during those years, Unilever were front-runners.
Moving to Vietnam in 2011, I spent more time in the Asia-Pacific sustainability arena, only to find a similar dynamic out here, with Unilever once more driving the debates and popping up at conferences and seminars to lead the examples of good practice, particularly when it came to partnerships and sustainability.
So, in many ways, Polman’s insights yesterday fell well in line with what I would expect him to say about the current covid-19 pandemic.
Words are easy – real and sustained action tends not to be so.
The tension with putting words into action is not a new phenomenon. I’d be the first to challenge a lot of the work that companies put out there under a sustainability banner. To me, we’ve a long way to go on the topic of forging genuinely meaningful and long lasting partnerships between different organisations and especially when it comes to multi-national companies.
It seems to me, though, that covid-19 has somewhat re-written the script, not just for how businesses might engage in societal and environmental issues, but how every organisation engages.
Every conversation that anyone in the world is having today is in some way influenced by covid-19. It has changed everything. Forget starting any new chapter headings, we all need to learn a new language to read this particular book.
And that is, perhaps, why I found Polmans’ words so inspiring.
Already, covid-19 and the new realities it has brought upon society, simply must now be a catalyst for changing the way organisations work together. Somehow, before old habits and models and behaviours are allowed to creep back in, we must foster long-term commitments by government, private sector, and civil society to actually be the global “responders” that Polman is insisting are required.
In the interview, Polman cites some immediately comforting examples of where health, tech, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors have collaborated together to address the pandemic. The world is rising to certain aspects of the challenge it faces.
Many commentators have been quick, also, to recognise the very positive way in which these recent months can help shape a healthier society in the future. One where larger numbers of people make choices not geared towards satisfying their own desires or needs.
Also in the mix, as the realities for the world’s poorest and most marginalised population groups come sharper into focus, is a greater awareness about the extent to which covid-19 will almost certainly end up further increasing the world’s inequalities – inequalities that have for so many years exacerbated the vulnerabilities of those living with very little prosperity and facing constant injustices.
As Polman mentioned yesterday, every year 8 million people die because of cigarettes, and 7-8 million because of air pollution. That the fatalities for which covid will be responsible won’t reach such numbers, further highlights perhaps the complacency that exists about the sales of tobacco and the number of regulatory controls that effect air quality.
I listened earlier in the week to someone on the radio talking about the many millions of people the world over who, for reasons of old age or disability, have been self-isolated from society their whole lives. That radical re-thinking about the digital and virtual nature of providing services and products – be they educational or health related, or other – is now well underway because of covid-19 is both exciting and deeply revealing.
Does this mean covid-19 embodies some type of perfect humanitarian storm of circumstances, out of which new alliances, partnerships and cross-sector collaborations will be forged? Did the world need the “re-boot” that I’ve read some people describe the current circumstances as?
Time will tell.
To quote Polman from the start, this crisis like none other before it, is “showing our society’s gaps” – for everyone to see. Acknowledging these gaps is one thing. Finding the right, long term solutions to them is another.
Polman indefatigably believes that the right type of solutions will only be found if the world works together.
And, at this point in time, I can only whole-heartedly agree.
This morning I woke up to a flurry of whatsapp messages from my cousins in the UK.
The messages drew from our respective memories of making child-hood visits to our grandparent’s house, down in Ramsgate, Kent.
What felt, for my brother and me back then in the early to mid 1980’s, like a life-time spent in the back seat of our parent’s car (playing ‘I-spy’, stopping at service stations, before – at last – pitching up alongside the seafront, and knocking on the pale green back-door, awaiting our Grandad’s inevitable greeting of “not today, thank-you”) was brought back to life in the moments of recall described in my cousins’ whatsapp chatter.
The instant recall and sentiments that popped up in these messages was palpable. Our Nan’s signature offerings (cherry cakes, iced fingers, Dandelion and Burdoock fizzy drinks, apple and blackberry pies) alongside our grandparent’s familiar household ornaments (a glass-topped table displaying our school photos, KP salted peanuts in a bowl, and a walnut cracker proudly stood between a family of wooden elephants) and then the excitable excursions we all took in between being served up huge quantities of food (down to the games arcade, “moving the flags on the putting green” and throwing little parachuted plastic soldiers off the white cliff tops).
The picture painted was so very satisfying and instant. I sensed we’d all happily opened our hearts to it, and to being back there again.
Amid so much turmoil right now, these moments are sacred and unifying.
