Unholy marriage, sacred partnership

04 Dec 2015
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Secrets of successful collaboration between academic and civil partners

Two completely different characters working closely together is surely a recipe for disaster. But not in the CoCooN partnerships. This ‘unholy marriage’ between academics and practitioners has really hit the target, although it did go through some rocky times during a problematic honeymoon. Future pacts can learn from the CoCooN experience. In this article we offer some guidance by presenting important lessons and tools for avoiding a troubled relationship or, even worse, a premature divorce.

What can we expect from a research programme that connects academic methodologies with civil practice in a completely new transnational and transdisciplinary fashion? At best, we can expect an abundance of insightful results for both researchers and practitioners, but at least an inspiring set of experiences from a diverse group of people. In 2010 six research consortia entered into a remarkable commitment to work together intensively for four years according to the CoCooN method. At that time the CoCooN approach was new and unique. A group of scientists and civil society organizations working together in one research group investigating conflicts over natural resources presented a considerable challenge. And there was more. The teams were international, with academics from different disciplines and civil partners both from the North and the global South.

Fragile love

GOMIAM - Pollution benzdorpThe marriage between the different consortium partners could perhaps better be described as a fragile love that quickly encountered its limitations. After all, academics and practitioners are used to working in very different ways. One of the main difficulties the research groups encountered was one of timeframes. Whereas academics tend to work with timeframes of several years, NGOs and civil groups want action to be taken on their urgent problems straight away. During the early stages many of the NGO members accused the academic partners of being slow. ‘The researchers initially had their heads in their own long-term research project, whereas our community needed instant answers,’ said NGO member Vriddhagiri Vivekanandan from the REINCORPFISH project during the recent CoCooN Xchange. The researchers were not able to give any of the desired answers instantly, a problem that echoed the NGOs’ earlier experiences with the academic world. Not surprisingly, many of the academics had their opinions about the NGOs as well. Researcher Sheila Catarina da Silva Sens from the LAR project on land-grabbing explained: ‘Initially, the NGOs and communities had unrealistically high expectations from us. They wanted me to prove their opinion on the conflict and they wanted it very quickly.’ Researchers were often unable to live up to these expectations, which led to dissatisfaction about the partnership among many of the participating groups. The important first lesson, therefore, is that time, patience and realistic mutual expectations are needed right from the start if disappointment is to be avoided.

Respect differences of opinion

Despite this, the mood during the final conference of the CoCooN programme was anything but downbeat. In fact, excitement and positivity prevailed. What happened after the tough initial phase? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that CoCooN is a Dutch programme, based on a specific method of cooperation common in the Netherlands – the Dutch art of polderen (from ‘polder’, the word for reclaimed land surrounded by dikes), which was born out of the need to work together to prevent flooding. All the parties involved, whether they like each other or not, must sit down together at a roundtable discussion. Of crucial importance is that all parties can express their views on the matter. Respect for each other’s concerns and ideas is the basis for working to resolve the initial friction. Although this ideology did not prove to be directly applicable in a Southern context, a willingness to listen to one another, understand each other’s views and respect differences was often mentioned as the key to successful collaboration. As one of the debate groups concluded in a presentation during the CoCooN Xchange, ‘Differences are not really a problem at all; we just have to mutually accept them.’

Break down boundaries, share roles

Reincorpfish project in South East AsiaWhen the mutual differences were accepted, the unusual marriage could enter a fruitful phase. And from this phase we have identified more elements to fill our toolbox for successful collaboration.

To return to the difference in timeframe, a common frustration among action-oriented NGOs is that researchers are unwilling to publish anything about an ongoing project. This problem can be side-stepped by simply allowing NGOs to publish their own non-academic work. The researchers can provide initial results and help them with the reasoning and writing. By improving the quality and validity of the work published by the NGOs, the researchers will help them and local communities to make more effective representations to policymakers and legal institutions.

In turn, academics who are open to the often undocumented and non-standardized knowledge of local communities can gain access to a wealth of information and expertise. They would not have been able to access that knowledge without the mediation of their partner NGOs, which enjoy a degree of trust they could never achieve. The results of the six research groups clearly show that the researchers benefited greatly from collaborating with their partner NGOs.

The main tool for successful cooperation, therefore, is not to look at the differences between partners. The general consensus was that researchers, NGOs and local communities can complement and strengthen each other, as long as they listen to each other and accept differences of opinion. As in a real marriage, the partners then also start to appreciate and adopt some of each other’s characteristics. ‘In time, you start to look a bit more like each other,’ Tim van Boekhout said. Academics became part practitioners, and practitioners started to work in a more academic fashion.

Opportunity or threat?

