Sustineo has been working in the Asia and Pacific since it was established in 2010. Since that time, we have had the opportunity to work on a broad range of projects in the region. I have had the opportunity to be part of our recent work in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Through the successful completion of a number of projects, our organisational experience (and my personal experience) has highlighted the critical role of working with local partners – at both institutional and individual levels – to achieving positive outcomes. These outcomes include both benefits for the particular project, in terms of ensuring relevance of outputs and value-for-money, as well as promoting two-way learning and capacity development between those involved over time.
The focus of this piece is to emphasise the importance of working with local partners, and reflect on the mutual benefits that doing so can provide.
It is important to outline that a fundamental part of our ethos is to ensure that we take a culturally and contextually appropriate approach to the work we do. In relation to our work in the Asia and Pacific region, engaging with local partners is a deliberate move to ensure this. Such an approach is employed whether it is social survey work in the Solomon Islands or working with government stakeholders in the Philippines. This is important for guaranteeing the quality and relevance of our work and to fulfilling Sustineo’s ethical and principled foundations and respect for the places we work in and people we work with.
As to the pragmatics of working with different partners, there are different ways this happens which influences the types of relationships we form. For example, we have worked with local partners in the Asia and Pacific region in the following ways:
Project logistics – local knowledge and experience goes is integral to identifying the most time and cost-effective means of getting around. Local partners in both Solomon Islands and PNG have been critical in effectively and efficiently identifying the best ways to navigate potentially complex logistics on the ground.
Staff recruitment – for many large-scale data collection activities the client has expected you to be in the field from day one. If it was not for having strong and trusted networks in the country, it would have been difficult to assure the timely recruitment of quality and committed team members.
Data collection and oversight – undertaking data collection in a culturally and contextually appropriate way is essential. Beyond the recruitment of staff, local partners have been critical in advising on the specific contextual factors that we need to be aware of in conducting data collection activities in certain areas. Similarly, setting up oversight and management structures for fieldwork which delegates leadership responsibilities to local coordinating staff has been important in ensuring that experiences in the field are captured.
Technical expertise – the approach of providing purely international teams for international development projects is flawed. It should go without saying that the people who reside in the countries we work hold significant knowledge and technical expertise in the areas we work. For example, in a recent project in the Philippines we would not have been able to navigate the subtle influence of how groups interacted around certain competition related legislation if not for a highly proficient local technical advisor.
Critically important is that we share an even and respectful relationship with our partners, recognising the significant strengths that they bring to complement the expertise of Sustineo’s core team.
Engagement with local partners can bring a myriad of benefits to both sides of research. The most obvious of these is increased knowledge fluidity and exchange. In socially and politically complex environments access to knowledge is of paramount importance and methodology must be informed by the unique socio-political contexts of our work.
Culturally sensitive research design and community engagement – local teams bring invaluable knowledge of local contexts. In the Solomon Islands we have worked with the local research coordinators to review and refine our approach to community engagement to ensure its appropriateness. This has helped ensure that our work is aligned with both our own ethical principles and the local situation, while also providing a useful insight into processes for our partners.
Two-way learning – providing a space for mutual learning is important in terms of continually improving our practice and the way we work with partners. For our projects in the Solomon Islands, we have learned from our experience of working with the same local partners over three separate projects. This has improved not only the way we work together, but also our practices as separate entities.
Building relationships over time – a core part of our approach has been building relationships that extend beyond the scope of a project or a particular commercial opportunity. In doing so, we have built trust and respect for each other, which has meant more cohesive, efficient and effective project implementation.
Capacity building – building the long-term capacity of our partners and clients is a central tenet of our team and this cannot be done without engaging meaningfully with these partners. In assisting our partners to build their capacity we build our own and ensure future projects have a strong base from which to build.
Better outcomes and value for money – the client benefits from our approach which provides contextually relevant and high-quality products that are delivered through an approach that is sensitive to context and contributes to capacity building on the ground.
As reflected by Osnat Lubrani, former Resident Coordinator for the Pacific, in the Resident Coordinator’s Introduction to the UNDP National Perceptions Survey on Peacebuilding for Solomon Islands Report:
“Sustineo’s experience in Solomon Islands and its enduring relationship with local researchers built over multiple projects ensured that the survey was developed and implemented to reflect the reality and needs on the ground”
The benefits of building ‘enduring relationships’ is not just ‘a good thing to do’ but rather is essential for doing the thing well.
Informing our future practice
While the above discussion has focused on the positives, there can clearly be teething issues in the initial part of developing a working relationship. This is to be expected in working through the complexity of many of the projects we work on. Learning from the successes and short-comings is important, and this is a key feature of each project we run, whether with a newly established partner or one we have worked with for years.
This blog focused on Sustineo’s experience working with local partners in projects across the Asia and Pacific regions. As described above, the type of project and the support provided varied between the different countries and projects.
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