When markets recover and normality is restored, regardless of how shaped it will be from these recent times, there is a sense (shared by some commentators) that our ambitions and values, and sense of civic responsibilities, might have been enhanced in a positive way. That we will, perhaps, think more about each other, and less about our own desires.
Part of the anxieties surrounding these present and future scenarios could well be the ‘not knowing’. The lack of control we have in the current moment. The diminishing returns being presented to those of us unaccustomed to such a reality.
Already, in the international development sector (the core realm from where my definitelymaybe posts typically begin their journey) much is being written about the fact that, for years now, we’ve designed development programmes for marginalised communities around the world that ultimately try to build people’s capacities to be resilient in the face of crisis. How to best absorb, adapt and transform when “shocks” occur.
The related concepts and tools published about resiliency are multiple.
The learning cycles that unfold in typical social development programming have never been easy to fully articulate, nor, ironically, to learn from. I imagine, in current times, powerful lessons will be captured about resiliency, from countries around the world who are themselves locking down right now, freezing their economic development, and moving into unprecedented waters.
The reasons that programme learning cycles might not be up to scratch are many. There can, for example, often be no clear learning strategy made early on in the design of a programme, which then undermines learning at a later date. There are awkward funding processes, too, which mean organisations aren’t always readily resourced to invest in their partnerships, and in their learning, because they are under pressure to chase down the next grant.
I think there also exist fundamental divides between the different stakeholders engaged in social programming. Namely, and crudely, those designing and implementing and then those on the “receiving end”. Whilst there are a plethora of human-centred design frameworks growing in number (where the emphasis on design is led by “end-user”) too often organisations are not localising their solutions.
We devise a micro-loan product, for example, without properly testing the assumption that micro-loans are needed or desired. A training course might provide women with new skills and the confidence to earn better income, without involving their husbands in the process, and considering the consequences of the dis-empowerment which this new dynamic might cause the men.
Right now, one of the outcomes of Covid-19 is that some people are turning more attention “inwards”, to their families and friends – looking for answers, for reassurances, for distraction, for compassion and empathy, for something light-hearted, something human.
These acts of unity and solidarity are, in many ways, the same acts playing out everyday, and across every local community, acts born out of survival and respect, given freely and with humility. From the street-vendors I pass here in Saigon, to the farmers harvesting rice in the fields outside the city, and the young woman working in a garment factory and sending home her earnings.
There is a unifying chemistry binding people here in Vietnam who are, one day at a time, hustling to make a living, coping, ready for things to change one way or the other, determined to keep moving forward.
Theirs is as wide spanning a connection, in a country of 96 million, as can be made. A rich network of knowledge and intuition, of grit and resilience.
Have we, perhaps, missed the simplicity of answering some of the world’s weightiest development challenges by trying to invent solutions too complicated, with processes and systems too politically charged, when the actual answers are staring us in the face?
What does sustainable development look like beyond the horizon of this current pandemic, and in light of what can be learnt from it, I wonder?
That is to be seen.
However, it feels our biggest chance to learn from one another – on so many levels – and to put that learning into practice in the future, could come from these inward facing instincts and, indeed, in this very moment of our time.
My apologies upfront if you arrived at this post under the impression it would offer up relationship advice. Instead, I’m here to discuss the increasingly common pursuit of Cross-Sector (in particular, business and non-profit) Partnerships, and where they often run into trouble.
In many ways, looking closer at what makes for a successful individual relationship (be it with your manager, your partner or anyone else for that matter) is no bad place to start when it comes to establishing what it takes to maintain decent Cross-Sector Partnerships.
As explored in last month’s post there are some fairly stock conditions and behaviours that characterise good partnering – suitable preparation, clear communications, mutually beneficial goals, openness, honesty and regular evaluation, being just a handful of examples.
Let’s assume, then, that doing the opposite to any of these conditions is immediately going to put your partnership into more perilous scenarios. None of these conditions on their own are necessarily deal-breakers or deal-makers. But, combined, they will provide a robust framework from which to explore and experiment.
So, given an understanding of the types of conditions which are optimal for partnering, what might be some of the more subtle tell-tale signs that your partnership is, in fact, headed for the rocks? Here are some to contemplate:
#1 Early onset Complacency Syndrome.
Each partnership between a business and a non-profit (let’s stick with these two types of organisation, although the rules are relevant for other sector combinations) has it’s own unique context. If we assume that both organisations have done their research upfront, are partnering towards a shared goal, and have made initial investments of resources into the partnership, it doesn’t then always follow that the rest of their partnering experience will unfold as planned.
