Catalyst organizations are those whose focus is on implementing programs with community level involvement during projects and local feedback loops to inform post-project evaluations for impact self-sustainability. An excellent example of this is Partners for Democratic Change, whose stated mission is, “to build sustainable capacity to advance civil society and a culture of change and conflict management worldwide,” focusing on initiating democratic practices through an approach called Sustainable Impact Investing. The goal of this approach is to foster the capacity of in-country organizations to “deliver systematic change,” with a focus on development that, “is bottom-up, locally-led rather than foreign-led, based on the belief that change comes from sustainable efforts led by local people, organizations and institutions invested in their own long-term future.”
To implement this progressive and participatory vision for sustainable development, Partners’ founded 22 Centers for Change and Conflict Management between 1989-2011, initially in the regions of Eastern and Central Europe. They later expanded to other regions struggling with democratic sociopolitical change. Partners’ conducted its own ex-post evaluation that averaged the results of 55 case studies that led to positive significant outcomes. The takeaway resulted in three main sustainability lessons:
“The importance of investing in local partners and building their capacity to promote democratic change;
the most pressing development challenges facing the world need to be addressed in a participatory manner with the input and shared commitment of government, businesses and civil society, which requires local leaders with sophisticated skills in change and conflict management;
- and finally, the work of social entrepreneurs to make a difference in their own countries is strengthened and legitimated by technical and relational support from an international network of like-minded professionals facing similar challenges.”
With these objectives in mind, the greatest positive outcome that was observed occurred in almost 90% of the 55 stories. This outcome was that development and participation of civil society is most commonly achieved through, “education, training, mentoring, coaching, partnerships and coalition building, organizational development and capacity building, and creating and enabling environment that supports civil society development, such as passing NGO laws.” Further, in 80% of cases, there was advancement of good governance by influencing the participation of civil society working with government on the issues listed above, specifically free and fair elections, human rights protection, etc. Another 50% of the cases increased access to justice and managing and resolving disputes/conflicts, thereby strengthening civil society, and about 40% of the stories focused on promoting inclusive societies, improving majority-minority relations, and increasing leadership capacity for women and youth as agents for social change. The overall result of Partners’ efforts resulted in substantial impacts. Since 1991, the Centers have trained around 15,000 mediators and worked directly with more than 300,000 participants, benefitting an estimated total of 17.5 million people – and these are even considered to be conservative estimates. 22 total Centers had been established, and 18 still exist today with a success rate of 82%.
Yet the Centers still faced challenges, most notably in, “institutionalizing the processes they used to achieve results so that impact can be maximized and sustainable.” While the Centers effectively managed to implement collaborative and participatory methods to attain these successful outcomes, without the ability to institutionalize these processes in local communities and government institutions, the likelihood of sustainability is threatened.
Herein lies the importance of valuing local voices and participation, as it is clear that successful development initiatives depend on working with the community rather than on behalf of the community. Collaborative efforts between local participants and the international organizations that aim to enhance socioeconomic development in their communities results in both farther reaching and more sustainable outcomes than projects that ignore local feedback. Partners also does a great job bridging the objectives of building organizational capacity to sustain programming while also ValuingVoices of participants regarding how that capacity will be beneficial to them. There is an obvious need throughout the development community to follow the good examples made by Partners for Democratic Change in order to promote greater levels of participation on the path to sustainable development.