Fresh Development: Rethinking Partnerships

Updated: Nov 3

“Buy Local” campaigns began to support local farmers and artisans as a means to showcase local products, strengthen community, and grow the local economy. These campaigns have shifted the attention of consumers’ purchasing habits to focus more on getting to know farmers and artisans, their practices, and the freshness or sustainability of the products they buy. When the audience “knows” the seller, they feel a stronger connection to their community and their local challenges and successes.

(PHOTO: Cambodian citizen accesses the NGS/API/InSTEDD civic tech tool to learn about how to access government services.)


Let us replace the idea of local farmers and artisans with local civil-society organizations, think tanks, NGOs, etc., within the Global North development context and you will find local partnership initiatives not fully committed to “buying local” products. Challenges to localization range from the structural (e.g., contract language, allowance policies, financial regulations, and others) to the egotistical (i.e., international experts are valued over national-level expertise and experience).

Our motto at Nickol Global Solutions (NGS) is “Build. Empower. Sustain.” Our philosophy is to approach development challenges comprehensively and sustainably. NGS firmly believes that the key to unlocking social, political, and economic development in developing and emerging countries is by developing, leveraging, and empowering the longer-term catalysts for change through authentic (local) partnerships.

In our work in Cambodia, we started by engaging from the project design stage in a real, “capital P” Partnership with two organizations: the Advocacy and Policy Institute (API) and InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia (InSTEDD). Funded by USAID, our project is governed by prime and subcontracts and related roles, responsibilities, and allowances. However, this is where the tiered system stops and our dedication to locally led development begins. Herein are tips to our mutual success:

Identify Organizational Strengths.

Key to NGS’s approach early on was to listen to other organizations already working in Cambodia, as it was a new operating environment for NGS. While our research most certainly aimed to gain a better understanding of the Cambodian context as it related to the problem we were trying to solve, it also included a major emphasis on identifying potential local partners. We created a shortlist of organizations we believed could be effective, reliable partners and then reached out — either directly or through third party introductions — to explore their competencies and their appetite for collaboration. To identify a recipe for success, both NGS and potential partners had to assume a “listening mode” to be sure that we could co-create an effective technical solution and that we were reasonably assured of the other party’s commitment to mutual respect and accountability. NGS was first introduced to InSTEDD, which shared its broad-based experience with incubating and adapting technologies for social good. InSTEDD’s background provided an excellent complement to NGS’s focus on civic engagement and strategic communications around social accountability. Once we had an opportunity to discuss our respective capabilities and technical strengths, InSTEDD identified API — with its robust experience and credibility in advocacy and social accountability and its strong relationships with the Cambodian government at all levels — as a key partner that would create an impactful team.

With NGS as the requisite prime (the opportunity and funding were set aside for US small businesses), the newly formed team commenced project design. We developed a theory of change and scopes of work for each partner that were clear but also allowed for sufficient overlap to avoid the silos that we so often see in program implementation. Our project design infused learning and collaboration throughout every proposed activity, and all partners were adequately engaged in the broad strokes of our design to ensure that we were able to capture learning across the different roles. We knew we “looked good on paper,” but we still needed to put in the hard work of developing a genuine partnership that could be effective in implementation. This required mutual trust, and the ensuing weeks of continuous, transparent communications and remaining in “listening mode” helped to foment that.


Engender Trust.


I have found the joint ownership of this project of all three parties amazing and very unusual. - Management Advisor to API

Creating a partnership where each organization brings its own strengths builds a common platform for the management of activities. The next step is to create a management approach that is integrated and inclusive of, rather than directive to, partners. Building trust is a task that takes time that, once achieved, allows for effective, adaptive, and enriched inputs to achieve common technical/project goals. Building upon the respect and trust built during the co-design process, NGS developed the concept of a tripartite management structure (comprising the NGS Chief of Party and the Directors of API and InSTEDD) to carry out program activities. The idea of this egalitarian management structure — certainly unconventional compared to traditional project management structures — is to approach project design and challenges collectively and inclusively, equally sharing successes. The process was iterative, implemented through monthly meetings and workplan co-design sessions, with each collective discussion and decision serving to build trust. At its core, this partnership’s success was based in the strength of the three rather than the sole leadership of one.


(PHOTO: Cambodian citizen accesses the NGS/API/InSTEDD civic tech tool to learn about how to access government services.)


Adapt and Act on Lessons Learned.

Our project was designed to be an exercise in adaptive management and active, iterative learning from the beginning. That is, at its core, our mission was to rapidly test our theory of change by piloting activities, generating data and evidence, iterating on our design, and determining what approach(es) work best. Building on our shared management structure, the project teams integrated offices where it was feasible to both reduce costs and to foment consistent collaboration. Our team also instituted regular, intentional opportunities for project learning including after action reviews, monthly results monitoring reviews, and frequent learning reflection sessions, creating a more collaborative culture among the partners. This approach encourages every member of the staff — not only those at the management level — to share new ideas, feedback, and suggestions for exploring mechanisms to increase the efficiency of teamwork and cross-expertise enrichment to program activities. This collaboration allowed for the quick conversion of the project’s in-person community activities (API’s area of expertise) to virtual (InSTEDD’s expertise) rapidly in response to COVID-19 in Cambodia.

In many ways, this focus on learning and adaptively managing our work together is deeply humbling. None of us — and certainly not NGS as a newcomer to Cambodia in 2019 — came to this program with the full answer to our theory of change nor to our learning questions. By listening to one another, developing (and iterating) on our project learning questions, incorporating new findings into our activities, and building upon our continuous learning, we set the tone that our project embraces change. We continuously measure, learn from what the data tells us, and adapt. It reinforces the need for collaboration and strengthens the trust that we built, as we each play a role in the project activities that support our quest to test the theory of change. Learning, humility, and respect between partners resulted in something that was more than just the sum of our parts — a team that gets results. Specifically, the project delivered:

  • three technology tools to increase public access to information on, and rate the performance of, local government administrative services;

  • a 48% increase in public knowledge about those services; and

  • documentation that government took action to address 89% of citizen recommended improvements of those services in OW4C’s target regions.

As USAID Administrator Samantha Power has noted, the quality of the Agency’s partnerships represents “the essence of whether the development we do will be sustained over time.” Moving toward strong, respectful partnerships in the countries where we work requires trust and investment in the hard work that yields real development impact. NGS believes this approach builds that capacity that will sustainably continue development after the donor contract is completed, or long after their country has graduated from development assistance.

Our relationship with our Cambodian partners is built on genuine trust, collaboration, and interest in learning. This empowered the team beyond the confines of each organization’s strengths, enriching both the program’s success and our partnership. Our shared experience provides a strong example of the rewards of removing the buzzwords around “local partners” and developing authentic partnerships models based on respect and organizational strengths — one that we plan to use as a model for future partnerships in NGS’s global work.

In the spirit of our partnership, this article was jointly written by Nickol Global Solutions, API, and InSTEDD.