A symptom to look out for, that can often be traced right back to the early stages, is that of complacency. In my experience, particularly where funding is involved, complacency can occur on both sides.
On the side of the business partner (typically funding the non-profit in some way) there can be an instinctive sense of entitlement. This is, perhaps, unavoidable but still worthy of note. Many relationships that a business manages include those where that business is paying for something. Albeit with an agency or with a supplier, a business and its employees can have a subconscious expectation that they are in the driving seat because it is their money enabling things to happen. If they want a meeting at short notice, or they cancel a meeting at short notice, that isn’t to be taken as disrespectful, because they are the funding entity, so they are allowed to call the shots.
On the side of the non-profit, the side most likely receiving funds, another form of complacency can emerge. Again, this isn’t always the case, but I’ve seen non-profits, who are under pressure for funds, sign “partnership” agreements with corporate donors and, once the ink is dry on the contract, the non-profit moves onto the next funding target.
The over-arching point here comes down to discipline. Whatsoever your reasons for engaging with another entity – in a relationship that you are labeling a “partnership” – it is not good enough, nor sustainable, to take anything for granted. If the fit between two organisations is honest and meaningful then, as with any of the relationships in your life to which you place value, the act of being a complacent partner will hopefully not materialise, nor be accepted.
#2 – Nurturing your Partner’s “Value-Add”.
Let me caveat that “Value-Add” is jargon. An overly-hyped phrase, it flies off the tongue at most Partnership Conferences or workshops these days. However, beneath the jargon lies a revealing symptom.
Companies who partner with non-profits, or with public sector organisations, are increasingly being asked to demonstrate their Value-Add, when it comes to helping address societal issues. A social development organisation seeking to partner with a business is under pressure to do the same. Indeed, worthy Cross-Sector Partners will identify what their Partnership brings, as a combined team. Those in the partnership will articulate what is often referred to as a “Value Proposition” even, and spend weeks and months refining this together.
When done well, taking a systematic approach to Value Addition – in our example, this translates as two organisations clearly spelling out what it is they want to achieve together, how they will be successful, and why their partnership stands out from others – can reap dividends for all involved, and deliver great outcomes for the partnership.
However, I’ve seen lip service approaches taken by organisations when it comes to recognising each other’s contributions and, as a result, not then taking steps towards helping evolve and nurture these contributions.
Organisations, particularly large ones, tend to be internally focused, strapped for time, complicated to navigate, and highly political. For those managing partnerships, there is simply not always the requisite amount of bandwidth, in one’s typical day, to spend that critical time learning more about the organisations with whom you are partnering.
This, it seems to me, is a missed opportunity. How might an organisation ever truly partner with another if that learning component is never fulfilled?
To be clear, partnering with another organisation doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with something they are doing (or have done) and it definitely shouldn’t mean you can’t call out bad practice. On the contrary, some of the companies partnering NGOs are seeking that very regular and wholesome critique from the NGOs they partner. Certain companies even evaluate their partnerships based on an NGO’s ability to do just that.
And, yet, the majority of organisations aren’t prepared to invest the time and resources to learn from each other, and learn about each other’s industry.
Which has never made sense to me, given the most rational case for establishing a Cross-Sector Partnership in the first place should be the realisation that your organisation’s goals cannot be achieved unless you work with other entities (and particularly those who bring skills and knowledge to the table that you don’t have).
Without fulfilling a commitment to explore what your differences are, and how you can compliment each other (and, over time, make each other a more rounded and robust outfit) organisations run the risk of simply partnering for partnerships’s sake.
#3 – Owning your Mistakes.
In the realm of Cross-Sector Partnerships there is a narrative shaped around what that partnership is doing (or intends to do) which often relies on a heavy dose of positive public relations. CEOs will pepper a conference speech with crowd pleasing intentions. New brand campaigns are created in the process. Press releases fly about social media. A hashtag is born. And so things escalate.
Behind the scenes, however, Cross-Sector Partnerships are reliant on individual relationships between multiple people. What can happen in the furor of a new Partnership is that individuals become carried away with the compelling narrative, and impermeable to doing wrong. And one thing we know about human relationships is that it’s doesn’t always come naturally to people to accept responsibility for things when they go wrong. This is particularly evident inside the workings of an externally published partnership, high off of its own sense of self-worthiness, and all that it has set out to accomplish.
