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By Dr. Leona Henry.

Cross-sector partnerships (CSPs) that operate in developing countries engage closely with local communities with the goal to build these communities’ capacity for action. As the work of these partnerships relies strongly on face-to-face interaction that cannot easily be transferred to online formats, my latest research project focused on how they have adapted their work during the pandemic. Through the generous support of The Partnering Initiative and the Hanns R. Neumann Foundation, I was able to talk to several actors involved in partnerships that work closely with coffee and tea smallholder communities in East-Africa, Indonesia and Central-America. In this blogpost, I share some of the key learning moments in terms of collaborating with local communities during unexpected crises.

  1. Stay involved, but differently

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, is that during unexpected external disruptions such as a global pandemic, CSPs might have to momentarily pause their main activities. Yet, this does not mean that CSPs should no longer be involved with communities. On the contrary, my research revealed that during the pandemic CSPs became one of the most important actors to inform local communities about the virus and to provide them with the necessary protective equipment. While several CSPs might have initially struggled with this new task of health care provision, their continuous presence and their efforts were vital for communities’ long-term well-being and for their own ability to pick up their activities quickly. Thus, rather than pulling out of activities altogether, CSP managers should be prepared to take over some tasks which might be novel to them, yet which are vital in sustaining community engagement during unexpected crises.

  1. Find new, innovative ways of communicating

Access restrictions and safety measures made it challenging for CSPs to access local communities. Especially in the beginning months, several CSPs were largely cut off from communities, making it difficult stay close and to provide support. Yet, by developing innovative ideas they were able to remain close from a distance. Some great examples I saw in this regard include the development of an innovative radio broadcast for youth based on recorded Whatsapp messages to keep them informed about the pandemic and the relevant safety measures. To be able to continue farmer trainings, one of the partnerships in this study introduced the idea of “phone farming”, which implied that farmer trainings were continued via Whatsapp. Other partnerships have also successfully started to use mobile apps for support, created short videos for community members, or simply handed out posters and flyers to signal their presence. Thus, in times in which proximity is challenged, CSPs must, and can, leverage innovative solutions to stay close to communities.

  1. Take the time to reflect on future resilience

A crisis such as the pandemic raises questions about future resilience of partnerships. One aspect which seems particularly important in terms of resilience building is the above-mentioned potential to integrate technology into operating procedures. Technology can help CSPs to engage more efficiently on the long-term with community members, for example by reaching a wider audience or by connecting more easily with young community members. At the same time, when introducing technologies, my research also showed that CSPs must be careful that those with restricted access to these technologies do not get left behind. Another important aspect that surfaced in my research is the ability for CSPs to create flexible funding structures. If CSPs manage to re-locate their financial resources quickly, they prove to be more resilient and more likely to be of value for local communities during unexpected crises. While most CSPs have found their way through the pandemic and might even have discovered some innovative new solutions for themselves, this does not imply that we should forget about it and move on quickly. Rather, I would urge actors such as CSP managers at this very point to reflect on the past months and ask the following questions: What can we learn from the pandemic in terms of organizing ourselves more efficiently? How can we design our partnership structures to accommodate for the fact that something similar might happen again?

All in all, my research suggests that the pandemic has the potential to threaten CSPs’ ability to remain close to local communities. At the same time, it has shown how CSPs can be highly adaptive to abrupt changes, and some CSPs have “bounced back” to become even more resilient and efficient than they were before.


Dr Leona HenryAs part of the TPI Viewpoints series, we are delighted to share this blog written by Dr. Leona Henry who is a senior research associate at the Reinhard Mohn Institute of Management (University Witten/Herdecke). Her research focuses on cross-sector collaboration in the context of sustainability and sustainable development. In this blog she shares some preliminary insights from a study on cross-sector partnerships and COVID-19.

If you have any questions about this research or are interested to find out more about her work, feel free to contact Leona via LinkedIn:



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