Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 26-27, November 2000 


Partnership with APNET: from donors to strategic partners

Rachel Wiggans
Rachel Wiggans is Assistant Co-ordinator, Bellagio Publishing Network

Over the last 40 years the words used to discuss relationships between the north and the south have changed. 'Technical assistance' was superseded by the less paternalistic 'co-operation'. But, despite the word-change and all the worthwhile thinking that accompanied it, the money, materials and expertise that were being shifted southwards still came with conditions which did not always seem co-operative. Expenditure was strictly defined and had to be justified, often in great and time-consuming detail. After a while there was more thinking about north-south relations and 'partnership' was born.

Whatever underlying inequalities between nations remain, the word changes do at least signal, then reflect, changes of intention and sometimes practice. So what does 'partnership' mean? The theory is straightforward: dictionary definitions include phrases like 'playing on the same side', 'being an ally', 'each incurring liability for losses and the right to share in the benefits' even 'symbiosis'. Practice, as ever, is more complex. The reality of 'partnership' for APNET meant, for many years, reporting to donors on money spent at times that fitted the donors' timescales (often different times of year for different donors), in formats that fitted the donors' systems, and according to the strict rules that had been put in place at the outset for how the money could be spent. As APNET grew and tried to win funding for an increasing number of activities - running this training course, promoting books at that book fair - the number of donors and the variety of their requirements also grew. At one stage APNET's executive secretary reported spending three to four months of the year meeting donor reporting requirements.

Not only was far too much time being spent on bureaucracy, APNET, in common with thousands of other organisations who are funded in a similar way, was also not able to decide its own priorities. If funding was turned down for a part of the programme that APNET considered essential, but money was received for something less important, it had to be the less important work that was done and accounted for. And done before the end of the donor's financial year, even if that was not the best timing for the end recipients. The system meant that APNET could not operate strategically, was prevented from being as effective as it could be.

Donors face their own constraints. Government donors are accountable to their electors who are often all too keen to hint at 'mis-spent taxes'; foundations are bound by the trusts that set them up, voluntary organisations risk a collapse of income if they get publicity saying that things might not be quite as expected, and all are subject to legal requirements in their own countries. Even so, several donors to APNET recognised that things needed changing.

The Bellagio Publishing Network, set up to encourage open discussion between donors, African publishers and other concerned with African publishing, was the appropriate forum to raise some of these difficulties.

Three years ago at a Bellagio Publishing Network meeting in Oxford, the secretariat staff suggested that the funds it received to facilitate meetings between APNET and the donors, and to handle some aspects of communication with the book trade in Africa, should be transferred to APNET. Sida meanwhile offered to share its planned evaluation of APNET with the other donors, so that APNET did not have to undergo a series of separate evaluations. The donors agreed, and Sida offered to co-ordinate, with the help of the Bellagio secretariat, terms of reference for the evaluation that would satisfy Danida, NORAD, and other donors who wanted to participate. The Danish consultancy firm COWI was commissioned to undertake the evaluation.

At the Bellagio Publishing Network meeting in Copenhagen two years ago the evaluation report was presented. It too pointed out how much could be gained by making 'partnership' more genuine: one of its main recommendations was for the donors to co-operate with each other and APNET in building a formal strategic partnership - providing funding in such a way that APNET could decide its own priorities. This meant giving core funding - money to pay for the basics that keep an organisation alive. An organisation struggling to pay its rent and its staff cannot focus effectively on what it is trying to achieve. And it meant the donors providing money which APNET's board could spend as it decided. These demands were a true test of partnership and the trust that should be a part of it. Everyone in the room was uncertain what the long-term consequences of such a big step would be, but several of the donors agreed in principle. APNET and these donors began working to agree a framework within which strategic partnership couldoperate effectively.

APNET staff drafted a five year plan. The board discussed it, consulted and made amendments. The timings were crucial and tight. APNET is governed by a constitution that ensures it is democratic, and the plan had to be agreed by the General Council, which was meeting in Kampala in November 1999. At that meeting Richard Crabbe, APNET's chair, outlined what a significant development strategic partnership would mean for APNET, 'At the first meeting of the strategic partners, APNET received pledges covering at least 80 per cent of our funding needs over the five year period 1999-2004. This is an achievement we should all be proud of. It comes with a challenge: to work harder to achieve the targets we have set ourselves.' The Council discussed the five year plan in detail, then endorsed the board's continuing work on it.

Meanwhile the donor representatives were drafting, discussing and redrafting legal agreements which could both meet APNET's needs and comply with their own organisations' requirements. A year ago, only one month after their General Council meeting, and immediately prior to the annual Bellagio Publishing Network meeting, held in New York and hosted by the Ford Foundation, APNET met with their core donors. Sida brought what everyone hoped were the final drafts of the strategic partners agreements. They were discussed again, minor changes were made and final versions were produced for each of the donors. A long table was set up with five legal agreements, between APNET and each of Danida, Neda (the Netherlands) NORAD, Sida, and the Ford Foundation.

The signing could have been a formal and stiff occasion, but it wasn't. Everyone was elated that the commitment and co-operation of the early years, and the hard work of the preceding twelve months had resulted in what promised to be a practical partnership. In the year since there have been some setbacks, such as donor finance departments which, despite the agreement, find they cannot disburse money without certain documents being in place. But they are outweighed by the advantages. APNET can plan more efficiently and avoid cash flow crises. And the donor funding is being spent on making a difference. [end] [BPN, no 26–27, 2000, p. 7.]

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