In today’s climate of shrinking budgets and dwindling international aid, development professionals around the globe are working to increase the effectiveness and sustainability of their efforts. To achieve those goals, an increasing number of nongovernmental organizations have forged collaborative relations with local governments in developing countries. While many donors have been actively encouraging — and even requiring — these relations, our recent research in Lebanon, a country heavily dependent on international aid, particularly with the influx of Syrian refugees, warns of significant challenges for both sides.
The first challenge is in the way collaboration is understood and approached by both NGOs and local governments. Our research demonstrates that the definition of collaboration, as a process of engaging with other groups to solve problems or address issues that cannot be handled by one of the entities alone, is largely lost in translation among both Lebanese local governments and NGOs. They are focused more on their individual goals than on achieving synergies or savings.
The second challenge is in how collaboration works. If we think about collaboration as putting heads and hands (and souls) together to address an issue or solve a problem, one would expect more shared decision-making to be the outcome. But our research revealed — to our surprise — that each partner feels that it, not the other side, is the dominant decision maker. This is a stark refutation of the whole purpose of the collaboration in the first place.
The reasons for the problems are not difficult to identify: lack of opportunities, limited resources — both financial and human — and sometimes diminished interest from one or both sides. The challenge is to overcome these perceptions because, with some effort, opportunities can be created, resources can be secured, and interests can be generated.
So, what is the way forward?
It begins with both NGOs and local governments becoming firmly committed to collaboration and convinced of its value. The central government has a role to play as well — it needs to identify a truly national vision of the country’s future as a stimulus to investment, partnership, and trust. Absent such a vision, the synergy that local government-NGO relationships can create will not be leveraged, and the roles of actors in both sectors may not evolve into effective collaboration.
Donors should continue to encourage NGOs and local governments to work together. Initiatives such as the USAID-funded BALADI program in Lebanon should be praised and replicated. But donors need to avoid diverting local government and NGO priorities to those of the donors themselves; these initiatives should be driven by local partners when they are interested in working with NGOs, not only because a donor wants them to collaborate.
International donor organizations also need to walk the walk. To be truly committed to fostering a collaborative culture, they need to help build the institutional capacities of both the local governments and the NGOs, empower local government partners, accord them greater decision-making power, and tolerate both flexibility and occasional failure.
The example of Lebanon is not unique. Many developing countries are exploring strategies to encourage NGOs to work with their local governments. But our research does show that these collaborations will fail unless NGOs, policy and decision makers, donor agencies, and street-level administrators in local governments truly work together — and want to work together — rather than act like separate planets, orbiting the same sun but on divergent paths.
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