Institutional partnerships – Shifting the centre of gravity

The landscape for partnerships between African and international organisations is changing, with the centre of gravity shifting towards the physical area in which the research and development are being conducted. A desired outcome of this relocation is a more effective functioning of the overall development ecosystem, according to delegates at the launch of the Alliance for African Partnership, or AAP, held in Tanzania last month.

Thomas Jayne, AAP co-director and University Foundation professor of agricultural, food and resource economics, Michigan State University, described the development ecosystem – which includes the private sector, funding agencies, universities, governments, civil society and science academies – as a complex terrain shaped by the power relations of the people and institutions.

Shifting the centre of gravity of partnership can bring about transformative change at local and global levels, he said.

“We need to reexamine this ecosystem and how we operate in it and the ability to produce shared objectives,” said Jayne.

Aggrey Ambali, head and advisor of the African Union New Partnership for Development or NEPAD which has been in operation since 2001, defined partnership as a process.

“Partnership is an investment, you have to invest with resources, be it money, time and patience. There are rewards that come out of partnerships but also challenges and failures,” he said.

NEPAD facilitates and coordinates the AU programmes in several sectors such as mining, health, infrastructure, gender, education, science and technology. In all these sectors several partnerships have evolved including civil society organisations, universities and other stakeholder groups.

Ambali said trust and confidence are very important in a partnership, and while embarking on institutional transformation, knowledge and learning were also critical.

As we move with partnerships, what is emerging now is what is called the change of the centre of gravity, whereby African governments and international institutions are increasingly putting emphasis on partnerships to address Africa’s agenda, he said.

“Most of the partnerships coming up now are saying let us understand what is Africa’s position on this matter,” Ambali said, adding that having the idea of such initiative emerging from Africa will be a success on its own.

In the past African institutions have lost it by failing to align what their government wants, their own aspirations and desires, and what other partners say.

When we engage in defining the vision and the goals of partnership, we should consider to what extent we are informed by the needs and priorities that have been defined at the village level, national level or the regional level, said Ambali.

The resources base being low, Ambali encouraged would-be partners to appreciate the fact that there were many competing needs for the same limited resources, so there was a need to look in all directions for funding, not only internationally.

“I think the whole issue of respect and mutual recognition comes from the fact that it’s a bit unfortunate most of the African investment in partnership has been free because we have considered ‘in kind’ contribution from Africa as equal to ‘no contribution’,” he said.

Community engagement, as part of the contribution to partnerships, should not be overlooked, he said.

Ambali noted that African institutions such as RUFORUM have successfully partnered with the AAP, but there was need to appropriately value the community of practice that emerges from such associations, as they produce good lessons as well as challenges.

Bringing government back in

Universities need to be part of the ‘partnership game’ but not to the exclusion of African governments, according to Ambali.

“We can’t do away with governments; we need them,” he said, adding there is need to figure out how governments are brought on board.

Rufaro Madakadze, capacity development officer for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which works to develop the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in 11 African countries, said when they started working with institutions a decade ago, governments were not seriously involved.

The programme received excellent results with many smallholder farmers being linked to markets. In addition, 750 postgraduate students were produced in one country. “But we when we wanted to scale up, the government had to be involved,” said Madakadze.

The organisation relooked at its strategy and engaged the government to ensure both were on the same page.

In her catalogue for success she emphasized that partnerships take time. “One needs time to develop the relationship, and time to nurture the partnership, plan together and know who you are working with,” she said. “A partnership is some kind of marriage: if you are not fighting with your husband then something is off,” she said.

Berhanu Abegaz, the former executive director of the African Academy of Sciences or AAS, said the development ecosystem in Africa had significantly improved over time.

For example, today, the AAS has a budget of over US$9million, female membership now stands at 50, the AAS has dispersed grants of US$150 billion to various research groups, and no less than 2,000 postgraduate students have been involved in the past six years.

Abegaz said the academy went through an introspection during which time it examined its programmes, defined its goals and changed the things that needed to change.

“When we talk to partners we state we would like to choose who we want to work with. These things really need to happen,” he said.

In addition, the push to relocate the centre of decision making to Africa or the region in which the work is being done, is greater.

“There has been immense pressure for the centre of gravity to move to Africa, to the region where you want to work,” said Abegaz, adding that the change in the ecosystem of development has changed and ensured they can have more effective engagement in establishing partnerships.