05 April 2013

Rethinking Partnership

by Vivien Suerte-Cortez

Partnership-building is one of the interesting challenges under ANSA-EAP’s Citizen Participatory Audit (CPA) project. Most standard legal references define partnerships as people or groups who share equal responsibility for profits, losses, debts, and liabilities in a business. Several governance books will introduce you to keywords like cooperation, mutual interests, shared goals and responsibilities. Research further and you’ll eventually stumble upon a definition that says -- “a collaborative relationship between entities to work toward shared objectives through a mutually agreed division of labor” (World Bank, 1998).

In a nutshell, one can say that partnerships are a means to an end. From here we can assume that certain pre-conditions must be met -- objectives identified and shared, motivations made clear, power and resources assessed and leveraged, and mechanisms for effective communication established. The concepts are easy to understand but putting this into practice raises the challenge several notches. In the realm of business, the nature of partnerships can be seen as clear as day because profits, losses, debts and liabilities are (relatively) easy to quantify. But how does one operationalize partnerships in governance when power, resources, benefits, and risks are unequally distributed among interested parties? At the risk of sounding poetic, we sometimes feel that just when we think that the answer is within grasp, it suddenly disappears like a mirage.

ANSA-EAP promotes social accountability (SAc) and through it, “reinforces basic human rights: the right to be heard (voice); the right to expression (information); the right to association (organization); and, the right to negotiate for change (participation).” Having these enshrined locally in the Philippine Constitution is not enough. One can observe that there is a continuing struggle to preserve these rights everyday, albeit in different situations. For instance, while spaces for participation have opened up, contrasting perspectives on operationalizing “participation” has made partnership-building a challenge within the CPA project. My team and I have realized that the pre-conditions for partnership need to be constantly revisited and revised. Shared objectives and motivations may change, communication mechanisms can be reset, even as uneven power relations and resources remain constant. All these have an impact on the quality of participation each person or institution is inclined to give.

We are halfway into the project and we’re still neck-deep in the challenges we need to address. Questions beget more questions than answers. Central to this is how to find the fitting engagement strategy for institutions that come from different backgrounds and mandates. While answers may not come soon, one gets to appreciate the process of exploring possibilities to change mindsets.

At this point, one can say that partnership-building under the CPA project is a “work in progress,” but I’m inclined to think otherwise. Perhaps this time, partnership-building may actually be an end in itself.

The author is ANSA-EAP's Country Innovations Manager, and project coordinator of the Citizen Participatory Audit project. She was recently recognized as one of Devex Manila's 40 under 40 International Development Leaders

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