Thursday, April 1, 2010

Secrets of succesful "Partnerships"

You may remember that one of my recent posts was written en route to New Delhi where I was supposed to give a presentation about HRI best practices in income generating activities. The presentation was a success and I have managed to get through my 68 powerpoint slides in the allocated 15 minutes (more or less of course, in our circles it is considered good form to “run behind schedule”). The Q&A session was also pretty good with several participants asking pertinent questions about the upcoming tea-break. Participants also received color hand-outs of my presentation, along with an electronic copy on a CD containing our newsletter and a folder with a few hundreds relevant pictures of red-eyed people in HRI polo shirts giving presentations under HRI banners all over the world.

The presentation was part of a groundbreaking Training of Trainers (ToT) Training, that HRI is currently implementing as part of a regional initiative funded by one of our more significant donors. Although we do not really have a presence to speak if in India, the award was granted to us based on our impeccable lobbying and our ability to put both the local donor “mission” in India and their capital at ease with our demographic and linguistic familiarity.

Sure, there are hundreds of local organizations in India who do a pretty good job with “income generating activities” but it is only natural that HRI would come in from outside to “coordinate” all this well intentioned but sporadically implemented work. For a reasonable fee (negotiated globally with the respective donor to be ever so slightly above your average INGO fee) we are ready to bring our coordination expertise to the “income generating” sector in India while also saving money by not establishing a permanent presence there.

What we do is first we hire a reasonably paid consultant (I am thinking to "sole source" my yold buddy, Ed) to fly in and complete a "comprehensive assessment" of all the “stakeholders”. That is an HRI euphemism for playing some necessary power games with the “partners” to make sure they understand who calls the shots. The reasonably paid consultant will compile that information by outlining the best looking processes from some of these “local partners” before giving the report to another reasonably paid consultant (“the trainer”). The trainer, who for the sake of objectivity has only a vague theoretical understanding of Indian realities, aquired by thorough lecture of the on-flight magazine on the way in, looks at the assessment report and conveniently identifies those processes that are already in place with some of the “partners” and develops training materials (“the curricula”) focused on exactly the processes already in place.

In the next phase, we find a bling place to organize the training and invite the “local partners” who are already doing the work that involves the processes in question and pretend we train them in “innovative processes” during an "intensive" 18 day residential training. We’ll then send them home with a well stamped certificate and take credit for all their work onwards, while we expect them to change all their accounting and reporting structures in order to qualify for the money that we give them as part of our “prime-sub partnership”. Given the different reporting/ financial cycles between us, the donor and the “partner” we will remit the money to them with an average of eight month delay and, just to keep them on their feet, we will sometimes ask them to apply random budget cuts which we justify with vague arguments involving donor requirements and the fluctuation of currency exchange rates.

Unfortunately, not all of these partners see the brilliance of our work all the time or the important addition that we bring to the sector. Just recently one of them regreted our invitation for the ToT training motivating their refusal to participate with a spurious argument that they already have said processes in place and none of their staff can afford to be away from their work for 18 days to attend our training. In our formal response, conveniently copied to the local donor mission, we expressed regrets that the said partner chooses to prioritize dubious “political arguments” over a commitment to cooperation so clearly supported and facilitated by both the government and the donor agency. We also expressed regrets to hearing that the said partner refuses to use this TOT training as an opportunity to share their experience as part of the planed working group sessions and to reminding them that, as hard as it may be, we as sector leaders expect our “partners” not to allow their “egos” to be in the way of important activities in support of the poor and vulnerable people of India.

The letter prompted a direct call on my cellphone from the donor “mission director” who congratulated me personally for the hard work we are doing and our commitment to cooperation. He appologized for the unnecessary trouble and we finished the call on a friendly tone, with some chit-chat about the hopelessness of the “local culture” that encourages such unacceptable behavior as the one displayed by the un-cooperative partner. We agreed that we have to stick together as “strategic partners” as we brave the hostile attitudes of the local populace before promising each other to catch up during happy hour at the Taj later in the week.

During the same call, he also mentioned to me off the record that there is an upcoming “RFP” for SriLanka. For those who are not familiar with the lingo, "RFP" is donor shorthand for “loads of money to be awarded to an HRI affiliate”, so it was pretty useful information and I thought perhaps I should take advantage of being on the subcontinent already to pop across to Colombo and do some footwork. (No need to tell you that SriLanka is HRI territory what with all the post-war reconstruction not to mention the all the great “tsunami work” we’ve been doing there for a while now).

As I am writing this my trip to Colombo is already organized – will leave tomorrow early in the morning and use the opportunity to spend some quality time on the beaches in the south (where package tour fortresses have been successfully reconstructed, conveniently keeping the local citizenry away from the sea), discreetly but satisfyingly attended to by respectful hospitality personnel, many of them former fishermen trained in the high arts of waiting tables by an HRI affiliate as part of our flagship “income generating” work in post-tsunami SriLanka (project “info-sheet” heading: “Destitute SriLankans Given Second Chance to Dignified Life Through HRI Groundbreaking work in Ceylon”).

Then, next week I will have a series of meetings with HRI affiliate directors to get a better idea of who does what, who has what "core competency" and also identify “local partners” that could do good work without having the “capacity to absorb” large amounts of money. We'll then approach some of these “partners” and get them to sign exclusive letter of intent about their willingness to partner up with HRI for activities that could be covered by the mentioned RFP. Finally, when the RFP will be out, we’ll apply as “primes” without bothering to consult with these “partners” and then, once awarded, we’ll approach them and ask them to deliver whatever activities we want them to deliver. Not having too many other funding options (it so happens that donors like to avoid duplication) they will naturally agree and that's how, reader, you create the beginning of a wonderful “partnership”.

5 comments:

  1. ouch!

    "We’ll then send them home with a well stamped certificate and take credit for all their work onwards, while we expect them to change all their accounting and reporting structures in order to qualify for the money that we give them as part of our “prime-sub partnership”. Given the different reporting/ financial cycles between us, the donor and the “partner” we will remit the money to them with an average of eight month delay and, just to keep them on their feet, we will sometimes ask them to apply random budget cuts"

    I wish I could meet you in person.

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  2. http://www.sangambayard-c-m.com

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  3. Bingo! I wish more of us analyzed these "development initiatives" like this. I am one of those loosing my mind people in this arena...I work in this sector but morally suffer from the bling. Yes, I wish I could meet you in person.

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  4. what can i do on this statement....

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  5. Ouch! This is just too splendidly written! I sit here and think about my own (limited) experience from development aid projects, and can no longer distinguish between irony and reality. (Uh.. did I express myself clearly...?)

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