When things go wrong in a partnership, all too often one side will blame the other (either directly or covertly). It can then be a cumbersome, and ultimately fatal, process continuing the partnership in the wake of an episode where individuals have thrown each other under the proverbial bus.
Much can be done to prevent this from happening (again, the importance of giving due consideration upfront about the nature of a partnership, or then advocating clear ways of working as the partnership progresses, are two such examples). Although the true test lies in people’s commitment to learning and to improving both their own practices and behaviours, as well as that of their respective organisations.
Doing so requires courage, some risk taking and a sharp sense of what it means to do the right thing.
I am sure many examples can be thrown back in my face of situations where organisations did the very opposite of the right thing, burying bad news stories or unethical practice, and lived to tell the tale.
Equally, I have my anecdotes of where my own handling of a sticky situation with a partner organisation was conducted in a way that protected my team from receiving just blame. Regretfully, there are probably more than one of these to recount.
And yet, I am convinced of the fact that Cross-Sector Partnering would be more impactful, with more sustained and productive outcomes, were we to work harder at trusting each other, and owning our mistakes and the times where we might have misjudged a situation. Easier, of course, to say than to live out, but we must try.
So, there you have it.
My three Tell-Tale signs to look out for when embarking on serious Cross-Sector Partnerships, and which apply to you and your partner organisation:
Not investing in each other’s Value Addition; and
The inability to accept that Everyone Makes Mistakes, from which we can all learn.
Whether you are a business or a non-profit entity, it will not have escaped your attention that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals prioritised what they refer to as “the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development”. It is their 17th Goal, and it largely focuses around the role that large institutions together play to address social and environmental issues, on such topics as trade, technology (eg population internet access) and remittances.
However, their use of the word “partnership” is taken from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which also coveted the practice. In turn, some of the even earlier commitments, in particular to cross-sector partnering, were coined at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In the 28 years since that event, the act of organisations partnering together to achieve common goals has become mainstream parlance in the world of sustainability. Which has meant, a lot of the time, the true definition of what it means to partner has become lost in the melee, and the word is bandied about as a “catch-all” phrase and, unfortunately, much of the time used incorrectly.
Keeping abreast of how cross-sector collaborations have evolved over the past 15 years, I have recently launched a consultancy – http://www.coracleconsulting.net – that helps broker cross-sector partnerships, and build the skills required to implement these effectively.
It seems to me that there are some fundamental principles to how a good partnership between different types of organisations can be established, implemented and then (hopefully) scaled and sustained.
Here, then, for those readers interested, is an indicative list of 4 Top Tips that I would suggest can enhance the quality of cross-sector partnerships:
#1 – Upfront investment in appropriate Partnership Resources. On too many occasions I’ve seen organisations launch partnerships together without duly auditing what their respective resource investments were in advance. The types of resources to which I’m referring include: human capital; financial; senior leadership buy-in; R&D; measurement systems; and internal and external communications plans.
In the scenario where a large corporation has decided to form a partnership with an international NGO, I see there to be several “must do” components to this that, if left out, will compromise the outcomes of the partnership. These components would include the following:-
Having an approved a partnership budget; Agreeing to necessary time allocations from team members to staff the actual work; Engaging respective Senior Leadership (and ideally the CEO) in signing off the intentions of the partnership; Giving due thought and budget to conducting research into the partnership objectives and activities; and, finally, paying due consideration to communicating internally and externally about the partnership as it progresses.
Each of these components requires resourcing and needs to be planned upfront, or else the partnership will fall at the first hurdle.
#2 – Learning to cede control of different pieces of the Partnership and to embrace new ways of working. Cross-sector partnering is a two-way affair, on every level. It can be all too easy for companies and non-profits not to appreciate the different organisational norms to which they respectively adhere. “Unlikely bedfellows” was a phrase used to describe the corporate sector, many years ago when I set up a new team inside of an international NGO. My team was responsible for building partnerships with big business and many of my colleagues did not approve of us engaging with companies – many, today, are still not convinced by it either.
Actually making a successful, mutually beneficial partnership between two organisations, who live and breathe very differently, is no mean feat. Success, then, lies in how each might change their habits. For companies, this might be ceding control of full decision making on issues where (with suppliers or agencies, for example) they might usually have the final say. For NGOs, accepting that a long-term collaboration with a corporation will need to support the profit targets of that company, in addition to the social or environmental ones, can be a harder sell to all NGO staff than you’d think.