Despite all the positive sounds, some blind spots also emerged. One of the researchers did not like the marriage metaphor at all. Instead of a marriage, in which he pictured partners looking more alike over time, he preferred to speak of a team, in which each player has their own tasks and responsibilities. Academics owe their reputation to addressing a situation in an objective and independent manner. A too-intense affair with local activism can undermine this authority. His lesson for our toolbox is that adaptation is good, but a full merger is not. Another self-reflection heard during the conference was about the internal diversity of the consortia – or the lack of it. Despite representing a range of academic disciplines, the consortia partners often had a similar mindset and a common goal. Parties with a real critical stand towards the interests of NGOs, for example, were often not involved. Would their involvement be welcome to ensure a higher level of neutrality? The value of potential partners should be assessed before they are invited to take part. For example, NGOs are valuable for academic research when they can broker local connections. As the earlier examples have shown, NGOs often functioned as a link between academics and local communities, but if NGOs cannot assist in building up such structures, they may be of limited value. Of course, they can be a useful asset in other ways too.

Appreciate your partner, be yourself

Jatropha project in GhanaA successful CoCooN partnership is one in which each of the participants has their own special function. Examples of contributive roles we have seen are observer, patroller and intermediary. But criticaster could also be considered a valuable asset to a partnership. All these functions contribute to the result, as long as no participants consider themselves superior to the others. Mutual understanding and willingness to contribute to achieving each other’s objectives is the way forward in such a relationship. It allows all parties to continue working on conflict resolution in a more comprehensive manner, even after their unavoidable divorce. Combined with the insights from the upcoming final reports, the lessons from this article can help to shape future CoCooN-like projects, like the CCMCC climate change projects currently halfway through their life and the more recent Knowledge Platforms of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The CoCooN partnerships may not last for ever, but the enhanced insights gained by all the partners will.

Blog written by Remmelt de Weerd of The Broker



  • 05 Dec 2015

    at 10:11 Jolanda van den Berg, researcher at WUR-LEI wrote

    Action oriented and joint learning approaches, like CoCooN, are much needed in science! Such cooperation does require upfront thinking and mutual agreement on the level of participation and capacity building. It also needs a flexible positioning of the research activities in multi-stakeholder processes in order to ensure a methodology most fit for evolving issues-at-stake and the surrounding socio-political context. Respecting each others visions and ideas, and willingness to listen one another, is not something that comes natural. Transdisciplinary research consortia, and in particular in situations and of distrust and conflict, therefore need to opt for a reflexive approach (see for example in van Paassen and van den Berg et al, 2011)

    Jolanda v/d Berg (Researcher at WUR-LEI)


  • 07 Dec 2015

    at 08:42 Omar Zayed, Water resource expert at Palestinian Water Authority wrote

    It was good to have this combination between academics and practitioners, the south and north, as well as the involvement of NGO’s. In the Palestinian case, the things were different from the other cases since we are dealing with occupation power that does not accept the other partner in equivalent manner.
    The policy in our case plays an important role in controlling the situation (management of the groundwater resources). In addition to the visible wall (separation wall which was built by Israel, and was declared illegal in the peace palace in the Hauge), there was invisible walls appears out of the agreement signed between the Palestinians and Israelis (Oslo agreement).
    What resulted from the agreement is the establishment of the Joint Water Committee (JWC). The main purpose of this committee is to enforce cooperation between the two parties in managing the water resources, which is considered to be shared, in a sustainable manner, and equity, but the inequality of power and the mentality of the occupation by not accepting the other as equivalent partner changes the purpose of the JWC to be a conflict instead of cooperation.
    This situation put the Palestinians in a position that they should manage their water resources in a collaborative manner, through working hand by hand with the NGO’s and the academics, and with the involvement of the entire society members.

    Omar Zayed, Water resource expert at Palestinian Water Authority


  • 07 Dec 2015

    at 11:27 Daniëlle Hirsch, Director Both ENDS wrote

    I recognize many aspects from the article. In my opinion, mutual acceptance and understanding for each others vision is essential in every cooperation. I also appreciate the relevance of the Dutch ‘poldermodel’ which provides an interesting approach to cooperation and negotiation. In case of Cocoon, when we listen to all experiences, it has worked quite well.

    I miss one crucial factor of the success of all Cocoon cooperation, which is essential for a truly effective ‘polder’ approach : equality of influence and power between the different stakeholders. I truly believe that this is an essential factor of success which has been integrated from the start in the selection criteria for Cocoon financing and its decision making system, as well as its management of the different research projects and external communication.

    This may all sound quite logical, but unfortunately it isn’t. In many programs and funding initiatives, these conditions are not guaranteed although pretend to promote multi-stakeholder processes. Even today, in the Netherlands, many processes that are dubbed as ‘poldermodel’ have become less effective because of the power inequities between the stakeholders sitting around the negotiation table.

    Cocoon’s conviction that all stakeholders are equal deserves our respect and should be an example for the greater research community if it truly has an interest in working with civil society and businesses to effectively contribute to the transition to a more sustainable and fair world.

    Daniëlle Hirsch, Director Both ENDS


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