Revisiting the palaver tree

By Charlotte Karibuhoye, Director, MAVA West Africa Programme

Several words often come to mind when thinking about MAVA: federating, mobilising, unifying, … “But what does a donor have to do with that?” you may well ask. To caricature a little, isn’t a donor just supposed to receive requests for financing, analyse them and grant them? And then, of course, monitor how the funds granted are used until the end of the project or programme. Yes, except that MAVA considers itself a fully committed donor, and the idea of supporting communities of conservation partners in the various regions where we work, and beyond, has from the very outset, and even more so today, always been at the heart of what we do.

Did you say convening?

As part of our 2016–2022 strategy, we favour multi-partner projects, implemented through collaborative efforts on different levels (local, national and regional). However, in general and in these conditions in particular, bringing people together doesn’t happen by itself or seamlessly. It’s almost a second line of business, which calls for a deep understanding of the context, partners and issues, as well as attentive listening, a good dose of insight and tact.

From convenor to mediator …

Two years ago, when we launched the first multi-stakeholder workshops to develop action plans, one of the first benefits noticed by most of the partners involved (regardless of their region) was the opportunity for them, often for the first time, to gather around a table to talk, share and build something together! Even when working on the same topics (and even on the same sites), partners don’t always work together instinctively, due to lack of opportunities, time, interest, or resources.

In West Africa, these new collaborative approaches have sprung up not only around known or conventional conservation issues, but also around topics that are new for us or emerging (like managing offshore oil or gas pollution risks, managing coastal infrastructure or reducing the bycatch of marine species). This has involved discussions and negotiations on the most relevant objectives, the most promising approaches, the most ambitious yet realistic results and the strongest partnerships, among other things. It’s the palaver tree in its modern guise. Our role as a mediator is important for moving things forward and staying focused on what matters most: the objectives that we’ve identified together, since success isn’t the same for everyone.

Throughout this process, mistakes, oversights and omissions are only natural – nothing’s perfect: it’s a continual learning process for us and for all of our partners – a process in which we improve through practice. This is where the famous “Co” comes in: complementarity of contributors, collaboration and coordinated action, cohesion, coherence in implementation, and I nearly said “colidarity” – for solidarity is indeed called for. If one of the projects or partners fails to achieve its objectives, the whole action plan will be negatively affected.

… and advisor

Our deep knowledge of the context and stakeholders has made the task of pooling capacities and resources much easier for us, as we also have to be fully involved and contribute throughout the process alongside our partners.

One of the main challenges is to bring partners together, mediate and accompany them without imposing our choices on them or being tempted to do all the work ourselves: a difficult but indispensable exercise, if we want buy-in and, above all, actions that have a lasting impact! This is all the more true for MAVA, knowing that in less than five years from now, the foundation will cease operating.

What lessons can we learn from these first steps?

– Collaboration among stakeholders is not a given and even less so between “improbable partners”; it’s an ongoing learning process that requires perseverance, a lot of vigilance and caution. Isn’t there an old saying, “If you’re in a hurry, go slowly”?

– As old habits (for example, being tempted to go alone to go faster) die hard, it’s necessary to nourish and enrich collaborations to develop and maintain the right reflexes among all concerned. Effective communication, collaborative monitoring of implementation, and the sharing of successes and failures by all are needed.

– A partner once told us: “I have to admit that things were rather confusing for me at first, but once we’d clarified who should do what and how, everything became much easier”. It’s essential to define responsibilities and operational rules, and to clarify each partner’s role, in a transparent way. Formalising relationships among the various partners through protocols and conventions has proved very useful in this context.

– As a committed donor, our role as a facilitator and mediator not involved in implementation is crucial, in order to create and strengthen the community of stakeholders, provide any needed arbitration and help channel efforts towards common objectives, in a constructive atmosphere.

Now everything’s in place: there’s a clear strategy, action plans have been adopted, partnerships established, the monitoring system developed and projects launched. I’m looking forward to seeing how their implementation goes and what happens next on this exciting journey.

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to learn more about our work in West Africa:

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