#3 – The human face of a partnership is crucial, but without the right systems in place, things will unravel. In the sustainability world, whether you are an NGO employee seeking to engage a retail company around ethical sourcing, or a corporate procurement specialist, looking for a local non-profit expert to help with your company’s gender strategy, your personality is often the very first thing that gets you off and running.
An organisation’s human capital is by far one of their biggest assets when it comes to forging and maintaining cross-sector partnerships. That said, it is not uncommon for organisations to make an individual’s roles over-whelming and untenable, by putting them in charge of all the different partnership responsibilities. Too much pressure on one pair of shoulders is not wise.
What many partnering organisations do well, not only to more subtly adjust and improve the quality of their partnerships but also to remove the weight of the burden on their staff, is to set up robust and practical ‘systems’ for partnering. These start with due diligence processes, when choosing a partner, and finish with rigorous surveying of the partnership at different stages. By creating systems that guide organisations on each aspect of partnering, you are signalling that your partnering intentions and commitments are legitimate, and that you are not falling into the trap of partnering for the sake of it.
#4 – Celebrating Partnership successes helps raise the bar for wider industry and Sustainability Goals. With your upfront investments and research completed, your partnering systems set up and your experiences underway (as well as your own organisation slowly responding to some new ways of working because of that) then my last tip is to ensure a space for sharing out your achievements and the organisational learning you’ve gleaned about cross-sector work. Hopefully, by this stage of your partnering – reflecting on the trajectory you and your team have been on – you will be able to log several “wins”.
To be a solid partnering organisation over the long term, will mean conforming to a set of values and behaviours. Typically, these tend to be positive ones. Examples being: being honest and open; being a clear communicator; seeing perspectives from different sides; taking risks when trying new things; analysing what went wrong; and having an attitude of wanting to improve the nature of one’s partnership. Much like with any relationship, different organisations will find some of these harder than others.
In my opinion, however, one of the missed opportunities with cross-sector partnerships is when organisations don’t share out their ideas and experiences, and aren’t then contributing to consistently increasing the bar of quality on the practice of partnering more generally. There are multiple ways of telling your industry, or your supply chain, or your opposite number at a rival company, your partnering story.
Without these stories, we simply will not evolve the art form of partnering, which will mean our collective sustainability efforts will go to waste.
I’m fast approaching 9 years living in Saigon, and the welcoming in of the latest lunar New Year celebrations (the “White Metal Rat” no less) with all the usual anticipation of things to come, has coincided with a flurry of global and personal chapter headings…
Only this weekend I read about the terror attacks in my old London neighbourhood, Streatham Hill, have mourned the initial days of Brexit slipping into reality, genned up on Coronavirus (as my daughters’ schools close for the week as a precaution) and am stomaching the prospect of a future Trump administration, post 2020 election, following the collapse of his impeachment and the latest news from the Iowa caucus this morning.
In home news, Issy and I married 4 weeks ago in Sri Lanka, and this week I am soft launching a new business idea to improve the quality of partnership work that co-exists inside and between the worlds of Non-Profits and Business.
Under Coracle Consulting, I’ll be facilitating training and coaching for those organisations keen to join forces with others to address different social and environmental issues.
So, why should organisations choose to Partner in the first place?
For the many years that I was lucky enough to experience the highs and lows of cross-sector “collaborations,” poverty alleviating “partnerships” and multi-sector “platforms” I never lost sight of the importance of experimenting with the idea that partnering with others can reap rewards.
I saw these rewards not only for those doing the partnering, and those positively impacted by the outcomes of good partnering, but also from the perspective of growing an overall learning about how different approaches to partnering can offer up new solutions fit to tackle many of our existential, societal flaws.
Overall, it seems to me that there is a significantly long way to go down the partnership road before systematic standards, principles and ways of working come naturally to the many millions of public, private and non-profit entities out there who want to “make a difference”.
What I hope to do in 2020 – global fluctuations in politics and personal milestones aside – can be summed up by these two goals:
To raise awareness about, and demonstrate why, there huge potential exists when organisations invest in partnerships; and
To offer up my time and experiences to support organisations in their respective pursuit of finding the right partner in their eco-system, and then turning their ideas and innovations into important and scalable solutions for as many people, communities and societies as they can.
I’d love to hear from anyone on this topic, and will always find the time to discuss ideas and suggestions for how large scale improvements and enhancements can be made to partnering.
