Working collaboratively – expecting the unexpected

September 24, 2015

Posted by in Blog.

Catherine Dennis, Protection in Practice Project Manager at Oxfam tells us what she has learned, one year on from the start of the Disasters Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP).

The big idea of DEPP is to support national capacity for humanitarian work through two big networks of INGOs and their partners. This means helping people, strengthening organisations and systems to better prepare for emergencies and respond effectively in times of disaster.

So one year in, what have we seen so far?

The picture emerging is one that is unique and driven by the individuals involved in the DEPP initiatives, at all different levels. Collaboration is about people, and so the journey and the results reflect that. Sometimes collaboration takes time to build and ends in nothing. Other times things move quickly and ideas and people click into place with fascinating results. The DEPP projects build on great ideas, but ultimately the results simply depend on the people involved – who is interested in what and how much people are inspired by each other to make something exciting happen.

So far the DEPP projects have led to some unexpected outcomes. The Surge project shows that collaboration is occurring organically in emergencies, but with a big difference in levels of coordination in different locations. For example, collaboration has been seen to be really strong in the Philippines, a country suffering from frequent climatic shocks, disasters and conflict. Overall, in terms of sharing resources in emergencies, it is perhaps not surprising that collaboration happens when people can see the advantage of it.

While we sometimes think of collaboration as being time consuming and costly, in the Surge Project, collaboration between organisations has been more dynamic, quicker and effective than existing processes. Perceived benefits of collaboration include cost-effectiveness, access to a broader pool of personnel and more efficient operations, which seem to, in many cases, outweigh the costs (see the Surge Baseline study).

There has also been interesting take up of ideas and initiatives between projects. For example the new Age and Disability Standards for Inclusion in Humanitarian Action will be used in up-coming trainings around ’protection mainstreaming’ in the Protection in Practice project. These Minimum Standards are seen as a valuable resource to share with partners, many of whom have specific challenges in their work around age and disability. For example partner organisations in Lebanon are facing operational issues around serving disabled populations through their work, including accessibility of buildings for community meetings in camps where space is tight.

While some collaboration has really taken off, in other areas we have seen some set-backs or difficulties in moving things forward. One particular area where challenges have been identified is the bureaucracy of sub-granting processes to local partners. We want to see more money going more quickly directly to local partners, so that they can get on with their humanitarian work where help is needed. So it is one major frustration to see how slow we still are as organisations at getting the money where it is needed. Equally frustrating is the kind of messages this may send about our trust for local partners.

This learning is uncomfortable for us, it is not in line with our aspirations, leaving us to think hard about how we can get through this barrier by trying different practical approaches to break the bureaucracy. Checks and controls are needed to make sure that money is going to legitimate partners for its intended purpose, but there needs to be a balance that works to support our partners in fast responses to emergencies.

Another perhaps more expected way in which we have seen some bumps in the road, is natural disasters and conflicts affecting the availability of staff for ongoing capacity initiatives. That has been the case, for example, in Pakistan and Ethiopia where we have seen flooding and drought. We all want to invest in capacity for the longer term and be more prepared for future emergencies, but when disaster strikes, quick action is needed, and people in the sector are frequently shifted from one location to another to make the most of the existing capacity.

Changing people in roles can lead to delays but also lead to shifts in energy – new people engaged with new ways of looking at the world. So the challenge is in developing strong information management systems to capture the knowledge that we are gathering and not to lose too much speed when people change, as inevitably they do.

So what about the future ahead for these projects? What do we expect to see?

With projects clustering around a few key geographical locations we expect to see a lot of energy in places like Kenya and the Philippines, where we are already seeing plenty of enthusiasm and interest in the DEPP initiatives. We are hoping to see more exchange of ideas and actions between projects, but also between national partners involved in projects themselves, sharing their ideas about how to collaborate and what it is important to collaborate on. This really is the critical and hoped for outcome. To see what agenda is pushed by national NGOs themselves and support them to move the things forward that they deem to be the most important.

Above all, we continue to expect the unexpected. We can’t foresee exactly what will happen as a result of all this networking and sharing of ideas. A scary thought for some perhaps. But this is the reality of collaboration and the particular beauty of this kind of initiative. We really can’t predict with any degree of certainty what it will mean, but I only look forward to see what emerges from the energy between people, what they find to be important and what they create. Watch this space!

Read more about DEPP.

The Disasters Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) kicked off in September 2014. DEPP is a series of 14 projects working in 11 countries with 39 international organisations, engaging over 100 local/national partners so far. The UK Government has invested 40 million pounds in this initiative over three years.


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