Business Unusual: New Partnership Approach Leads with Local Resilience Efforts in South Sudan
This post is written by Steve Smith, Chief of Party, Policy LINK.
An African Proverb frames for us an interesting challenge: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. Granted, the idea of a process taking more time—which almost always results from working together— isn’t always appealing. But there are no shortcuts to developing the familiarity, understanding, trust and ultimately, collective action that is essential to solving complex problems involving many and very different stakeholders. Organizations with the humility and patience to work together for a common goal can achieve extraordinary results, which can be much greater than the sum of what all the organizations could have accomplished alone. More than that, in some cases a foundation is built for continued and sustained collective action into the future. This can occur in the form of social bonds among communities that enable them to confront conflict, natural disasters and public health crises; it can occur among donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that pour in aid and development assistance to the same communities; and, as the ultimate outcome, it can occur between the two sets of actors.
Staying with the proverb, when it comes to solving broad challenges that involve diverse stakeholders and interest groups, ‘going alone’ leads to three possible outcomes. The first, in the best of cases, has different organizations working in an uncoordinated way, each achieving its own narrow goals. This can result in good individual outcomes, but the uncoordinated activities often don’t reinforce one another. There are also gaps, so despite the individual results, the broader development challenge isn’t coherently addressed. The second outcome of working alone has different organizations duplicating one another’s efforts, stepping on one another’s toes, resulting in inefficiencies, wasted resources, and often unproductive competition among the organizations. The third and worst case has organizations working at cross purposes, holding information tightly, fighting for scarce resources - or what their fixed mindset tells them are scarce resources - each investment nullifying the investment of the other. In this case everyone goes nowhere.
Finally, in reference to the ‘fast’ part of the proverb, speed implies something fleeting or illusory, which in the long run doesn’t necessarily have any value or meaningful outcomes. On the other hand, ‘far’, referring to distance, implies the achievement of positive, sustainable change. It gets you somewhere that has value and meaningful outcomes.
Since 2018, USAID/South Sudan has supported the Partnership for Recovery and Resilience (PfRR), which brings together 14 donors, 17 United Nations (UN) agencies, and 98 national NGOs in a systematic, inclusive attempt—one that is still largely aspirational—to empower international and local communities to establish and implement recovery and resilience activities that will strengthen their abilities to prepare for, withstand, and even thrive in the face of shocks and stresses. Serving as backbone support to the partnership, the Feed the Future Policy LINK program is supporting the PfRR to strengthen and build strong systems of collaboration, learning, and communication for sustained collective impact among the members. One of the main principles of PfRR—and which speaks directly to Policy LINK’s core purpose—is that, in working together, partners can be more effective and have greater impact on the ground when they work in isolation. Policy LINK facilitates joint work planning on recovery and resilience through coordination, collaboration, colocation and commitment that targets four Partnership Areas in South Sudan: Yambio, Torit, Aweil and Wau. This role is critical considering PfRR’s agenda of integrating humanitarian aid and development assistance to serve as a joint and mutually reinforcing resilience front in order to ensure vulnerabilities are reduced while at the same time enhancing the coping and resilience capacities of the communities.
Due to the interest in this partnership as a model for joint planning and implementation for resilience programming, USAID’s Center for Resilience commissioned a case study, conducted by Policy LINK, to better understand the mechanics, process and structures in place and also to draw any lessons that might be applied more broadly, in other fragile contexts.
From the two years of experience of the PfRR in South Sudan, we have learned that determining priorities “in-house” within international and local communities is a key first step for these two communities to then engage in meaningful dialogue around their collaboration. Our learning related to facilitating this process of coordination and multi-stakeholder collaboration can be summed up in the following three slogans:
- “Community First, But Not Alone.” People are resilient. Communities are already committed to the journey of self-reliance, but they need technical and material assistance, which may come from the outside. The PfRR is a model of Community First, but Not Alone where a locally brokered peace is the beginning of locally-led development. Yambio’s resilience started with agency expressed through exemplary leadership with high aspirations to recover from the shocks of conflict and hunger. In assuming ownership, this leadership inspired more and more people in Yambio to face difficult challenges together. In adopting a resilience lens, the international community sought to reinforce but not substitute these internal capacities. In doing so, they strengthened these seeds of a community peace and built the environment for Yambio’s post-war recovery.
- “Go with the Grain.” The first issue of concern is social cohesion among the people, institutions, and systems that comprise each community, as well as the relationship between them. These issues should be approached with a conflict sensitivity lens and an understanding of the inner logic of how each operates to work with and reinforce them to strengthen household and community resilience. Aside from significant progress in determining processes and structures that can advance geographically based partnerships, other important learning focuses on social cohesion and its relationship with resilience.
- “It Takes Two Hands to Clap.” The international and local community actors are both communities, each with their own internal structures, processes, and logics. Coordination can be strengthened separately, and then a space created for meaningful interaction across these communities. Investing in a sufficient level of coherence and connectivity at the PA level is necessary for the Partnership Approach to be effective, and for accelerated convergence to deliver the intended results of the PfRR. While still in its early days, the building block framework currently under development among PfRR partners offers exciting potential to build this vertical and horizontal coherence among local actors in the PAs, among the international community, and between the two.
More detail on the background, findings, and conclusions from the case study can be found here.
Organizations and groups in South Sudan generally want the same thing: a peaceful, prosperous and resilient country. While they may be unified in a greater purpose, each has its own unique set of structures, whether they are cultural, political, financial and technical, and of course organizational; each an island, together hundreds, even thousands of islands, all part of the larger context of South Sudan’s development. Although each organization may agree to the idea of working together with others, they may not have been built to behave this way. Many are still trying to go fast and are going alone.
Thankfully, human beings have evolved with strong instincts to work together for collective well-being. At Policy LINK, we believe these instincts can overcome the silos our organizations have created as well as the often selfish and divisive behavior of some political leaders. But working together among organizations doesn’t happen naturally in these complex contexts. It only happens if we prioritize it and then devote resources and skills and tools to the effort. Our approach to supporting the PfRR puts communities at the center and brings in other actors through strategic integration, collaboration, and ownership. We believe this approach will better prepare communities to absorb, recover, and adapt to future shocks and stresses.
This may seem like business unusual now, but we believe it should and must be usual practice and that it will increasingly become so in the future.