In a recent podcast featuring the journalist Will Storr, two powerful statistics were shared: 1.) in 2014, on average, 93 billion selfies were being taken on a daily basis on smart phones, and 2.) one third of all the photos taken by 18-25 year olds were photos of themselves.
Storr’s interview surfaced his strong beliefs around how neo-liberalism (“new freedom”) took hold in the early 1980s, and he quotes Margaret Thatcher as being a key – and “sinister” – architect of the movement.
Thatcher believed that a societal reframing (in the global “West” at least) around individualistic values, would pivot away from the uprising of collective movements, experienced during the 60s and 70s, and their outpourings against established government and private sector structures.
As Thatcher famously said: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.”
The premise for his first book, Selfie, lays out Storr’s own perspectives on the toxicity of what then unfolded, from around 1983 onwards, up until the present time.
In particular: the rise of fitness videos; self-improvement manuals; and, in short, the slow march towards such colloquial mantras as “anything is possible” or that “all things are achievable, no matter who you are”.
Storr goes on to make strong links between individualism, social media and the current surges in the number of people self-harming, committing suicide or being affected by body dysmorphia.
For myself, living in Vietnam for the best part of 9 years now, it was interesting that Storr used as his comparison the constructs of East and West, historically representing juxtaposed cultures.
In the East, there are consistent examples of societal norms being inclined towards a collective. Whether that is through family circles, faith-based or local community structures, or through more institutional level socialist frameworks. However, I see this changing from my Asian vantage perspective, towards a more individualistic mentally superseding what has gone before.
Today, as I board yet another plane, it does often feel to me more and more that, cultural norms aside, we are all gradually morphing into one chaotic, opinionated cacophony of online noise and garbage – digital pleasure-seekers more inclined to pursue our own, rather than a shared, agenda.
As Storr points out, that we can connect with the world’s most successful people, via social media platforms, only serves to artificially heighten the potential for us to want to be that successful ourselves.
We might rationally rebut that urge, however the brain is hard-wired to make sense of the world and create the right conditions for each of us to feel justified in our actions and our personas – however we live our lives.
I step onto airplanes, for example, deftly soporific and eased into sleep as my plane makes for the runway, because I’ve chosen to believe that the carbon emissions I’m contributing to are made acceptable because I’ve recently made an effort to eat less red meat, and because I don’t own a car.
Sounds trite. And, as an argument, is bonkers. But I think it nonetheless, and I’ve no doubt other people make their own moralistic arguments to themselves, in order to dilute the guilt often felt when indulging in things we know to be morally ambivalent.
If that is the case – that each of us is susceptible to making choices and taking positions that favour our desire driven choices – then it is equally feasible that each of us is susceptible, however slight or unconscious, to wanting to achieve a form of individual perfection.
Just as connectivity offers up so many tantalizing and nourishing opportunities, so too is it driving these trends and habits rapidly forward.
If you were born in the 1990s, then your exposure to smart phones and the internet is almost as normal as walking and talking. My own children are still mostly at arm’s length to social media (aged 8 and 11) however it’s lurking around every corner of their lives.
Storr is disdainful about what is lurking around corners. Idealistic, sugar-coated calls to action, for example, that pop up in advertising or on social media platforms: “follow your dreams” they clamor, “you can be anything you want to be”.
If Will Storr had his way, all of these feel good quotes would be removed from our lexicon, given “they’re simply not true”.
In which case, what should replace these sentiments? Less incentives to dream big, and more reality checks? Is that what young people should busy themselves with instead of worrying about which filter to use on their next Instagram picture?
On the one hand, yes, 100%. We’ve lurched too hard and too quickly into the narcissistic arena that Storr is describing. But what is the compromise between utterly dismantling this digital architecture and these false-hope aspirations?
I don’t have definitive answers to this, other than to suggest limitations on what currently exists. Holding people – young people especially – back from experiencing and accessing social media would only serve to heighten their thirst for it.
Curbing screen-time for children, and at times removing the lure of it completely by breaking up routines is, perhaps, a start.
But then I also feel hopeful that the anti-social media movement is already underway.
Just as many societies are seeing drops in the uptake of drug usage and alcohol consumption across younger generations so are there spaces appearing for the fierce opposition to the growing network of tech companies who control these platforms and, by association, have crept into our lives.
There will, inevitably, be a toppling of those who currently monopolise these systems.
What remains in question is what will replace them.