A Commentary By Amin Kef Sesay – 9th August 2019
Too few NGOs seek to leverage their resources to achieve durable social change. In fact, evidence abounds that NGOs often try to bypass government for a variety of reasons. However, those NGOs that endeavor to find and collaborate with committed government officials make big development gains.
Large-scale social change rarely occurs without government playing a key role in policy change, policy implementation, or both. If NGOs, especially those that receive huge international funding, utilize those funds well for their intended purposes of alleviating poverty, in line with outlined government policies and programs, they can make a big difference in the fight against grassroots poverty.
Consider China’s rural legal reforms in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, which helped hundreds of millions of farmers lift themselves from poverty; the 19th amendment in the United States, which allowed women to vote and fueled wider gains for women’s rights; or India’s launch of a unique digital identification system, which has allowed tens of millions of families to access government poverty alleviation programs and services. As such, successful partnership begins with both NGOs and local governments becoming firmly committed to collaboration and convinced of its value.
Consider many of the most impactful NGOs working today; they almost uniformly recognize the potential of working with the public sector; seek out committed government officials, and partner — deeply and over the long term. BRAC, the largest development agency in the world, One Acre Fund, and Partners in Health are three great examples of organizations maximizing their impact through partnerships with the public sector.
There is little reason why NGOs that seek to advance large-scale social change through partnering with government on effective policy change or implementation are still outliers, not the norm. The following tips can help organizations more effectively identify potential opportunities for collaboration with the public sector and seize such opportunities as a path to promoting changes to policy or large-scale implementation that accelerate social change.
- Begin with the end in mind: What is the large-scale change you want to help accomplish and what is the ideal role of government in achieving that large-scale change? Is it changing policy? Implementing a solution? Improving an institution? Providing resources? NGOs must plan from the beginning to engage the government to achieve that end.
- Walk in their shoes: Understand the perspectives, priorities, and incentives of government representatives. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. If you do not align your objectives with your government champions’ objectives, you will not succeed.
For instance, Last Mile Health works closely with Liberia’s Ministry of Health to advance the government’s goals on universal health coverage. When asked to provide advice to NGOs on effective engagement with government, a senior official within the ministry recently offered this advice: “You come with your idea. I share my priorities. We integrate the two. And together we achieve stronger results.”
- Agree on the problem: Define and get aligned on the problem. If you are not aligned on the nature of the problem, it is challenging to get aligned on a solution. Harvard’s Building State Capability’s Problem-Driven Iterative Adaption approach can be helpful here.
- Understand ground realities: Conduct research to deeply understand local challenges and share these insights to add value to your partnerships with government. Better yet, ask government to partner on this research to develop a deep, joint understanding of the problem.
Landesa’s successful partnership with China’s government over decades has included collaborative field research to ensure that ground realities inform the government’s land policy reform. Proximity Design leverages its experience with Myanmar’s farmers’ needs to constructively engage with the government on agricultural policy setting.
- Co-create solutions with government: Involve government partners in developing solutions that address the challenges you’ve jointly identified. If you come to your government partners with a solution that is already baked, you are likely missing opportunities to engage more deeply with government, gain their buy-in, and identify more culturally and politically appropriate and impactful solutions.
- Changing government policy or advancing government implementation will likely require cooperation from policymakers in different ministries with different interests and agendas; and these likely differ from the incentives of those who are responsible for implementing policy. All will require engagement to meet the goals of your cause.