Beads - Passion for Facilitation

Capacity development, learning, change, poverty/power/progress

Blog about learning/change, facilitation, systems: small groups and large scale processes, and poverty/power/progress.


The title slogan is not mine, but I remember reading in some of the partnership literature that ‘collaboration is not a marriage’. You don’t have to love each other. The whole point of collaboration is that each party has something unique to achieve and needs the other to do it. Of course it does help if the parties like each other. In case collaboration is expected to achieve better results, how can we realize more likability among organizations, especially when they have potentially conflicting goals and interests?


It is amazing to see how much people think they know about other organizations and how little they actually do know when it comes to it. In my experience, the very first thing to do when collaboration becomes necessary is to spend a bit of time to get to know each other. That is not so much about you explaining yourself to the other party, but more about you asking questions to get to know the other party. But I'm running ahead of the argument.


Is more collaboration necessary? Yes, I think it is. Look at climate change for instance. No single organization can make a difference that is large enough to face the climate change challenges. You may argue that coordination is the answer, and yes that is important too. But what does this mean? Are we looking for one coordinator who can coordinate the actions of all other organisations? Some governments certainly see themselves in that capacity, but the successful one’s have realized that it is not so much about coordinating the actions of others, but more about creating the space in which various organizations can listen to each other and adjust their actions, within a framework set by the government.


Collaboration is sometimes defined as ‘working together to achieve a goal'. I think that it is not correct. It is not about achieving one goal. Collaboration is about achieving multiple goals. Through collaboration all actors can achieve their goals, and these goals are certainly not the same (otherwise why have so many different organisations?). It’s just that without collaboration, the different organizations cannot achieve their own goal in the best possible way.


Let’s take a practical example to look at this. I had the honor of working with a group of advisors in SNV Vietnam who offered agriculture value chain analysis services to remote areas with high levels of poverty. The department of agricultural extension in one of Northern Vietnam’s provinces called on them to study how cardamom, grown in the highland forests where with high levels of poverty persist, could play a role in poverty reduction. The first problem was the law against forest exploitation. Work was done to demonstrate that with the proper care and harvesting techniques, both cardamom production and forest health could benefit. This involved farmers to harvest cardamom later than they currently did. Later harvesting was difficult, because there was a lot of theft in the remote forests. Farmers couldn’t afford to let the cardamom mature for fear of theft. At the same time, traders were heard complaining about the poor quality of cardamom. It was harvested too early, and this affected the price at which the traders could sell. Moreover, the cardamom collectors who bought from remote farmers would add water to increase the weight, so they would get more money for the same bag of cardamom. You can just imagine the mistrust existing among all these players, the farmers and their stealing neighbours, the collectors and the traders, the various government departments. SNV facilitated a process in which these actors could gradually begin to see that if they wanted to achieve their own goal, the only way forward was more collaboration.


  • If farmers wanted a better price, they needed to harvest later
  • If collectors wanted a growing business, they needed to stop buying stolen cardamom
  • If traders wanted better quality cardamom, they needed to stop buying early harvested cardamom from collectors who cheated them
  • If the agriculture department wanted to make a contribution to poverty reduction in the forest areas, they needed to find a way within the forest law


A few years later, the province boasts of a cardamom sector association in which each actor can achieve their own goal because they understand that what they do affects others, and what others do affects them. They have overcome their initial mistrust. They may still not love each other, but they respect each other, and that is enough to identify actions that enable all actors in the cardamom sector, as well as the forest, to thrive.


Effective collaboration does not require one common goal, it requires an understanding of how the work of your organization affects the work of others, and vice versa. More collaboration starts with the deep realization that you cannot truly achieve your goal by working on your own. You have to invest in understanding other organizations. Governments can provide the space where all actors can meet. An external facilitator can initiate and lead such multi-actor processes to a successful end. Facilitators ensure that all parties can hear each other and can be heard. Facilitators support parties to define new ways forward.


The world's problems need much more collaboration, and facilitation is a growing profession for good reason. For quality facilitators see for instance the growing International Association of Facilitators, which has country chapters all over the world.

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