Improving partnerships will help our planet


Resson Kantai Duff


Imagine having to forecast your every action, expenditure, and movement for two weeks, write it down, and then share it with someone else to get their approval for you to get any work done.

Or picture this – the communities you work with daily think you work for a different organisation because that organization’s logo is plastered on all your vehicles, uniforms, and publications.

I hear about these relationships and dynamics from friends working in local conservation organisations – people who are working closely with international NGOs (INGOs).

Ironically, these same local organizations are making a major impact on people, wildlife, and the climate. In the global arena, the unprecedented recognition of the critical role of Indigenous Peoples and other local communities (IPLCs) in delivering on the long-term stewardship of ecosystems is leading to a growing array of global and regional climate and conservation policy statements.

This includes discussions taking place this week during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, in the lead-up to the New York Climate Week, and then COP28. These IPLC-led organizations are clearly the engine for impact, yet instead of propping them up and providing good funding and complementary support that could lead to an even more significant impact, INGOs often make their jobs much harder.

By far, one of the chief barriers identified by the study participants was ‘top-down approaches’ to partnerships often exhibited in their relationships with INGO. This clearly signifies that these inequitable power dynamics and partnerships need to change.

Maliasili just published a new study, ​​Rooting for Change: Strengthening Local to Global Partnerships in African Conservation. It features interviews and survey responses with more than 60 people at dozens of African local and grassroots organizations working in marine, wildlife, landscape, and forest rights and conservation in 18 countries.

Eighty-eight percent of those involved say that their INGO partnerships are very important for their work, yet the majority also say that they find those partnerships ‘challenging.’ By far, one of the chief barriers identified by the study participants was ‘top-down approaches’ to partnerships often exhibited in their relationships with INGO. This clearly signifies that these inequitable power dynamics and partnerships need to change.

I would posit that this shift is not only a question of justice and correcting conservation’s colonial past, but also necessary because improved partnerships will be better for our planet.

We know local organizations want to co-create; they don’t want agendas.

Effective partnerships are critical to designing and achieving lasting solutions to increasingly complex conservation challenges. Addressing the multifaceted nature of issues like climate change and biodiversity loss depends on diverse knowledge, skills, and resources and on aligned purpose across different scales ranging from the local to the global.

A single actor or organization cannot achieve this alone.

The work of local organizations is often bolstered by partnerships with international non-governmental organizations, which can provide funding, networks, and technical resources that may not be as accessible to local organizations in Africa.

However, these partnerships are far less effective when local organizations cannot co-create the agenda, make funding decisions, and tailor-make solutions to suit their communities.

In the report, some participants spoke of not being consulted on projects or activities to be implemented: ‘You are given a project which you must implement, and it becomes difficult to let the partner know that this is not a priority for the communities you work with’, said one, requesting anonymity, as many did, so as not to jeopardize relationships with funding partners.

It’s time we moved from transactional relationships to effective partnerships.

These perspectives underscore the importance of shifting the approach to partnerships from one that’s transactional and project-focused to one that develops deeper, more effective, and meaningful relationships that can catalyze true collective action and systemic change.

John Kamanga, of the Southern Rift Association of Landowners in Kenya, calls for, ‘partnerships in which we co-create. We are asking our donors to co-create the projects and then we implement them. We are moving away from client-implementing agency relationships.’                            

There is no time for us to keep getting things half right. We may have gotten to the stage where these partnerships exist, and where locally-led organizations are recognised as critical to the success of conservation actions, but we must now move beyond recognition to a place of better communication, simplified bureaucracy, and shared credit for success.

A key step on the road to success is for International NGOs to clarify their role.

When COVID shut our world down, I witnessed big organizations closing their doors and getting on Zoom. Local organizations did the opposite. They adapted their work and provided health care, food, and supplies while continuing with conservation work.

They melded with the cultures of the people they worked with daily and transformed the situation from deep uncertainty to an exemplar of collective action. They didn’t collapse as feared, but instead, they thrived because they were rooted in their communities and played the role they were meant to play.

The big international organizations that thrived identified that their most critical role, in that case, was to provide tailor-made support, accelerate funding flexibility and distribution to specific areas of need identified by local actors, or craft new policies that would ease implementation and influence national agendas for greater resources and support. The roles played by each were distinct yet clear and they worked.

Ultimately, conservation impact will rise and fall on how these partnerships are approached, structured, and maintained. The rallying cry from local organizations is to trust them and invest in them as those working closest to the problem. International organizations now have the opportunity to demonstrate this trust by building strategically aligned relationships, which will finally rebalance the power and put us on the path to systemic change.

Resson Kantai Duff is the Portfolio Funding Director at Maliasili where she is working to raise both the funding and influence of local conservation organisations across Africa.

Comments (0)

Mwadhini Myanza

Improving partnership uis a nber one rule of self identification and reasonto be in this world. Is not only improve but will guarantee the binding principal of human beings

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