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The power of partnership: what COVID and a coup can teach us about preparing to live with a rapidly changing climate

January 31, 2022

What do COVID-19, a coup d'etat and climate change have in common? HINT: it's the same ingredient required for a successful marriage.

Across the portfolio of individuals and organizations I work with is a common thread: moving more resources and power into the hands of local leaders and directly to the communities those resources are intended to benefit. There is intentionality behind this decision, rooted as it is in a commitment to support people and organizations working for justice and equality for people and the planet. But as we come up on the first year anniversary of Myanmar’s coup d’etat, I’m reminded that this is more than a philosophical or ethical position, it’s a strategic decision – one deeply tied to our collective ability to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing climate. Yes, investing in local leaders and locally-led solutions is about a fairer future. But it’s also about survival.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic brought into sharp focus many of the flaws of the aid industry’s business-as-usual approach. Voices within the sector and beyond were raised in protest as large development organizations began evacuating their international aid workers back to their home countries and closing down offices. Vulnerable communities were left alone, and potentially life-threatening gaps in support were created at exactly the moment it was most needed.

For those of us who’ve been advocating for more equitable and inclusive partnerships that lift up local voices it was a small, if bittersweet, victory. As mentioned in a New York Times opinion piece, “the coronavirus pandemic showcased the capabilities of local people who continued working long after their American and European bosses flew home to the relative safety of their own countries.”

Deeply entrenched in the communities they serve, local leaders are better equipped to respond with flexibility and agility to rapidly-changing or unexpected shifts in the ecosystem (like a global pandemic or sudden military coup). They have a deep knowledge of the systems they’re part of, and are better positioned to change and influence those systems. And perhaps most importantly of all: when the going gets tough, they aren’t going anywhere. Local leaders don’t just have skin-in-the-game, they have their lives on the line.

And while at face value it may seem that a global pandemic and military coup d’etat have little in common, they do have this: they are both situations where once again development has fallen short. In the face of unrest and uncertainty, large aid providers like international NGOs and bilateral donors significantly reduced their activities in Myanmar and adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Many are still waiting, one year on. But this was a luxury local leaders could not afford. While these organizations sat back to bide their time, the citizens of Myanmar united in an effort to save their fledgling democracy.

But there’s more.

Despite growing awareness and evidence that shows that local organizations are much better equipped to provide agile, innovative and contextually-appropriate responses, Development Initiatives – a group that has tracked this data for over two decades – reports that less than 2% of international humanitarian spending goes to local and national groups.

So how are these kinds of groups funded?

By and large, it’s individuals and organizations who’re prepared to challenge the status quo and flip the power on traditional development dynamics by building fair, equitable and dignified partnerships with locally-led groups. I’m privileged to be able to work with a number of these organizations, as well as the groups on the frontlines, which gives me a unique insight into two very different, but deeply interconnected worlds. And from those two worlds, there is one idea that is increasingly being used as a shared language between them.


But not just any old partnership. If you want an analogy, don’t look to the business world (we’ve done that for far too long). You’re better placed thinking about a long-term committed romantic relationship. Because that’s what these individuals and organizations are doing: pushing their partnerships along the spectrum from transactional to trust-based.

What does that look like?

Well, a top Aid executive asking a frontline activist to prepare a budget and 10-page grant proposal in the midst of a violent government crackdown? That’s transactional. Leaning into a crisis and letting those on the frontlines know that you will continue to be there to connect, resource, and support them with respect, compassion and determination? That’s trust-based.

And why is this important (apart from the obvious differences)?

As one-such organizational leader tells me, “Our support means our partners feel more secure in otherwise tenuous circumstances. And when they feel safer, they’re able to remain strategic, resilient players in the bigger picture – which is vital if they’re to continue building a better, freer future for the people they serve.”

The importance of resilience here should not be underestimated. In fact, it’s the key pattern that connects COVID-19, a coup and climate change.

Resilience in this context refers to our ability, whether as individuals, communities or societies, to deal with the sudden impact of crisis or disasters, and restore as soon as possible our capacity to act. A resilient response by definition therefore is one that is flexible and emergent – everything that our traditional development system is not. And it is this resilience, built on a foundation of purposeful partnership, that holds the key to preparing ourselves long-term to deal with the unpredictability of a changing climate.

Just like with COVID and the coup, natural disasters and extreme weather events bring about localized crises that disproportionately impact poor and marginalized populations. Unlike COVID and the coup, expecting an increase in natural disasters and extreme weather events over the next few years is a fairly safe bet.

In the case of natural disasters, the traditional development response is disaster relief, another industry which has received widespread criticism for a similar top-down, externally driven model. But in the face of a rapidly changing climate with ever-increasing unpredictability, we can no longer afford to get it wrong.

As events become more frequent, we will be asked to do more with less. Worse, as the costs of adaptation and mitigation in wealthier countries escalates, funding support to developing countries will likely taper out. We must do what we can now to help communities build resilience. We must build on the power of partnerships. With increased investment in building genuine local participation, and a concentrated effort to shape a system where local communities are empowered with the capacity to address the challenges that impact them, a pathway forward – even in the face of a rapidly changing climate – may be possible.

Where do your partnerships sit along a spectrum from transactional to trust-based? Which partnerships help you to feel more resilient? How might you nourish and nurture more trust-based partnerships in your life and your community? Feel free to share your reflections and comments below.

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