Letting go and linking partners

by Bonnie Klassen

MCC’s partnership accompaniment model can present challenges for MCC staff as we learn to let go of power. At the same time, shifting from MCC as the doer toward MCC acting as a connector, an organization that links locally-led organizations who in turn build each other’s capacities, offers learning both for partner organizations and MCC.

I have personally experienced the learning that can take place through letting go. In 1996, I moved to Colombia to serve with MCC through the Colombian Mennonite Church’s Justice and Peace organization—JUSTAPAZ—as a highly successful university graduate, but with no practical competency in working for peace in complex and ever-changing situations. My Colombian colleagues gave their lives for peace and navigated challenges with boundless creativity, skill and a web of connections that helped change happen. I wanted to be an expert, but little of what I knew was relevant in the context, so I had to release some power and let colleagues guide me. Letting go was not an easy task.

Many people sit around a table having a discussion.
Each year, MCC brings together partners in MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean program to share their expertise with one another. In Febuary 2018, partners working in education projects gathered together in Cali, Colombia to learn from each other and share about their work and context. (MCC photo/Anna Vogt)

MCC has mirrored this letting go process at the organizational level. When I became the MCC representative in Colombia in 2001, MCC’s global shift from implementing programs in communities around the world toward supporting the work of locally-initiated and -led organizations was well underway. Shifting towards a “partnership model,” or what has recently been termed localization in humanitarian and development circles, required an international non-governmental organization (INGO) like MCC to significantly change its approach. This existential transition is much more complex for organizations than for individuals. Organizations must ask: “What can we still bring to the table? Just money? Who has expertise and how is this shared? Who leads? How do we accompany and build together differently?”

MCC has not been alone in working through this type of transition. While studying the root causes of “development failure” in Asia in the late 1980s, David C. Korten brought insight to these questions and suggested that there are four generations of development strategy. INGOs shift from being “doers” (first generation) towards becoming trainers or mobilizers (second generation). Then, INGOs gradually move towards the third and fourth generation as catalysts and as connectors or networkers. When development organizations change from functioning as external direct actors to become facilitators, they also must let go of some control and power.

A man and a woman gather around a large poster.
Blanca Mungua (left), coordinator of MCC Honduras partner Transformemos Honduras, works with Juan Alberto Bustillo, director of MCC Honduras partner Accin Cristiana Educativa Menonita/Iglesia Evanglica Menonita Hondurea, to prepare a presentation on education in the Honduran context. (MCC photo/Anna Vogt, 2018)

MCC programs in Latin America and the Caribbean have tried to take on the role of catalyst and connector by organizing regional partner encounters, among other strategies. Since 2014, MCC has facilitated five learning encounters for the staff of MCC’s partner organizations across the region. These encounters have addressed critical issues with which MCC’s partners are grappling: urban peacebuilding, advocacy, food security, education and migration. Each event brought together an average of 28 participants, from a total of 14 different countries (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Canada and the United States). I offer here three key observations about the strengths of connecting partners, based on the post-gathering evaluations by participants of these encounters.

Two individuals stand smiling at the camera.
From left, Carlos Andrs Placios (of MCC Colombia supported education initiatives), Dilson Baraona (pastor of Peniel Mennonite Brethren Church and coordinator of “Prevenir vale mas” education initiative supported by MCC Colombia), Marion Myer (MCC Colombia) and Annalee Giesbrecht (of MCC LACA) participate in an acting activity about child safety. (MCC photo/Anna Vogt, 2018)

Learning from diversity: Partners place high value on these encounters as a space for brainstorming ideas, sharing concerns, learning from the richness of other experiences and discovering diverse perspectives. An average of 75% of participants named idea exchange as the primary value of the encounters. The range of perspectives expressed during partner encounters has sometimes covered the entire spectrum of possibilities.

For example, the food security encounter included a participant with little concern about deforestation, many partners actively involved in reforestation and another partner who criticized reforestation as capitalist intervention because forests reforest themselves when left on their own. Not everyone concurred on the importance of addressing deforestation to ensure food security and not all agreed about reforestation as an effective strategy, but everyone learned to imagine the world from other viewpoints.

Partners also learn to appreciate diversity beyond the focus of the encounter. At the migration encounter, a church leader from an evangelical Anabaptist church interacted with other participants who passionately shared from their Catholic or Indigenous spirituality. At the end of the encounter, this church leader shared that the experience led her to see the value of faith writ large, beyond her own theological perspective. Approximately one-third of participants in the regional encounters have mentioned these kinds of additional insights, transcending the knowledge gained about a specific topic

Sharing expertise: When organizing these partner encounters, MCC has structured the agenda to facilitate horizontal sharing between participants instead of primarily listening to outside “experts.” While a small percentage of participants have noted the value of having “experts to validate our experience,” most participants have observed favorably that MCC has empowered them to value their own knowledge and experiences. Comments in evaluations have included “I like the method of sharing from our own experiences as if we were experts,” and “We can learn from the contributions among ourselves. We are similar organizations so we can take adaptable experiences back home.”

Sharing hope: While addressing complex and entrenched socio-economic, cultural and political obstacles to positive social change, despair comes easily. Partners affirm that the MCC-facilitated encounters help them experience hope by realizing that they are not alone. “There are many others doing the same work as I am,” shared one encounter participant. Partners talk about leaving the encounters with “hope, energy, motivation, and new friends and allies.” One participant put this component into perspective by observing that “we need to make sure that everyone has hope in collective efforts, and this [hope] is more important than only providing training and information.”

Giving direction: MCC has been shaped and guided by these partner encounters. Listening to the diversity of participants at the encounters means that we are not building programs based on the personal whims of MCC or solely on external analysis, but from collective and contextually rooted voices. In this process, we take steps forward together. For example, the advocacy encounter in 2015 helped identify migration as a thematic priority for MCC, based on partner voices.

Subsequently, the migration encounter helped define a succinct message for our work related to migration: “everyone has the right to roots; everyone has the right to dignity.” Together, MCC and our partners have built up our capacities to focus our programs and concentrate energy and resources towards change. MCC partners have helped us to learn how to put theory into practice by sharing power.

Bonnie Klassen oversees MCC programs in South America, Mexico and Cuba. She lives in Bogotá, Colombia.

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Note: This article was originally published in MCC’s Summer 2021 issue of Intersections under the title Learning by letting go and linking partners. You can read the full publication here.

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