Rory Stewart, the newly appointed minister for international development and member of Parliament, offered his views on the barriers to successful global development partnerships at the annual Tropical Health and Education Trust conference in London yesterday. Stewart told Devex he hopes to begin impacting DfID’s partnering style by first listening to practitioners to get a sense of what’s driven successful partnerships among DfID’s suppliers.
Nonprofit grant-making institution THET currently operates 157 projects worldwide by facilitating partnerships between health institutions and training organizations. The minister praised the organization for its innovative use of small grants, a slightly longer five-year funding cycle and a modest 30 million pound ($36 million) budget.
The new DfID minister, who is also a former development practitioner with experience in post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan, currently directs DfID’s portfolio of conflict and fragile states. His expertise is not in public health, but he told the health practitioners at the conference that the challenges to partnership transcend sectors.
“In most areas, the barriers for partnership seem to be fourfold,” he said.
The four key obstacles, he said, are: assumptions made by international agents on behalf of local partners; the politicization of aid; issues of translation, both in terms of language, organization and context; and a lack of access, either because of distance, poor leadership structure or conditions on the ground.
Truly understanding an environment takes time and resources rarely afforded to development practitioners, which are typically confined by funding cycles and sometimes-capricious donor priorities, Stewart said. He pointed to exceptions such as Sir Eldryd Parry, a THET trustee who spent more than 20 years building health partnerships in South Africa. That work is proof that time is a rare and increasingly precious commodity for building familiarity and trust between partners, he argued.
Stewart said he is spending his first weeks and months at DfID trying to understand how and where the most impactful partnerships come about.
“Right now it’s really about listening to organizations, getting a sense of what their experience is and what works best and what needs to change,” he told Devex at the conference. Speaking about the ideal dynamic between partners, Stewart wondered aloud if stakeholders might need more realistic — and antagonistic — approach to partnering.
“Is there a hidden truth here, that maybe is harder to talk about, that actually partnership is not only about listening but about disagreeing and … a respectful debate? In which two people who built a trusting relationship actually have a little bit of an argument about what’s actually best?” he posited.
Stewart recalled his time as an aid practitioner living and working in the old city of Kabul, where beneficiaries could easily seek him out and confront him when they felt unheard.
Speaking to conference participants, Stewart asked what tools development organizations have on hand to capture this kind of candor. THET often depends on temporary volunteers from health institutions in the “global north” to train or build capacity in developing countries, an approach Steward praised.
“Are volunteers more inclined to call a spade a spade?” he asked. “Do they have less tolerance with nonsense, are they more inclined to come back and say, ‘I don’t care about your strategic plan, I’m a busy person. I’m not being paid. I come out here and this is my sense of what people want.’”
Stewart and his DfID colleagues are also asking how the size and type of grant impacts the health of a partnership, using THET as a case study, Stewart said.
THET is a bit of an unusual investment for DfID, in large part because the 30 million pounds it gave to the organization has been used to fund far more projects — about 157 of them — than other similar-sized grants, he said.
“Often we find ourselves giving grants of 20, 30, 40 million pounds. Is there something about small grants, flexible small grants that makes partnership more easy?” Stewart told the conference crowd.
Stewart has asked questions but thus far has offered few definitive plans for how DfID will continue to hone its ability to partner effectively, both in the health sector and in the fragile and conflict states portfolio that Stewart oversees.