On whose behalf do they speak?

How Matters recently featured a guest post by Scott Fifer on the need to listen to local leaders, especially when they say “Thanks but no thanks.”

As with the paper on which I commented yesterday, Scott was making one of those obvious points which are too often forgotten, and I found myself agreeing with just about every word he wrote. However, I was also a tad concerned that the excellent points he was making all depended on one critical question which was never fully addressed: to what extent is Scott’s local partner, Abel Barrera Hernández, actually a good representative of the people Scott and Abel want to help?

Us expatriate advisers often worry a lot about the extent to which we should speak on behalf of the beneficiaries we are seeking to support, but can suffer serious blind spots when it comes to our local partners. As far as I could tell from Scott’s post Abel has not been elected by the people of Guerrero, Mexico. Even if he is extremely popular, and has helped the people there a lot (Scott implies both), they might not agree with Abel when he argues against the GO Campaign providing funds to improve the local school with a new floor on the basis that this ought to be the government’s job.

“Admittedly, part of me wanted to say to Abel, the hell with the cultural traditions, and to hell with the government! These kids need an education. These kids want and need books and desks and chairs and a floor.  But that part of me shut up (mostly).  My years of grant-making have taught me to know that I don’t know it all. And if a respected leader and human rights champion is telling me my well-intentioned ideas don’t fly with him, then I gotta figure he knows more than I do.”

It seems that Scott and Abel came up with a solution that sounds sensible and will give the practical support to the communities they need, so, without knowing anything more about the situation in Guerrero, I do not wish to imply any criticism of this particular instance; indeed the conclusion they reached sounds praise-worthy. But we do not always get it so right with our partners selection, e.g. in Guinea-Bissau it appears IUCN put rather too much trust in their local partners when they embarked upon a community conservation initiative on the Cubucan peninsular.

Local partners are vital to the success of development projects, but just because they are local and they are your chosen partner, does not necessarily make them good, nor automatically entitle them to speak on behalf of your would-be beneficiaries. Both labels have to be earned, and sometimes you might even find that actually it is the international partners who do a better job of protecting the interests of the beneficiaries.

9 responses to this post.

  1. I definitely agree with much of what you are saying. However, I don’t think the issue is of putting “too much” trust in your partners, but of not working with the right partners to begin with. Choosing partners with whom you share a common vision is at the crux of any successful project. It should be the number one priority when initiating a program, but in actuality, often takes a back-seat to deadlines, project reports, and much of the bureaucracy that is necessary to ensure a program’s funding. We often want our projects to be successful and successful fast. Consequently, we don’t take the necessary time (and it can take a while) to select partners and lay a solid foundation for our project together. We cut corners to make our project look good, at least on paper, now to ensure funding and accreditation now. Even if it means the project may suffer later. Your partners should be as invaluable to the project, if not more than you are. You should be able to trust them with all aspects of the project. If that’s not the case, than they are not your partners and probably shouldn’t have been given that position in the first place.


    • Yep choosing the right partner is definitely important. But that does not mean they automatically are entitled to speak on behalf of your beneficiaries. Also while I am in favour of doing as much due diligence and collaborative vision sharing as possible up front, often the best way to really energise a partnership is to start doing something: talk is easy, but acting on it takes commitment. And it maybe only then you really start to learn about your would be partners.


  2. Thanks for your comments. Your point is true – it is most important that the local leader accurately represent the people. That is why I sat with Abel and local community leaders and we had open conversation and broke bread together (actually it was goat). And why Abel continues to meet with members of the community and dialogue with them. It’s of course critical and a big part of our process in choosing our local partners in the first place. It’s true I didn’t address that in the blog and it’s a valid point to highlight. Thanks.


    • Good to hear. I had a feeling this wasn’t a problem in this particular case. Just that the blog post skipped a logical step.


  3. Yeah, definitely not automatically entitled to speak on behalf of the beneficiaries. But I also think in an attempt to do something and energize the partnership, you run the risk of projecting your own interpretation of a “problem” and it’s “solution” in a place where you have neither the authority or understanding to do so. You could very easily wind up with a group of people parroting your objectives who are able to both walk the walk and talk the talk, but that still possess more personal motives. And if they don’t have such motives, they may feel hesitant to really express their own perspective on how to truly support the beneficiaries, because they feel your agenda is in place and any digression from that may prevent them from working with you in the future (which, of course, would not be the case or intent, but we don’t get to choose how our intent is interpreted).


    • Certainly there can be issues around partners not wanting to rock the boat. And so yr initial projects need to be collaboratively designed. But too much jaw-jaw never gets one very far: in my experience you learn a lot more about people getting down to work together than you ever do just talking. As for understanding: just because you may be working with a local partner does not absolve you of responsibility for understanding the situation. And maybe through long experience in an area you also have plenty to contribute.


  4. Yeah I would definitely agree with that, and obviously every situation is unique. My comments weren’t actually towards Scott and Abel. It sounds like their/your partnership has been very genuine and successful. I was speaking more towards the comment of IUCN putting “too much trust in their local partners…” — and not exactly disagreeing, but just trying to bring out another point that some times with good intention and excitement we make choices very hurriedly and it’s not that we put too much trust in our partners, but that they may not have been the right partners to start with. Unfortunately, I feel and have seen this happen a lot and it has proved to not only undermine that specific project but development projects/organizations in general for a number of reasons. Beneficiaries and potential partners come to expect it.
    Regardless, my apologies if my original comments came off as a criticism of your project, Scott, or this blog. It was intended to be neither. Just trying to expand the discussion.


  5. The problem is that the ngo turns up and needs a point of contact in a community.
    If more projects were aimed at the individual then there would be need of less of such troublesome individuals.
    The tribal leaders can be more appropriate contacts for community projects rather than projects aimed at the individual.
    An ngo here tried to start a broiler project with linkages straight to the chicken processor but the village headmen said no when they were offered the project. The ngo went to the next area – a separate tribe – and the village headmen said yes. They made a good go of it.
    Why did the first group say no. Backward, opposed to development. Not at all. They knew a lot of the broilers would be eaten as soon as they were ready and the chicken processor would come looking for his start up money in the village. They would then have the embarrassment of explaining the problem to the ngo and the chicken processor.
    Hence they said no. Tribal leaders have a sense of responsibility for their actions.


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