I write this as an academic who has only recently joined a university, and as someone who has previously spent more than 25 years working for international NGOs. During my time with NGOs I had a number of experiences engaging with universities on joint research, teaching, writing and conference and workshop organisation. In my role at La Trobe I am working with development agencies, NGOs and their staff in similar areas. What I have to say is therefore shaped by a particular history of collaboration.
From this experience I can see a number of reasons why universities might want to establish partnerships with those in the development sector and not-for-profit sector, and what those partnerships might look like.
- We live in a world that demands collaboration. There is a great need to bring theory, practice, personal and organisational development together to deal with the kinds of 'wicked problems' NGOs and universities are trying to address, such as climate change, inequality and coping with volatility and uncertainty. If you are interested in these kinds of issues working on your own, even if you are a large cashed up university, is simply not going to work.
- Universities can offer an independent, robust take on what development agencies are doing, and develop our collective wisdom as a result. The growing scrutiny of INGOs and aid agencies, and the results and value for money agenda means there is huge demand for this, as well as a desire for this to be done in ways that do not undermine the development process.
- Mobilising the energy and commitment of students and academics who are sympathetic to the work that INGOs do has the potential to provide agencies with: skilled interns, researchers, trainers and mentors often at a lower cost than consultants; long term relationships with academics and key – often influential – institutions; vehicles for the promulgation of their experience, lessons and world-view both directly (through internships, teaching, research etc) and indirectly (i.e. through the placement of Fair Trade outlets on campuses, the ramping up of campaign groups etc). There are thus clear opportunities to contribute to the development of new relationships between civil society organisations, NGOs and universities toward building stronger civil societies.
- Partnerships of this type can explore innovations in different fields which are driven by real-world concerns. This can provide direct ‘problem solving’ elements to academic subjects, like the arrangement between UNICEF and NYU which recently resulted in the Water Canary. This can not only enhance the learning experience but potentially lead to profitable joint ventures.
- There is growing recognition that there is a need to change how the next generation of activists and leaders is taught, if we want to have people with the necessary skills to act in a complex and rapidly changing world. A number of people suggest the current curriculum is in need of a major shake-up so that trans-disciplinary understanding is increased, leadership and mobilisation skills are enhanced, and practice and theory more closely interwoven (see Rufus Black on Educating the Millennial Generation). In this sense universities need activists and practitioners in the classroom too, providing practical insights and ‘live’ case studies. My experience of co-designing and delivering a Masters subject called ‘Making Social Change Happen’, when I was at Oxfam, which involves a number of ‘practitioner teachers’ or ‘pracademics’ indicated how popular this also was with students who were enthused by both the optimism, and realism of the input as a useful adjunct to the theory.
- The role of higher education is increasingly recognised as being key to the development process at a systemic level, not least in promoting a citizenry capable of holding governments to account, as well as future leaders. See here a recent post on Oxfam's blog From Poverty to Power on the work of the Developmental Leadership Program. Increasingly some universities are seeing themselves as wanting to be more than revenue earners, student sausage factories and producers of papers in A* journals. Impact is becoming a more central concern, even if its meaning is hotly contested. Does contributing more clearly to human development not fit the bill?
So what makes for successful partnerships between civil society groups and universities? Some lessons from my experience  include:
- It helps if both parties have funds. This can reduce the tension and challenges that can occur if one party is dependent on the other for funding.
- It really assists if the NGO is clear about what it wants from the collaboration. It can be the case that NGO requests for support from academics are unclear, or the demand or ideas for research are determined by academics. In both cases this can result in collaboration being ‘diverted’ by academic interests and agendas, which tends to undermine relationships.
- Informal and small scale collaboration which creates trust and good working relationships is often necessary before launching into bigger initiatives. Make haste slowly seems to work.
- It helps if NGO staff are familiar with academic work on the topic in question, and on the research methods deployed. Similarly if academic staff know, or have worked for NGOs, this can be very beneficial.
- Staff from both institutions having similar enough normative frames to avoid any major differences of opinion about the ultimate purpose of the exercise. Having similar understandings as to the depth of data gathering that are possible within the timelines envisaged can also help.
- Awareness from academic staff that there needs to be some flexibility in the nature of the outputs they produced, i.e. that outputs and processes other than academic articles and book chapters are required. Awareness from NGO staff that academics would need to use the data gathered over the course of research for academic articles, and follow clear ethics processes. Similarly there is a need to mutually understand and synchronise the ‘academic year’ and the ‘NGO year’ and priorities.
Partnerships with development agencies and activists may not be the most lucrative option for universities. However if universities see themselves as contributing to changing the world and not just understanding it, and in the process transforming themselves, then collaboration in this sphere might be highly strategic.
Chris Roche is Associate Professor and Chair in International Development at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Before this Chris was Director of Development Effectiveness at Oxfam Australian having previously been the International Program Director, and Head of the Program Policy Team at Oxfam Great Britain.