Sarah Orton-Vipond is Director of Engagement and Partnerships for DG, starting as a Business Development Associate in 2012. During her time at DG she has worked on open contracting, TASAI-VISTA, and DG’s Results Data Initiative. She is also an active member in Open Heroines.
When Lindsey Fincham, our Communications Specialist, first joined DG, she asked me about DG’s competitors. I received a justifiable eye roll when I gave my typical answer, “we don’t have any.” Sure, we do compete on requests for proposals and funding is a finite resource, but if we don’t have something valuable that sets our approach apart from other organizations, why would we do it alone? Rather than compete with our peer organizations, we prefer to partner to learn from those with complementary thematic or geographic expertise and to deliver stronger program outcomes.
The True Value of Partnership
Out of DG’s twelve core values, five are centered on partners and partnerships. The prioritization of partnerships comes from our willingness to admit that we do not have all the answers. Our ability to achieve sustainability and impact is greatly dependent on our strong partnerships, which expand beyond our expertise alone. From our early days co-designing – long before co-design became a buzzword – the Aid Management Platform (AMP) with the Government of Ethiopia and other partners, to today, partnerships are what make DG, DG. Below, I have grounded our core values in examples that show how partnerships over the years have allowed us to be more effective, to learn and grow together, and to creatively solve problems through joint expertise.
Value: We are a global organization and partner locally whenever possible through teams in the regions and communities where our work takes place.
Our team is increasingly from and based in the countries where we work, and we prioritize partnering with local organizations whenever possible. The Results Data Initiative, which helped shape DG’s thinking around data and decision-making, would not have been as successful without our in-country partners in Tanzania, Ghana, and Sri Lanka. Our partners knew the key stakeholders in the results data space, as well as the local priorities within agriculture and health. In an example from Sri Lanka, without the contextual knowledge from our partnership with Management Frontiers, we would not have made our way to the Ampara District Office or the Ampara General Hospital. The Ampara District – entirely across the country from Colombo, where our research was primarily focused – has received many accolades, including a two-foot tall trophy with a golden rooster. Ampara General Hospital itself has also received many international data awards. What we learned around the Ampara District, due to the relationships held by Management Frontiers, was a driver in how we think about benchmarking, including that physical awards on data quality and data use can establish incentives that affect the results data ecosystem.
Value: We partner with institutions to drive change from the inside.
Our programs with the biggest impacts are those where we have transitioned beyond a client-consultant relationship into a cohesive team with shared goals. One clear example of this is our work with Comité de Mobilisations des Ressources Extérieures (COMOREX) on the Aid Management Program in Cote d’Ivoire. The high-level buy-in from the Prime Minister, who uses AMP for monthly meetings with development partners, and the involvement of sector ministers and other stakeholders from the very outset of implementation made COMEREX an ideal partner. Since 2012, COMOREX has effectively integrated AMP into their own internal processes, and has played an important standard-setting role in the AMP community – becoming a thought leader in AMP’s evolution. COMOREX has suggested many of the improvements that have been incorporated into AMP and benefited AMP users globally, in addition to hosting study tours for peers from Haiti and Chad.
Value: We build solutions with, not for, our partners.
Value: We work to build local and partner capacity for our tools whenever possible, and we prioritize solutions that are the right fit for partners in the long-term.
Co-design is a term that gets thrown around a lot; and our solutions have traveled along the co-design spectrum the past two decades. Through the Results Data Initiative, we put our approach to co-design to the test, including in our partnership with Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture. Rather than a narrow technical assessment centered on designing a generic agricultural monitoring system, we collaborated on an in-depth co-design of the National Agriculture Management System (NAMIS), which focused on understanding the true decision-making needs of a variety of stakeholders at both national and sub-national levels. Through this co-designed assessment, DG worked closely with the Government, building consensus and securing buy-in from champions; interviewing over 75 stakeholders; and developing a report that identified the needs of a decision-centered system. We often joke that building technology is the easier part of our work. Designing with our partners and fully understanding the context and needs is hard – but it is vital for sustainable solutions.
Value: We contribute to the global policy community through active participation in multi-stakeholder partnerships; collaboration with like-minded partners; and active dissemination of policy-relevant lessons.
As we wrote in our recent blog on DG’s work in the global policy space, “After a history of deep relationships with country governments and development partners, we realized that we had a lot to say.” Learning from partners with goals similar to ours has allowed us to cross-pollinate the spaces in which we work, and our voice in the policy space has been guided by learnings from partnerships with governments, institutions, and multi-stakeholder groups as well. For example, we are actively engaged with both the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) at the country-level and at the global policy level. We have been able to see how countries struggled with interoperability of their data systems when implementing the IATI standards; and we were able to help translate the challenge back to IATI to improve the standard. Additionally, the collaboration and lessons learned from our policy partners feed into our broader policy framework. For example, lessons from DG’s partnership with Global Affairs Canada measuring Canada’s feminist international policy have made their way into an upcoming paper about using gender data for feminist outcomes in extractive industries.
Who we chose to work with is a reflection of DG, and the ways in which the roles of global organizations are rapidly evolving. When partnering, we are not simply looking for organizations that share and reflect our values. We also look for partners who:
- Complement DG’s skills and experience
- Are interested in collaborative thought-partnership. Rather than a purely technical and contractual relationship, we prefer to work in partnerships and consortiums where we can help shape the overall program vision and approach, and we look for the same collaborative input from our own subcontractors.
- Prioritize diversity in staff, leadership, and boards. While this can be a challenge, we all need to do better, and to hold ourselves and others accountable.
- Treat their team members with respect and have a reputation for doing so.
- Care about work that has lasting impact and makes a change.
Looking forward, being – and seeking out – good partners will remain a core part of our identity. In the coming years, DG will increasingly prioritize partners and funders who reflect our values, and we look forward to partnering with many of you in making DG’s next 20 years even more collaborative in creating more responsive, accountable, and effective development programming and institutions.
In partnership with Africafertilizer.org, the International Fertilizer Development Center, the Ghana Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Ghana Statistical Service, the Ghana Revenue Authority, Ghana Cocoa Board, and other partners, DG had a soft launch of the new Ghana fertilizer dashboard.
From the creation of survey tools to stakeholder mapping, one year into DG's partnership with TASAI, the Visualizing Information on Seeds Using Technology in Africa (VISTA) program has made great progress.
The real work of open data requires digging in when the excitement fades, doing the hard and tedious work maintaining and adapting systems, constantly reflecting upon the underlying assumptions of our theories of change around open data, and testing those assumptions again and again with painstaking, rigorous evaluation. A guest post from Dr. Catherine Weaver explores UT Austin's partnership with DG.