Some considerations from HQAI Learning Event

Last Wednesday I attended the HQAI learning event that took place at the Geneva Graduate Institute, with (im)balance of partnership as the main topic of discussion . For those unfamiliar with HQAI and its work, I wrote about them here and here and here. It was quite a dense day and the quality of the conversation went beyond my expectations, and I would say it was one of the most interesting events of this kind I happened to attend.

It is quite difficult to sum up what was said, nor is this the appropriate place to do so. I will then sketch down some early impressions and takeaways for further consideration, in the hope of reading soon the proceedings of the day. As this post grew to quite sizeable dimensions, I divided it into two separate entries, and I will soon publish the second one.

  1. Stereotypes asides, in Switzerland you really stick to the schedule. The agenda was pretty tight, nonetheless we managed to wrap the day up in perfect time without sacrificing anything of the depth of discussion. Coming from the humanitarian sector where coordination meetings usually run for hours and hours, this seems no small achievement – and a nice lesson to learn.
  2. The Masters students of the Geneva Graduate Institute presented the final results of a Capstone project on impartiality, and the preliminary results of another one on partnerships. Both works are interesting and promising – however I am wondering what the practical application for the models developed can be. Considering the conversations that followed in the afternoon about partnerships, looks like that the group dealing with them will have a lot of work ahead.
  3. I already spoke about HQAI and I am quite a big fan of the initiative, so I will limit myself to some tricky elements of their work that I think directly or indirectly emerged during the presentation of their recent progress:
    1. Sampling the operations to audit seems a bit of a necessary evil, but I am wondering what is the risk of leaving out of the picture some operations, especially those that pose relatively higher security risks. It seems more likely that issues in meeting the CHS  can arise in difficult operations: it is much trickier to run a complaint mechanism in South Sudan (just a random country, of course), rather than, say, Kenya.
    2. This is not really HQAI fault but is an aspect to consider. A representative from Coast Trust, the first NGO from a lower-income country to be awarded a certification, remarked how this didn’t prove particularly helpful when applying for funds from a donor which itself is a key partner of HQAI (it was requiring some improvement concerning the safeguarding policy). It is difficult to say much about this specific case without knowing more details. It is likely that the scheme still needs time to gain sufficient recognition, although it is somehow awkward that this case happened with a donor that is itself working with HQAI. Should donors demand better guarantees, it would be better to know it in advance – as it was said time and again over the discussions, open communication seems an important element of good partnerships.
  4. As remarked by Ignacio Packer in its keynote speech, looks like FIFA is doing quite a decent job in cleaning its house up after the recent corruption scandals, in embracing diversity in its board, and in sum in “opening up its kitchen”. Going back to the NGO world, HQAI role is akin to go to the kitchen and see what is going on there. Two thoughts here: how would several NGO fare, should their kitchens be open up to the public? In principle it is the right thing to do. In practice, there is a huge risk of hampering operations and ultimately beneficiaries. However, it is likely that the eventual benefits can overcome the drawbacks.
  5. What do you need in a successful partnership? Much depends on what you are seeking after, what kind of partnership is (one think is Church of Sweden having centuries-long relations with other Churches, one is a INGOs having a two-year contractual agreement with a local CBO), but I think that from the day some common, recurring themes emerged. Those that stuck to my mind (which doesn’t mean are the most important) are probably trust, and open and continuous communication. In Italian (incidentally, a language where you don’t really have a word for “partnership”) we say patti chiari, amicizia lunga, something like “clear pacts lead to long friendships”. I guess we have a good principle here, about being clear from the onset on what we are seeking from a partnership, but also on having proper mechanisms in place to have frank discussions on a recurring basis.
  6. Talking about trust. Andy Wheatley from DFID pointed out how there is often a trust gap between donors and recipients, whereby an NGO refrain from being open with the donor about the challenges it is facing. The reasons for doing so are well known, and I believe mostly goes down to the rubric of fear of losing funds. However, Wheatley challenged, isn’t it the case that donors are often used as an excuse? How many NGOs honestly try to have an open conversation with a donor? Apart from the risk of losing funds, two considerations here:
    1. Layers of communication. It is quite likely that a donor senior officer is very available to discuss failures and lessons learnt. Between him/her and a lowly project manager willing to discuss his/her challenges there are however several layers of officers that might be less prone to have this kind of discussion, or allowing it to go ahead.
    2. As it was noted during the panel discussion, the sector should change its success culture into a learning culture. There is in fact a huge fear of failure, and of communicating failure – and I think that, again, we can trace back its roots to the precarious financial situation of many organizations. To be sure, this works also on the other way, whereby an INGO is afraid of risks when working with partners, rather than on opportunities (see also point 7). How entrenched is this success culture, and how much would it require to be changed? Consider also that NGOs have done a great work in the past 20 years or so in selling themselves to the general public (and to the taxpayer) as some sort of white knights facing any odds to deliver spotless operations in the most desperate conditions. This is probably already backfiring as it is becoming clear that operating in fragile environments is a messy business at best, and saving lives isn’t such of a straightforward enterprise. How long would it take, and would it even be possible, to explain to the donors (and even better, to taxpayers) that the reality is more complicated than how it is portrayed normally in a campaign? And what would be the price of doing so?
  7. The fact that donors like to avoid risks mean that they are likely to give money to who they know. To be sure, there are other factors at play here: possibility of small and local NGO of accessing to donors (physical, in terms of contact, in terms of culture, languages, technical capacity), but I think it can be all summed up to the fact that if you have money to spend, you prefer to go down the way you know, even if this is not great, rather than facing the risk of going down a way that is potentially great but also potentially awful.

(to be continued)

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