A slow, reciprocal approach. People meet, they get to know each other, they learn to exchange a few words in someone else’s language. Along the way, they might even make a few clumsy mistakes. But it starts something that hadn’t been there before. Those who follow sustainability initiatives around the world sum up these relationships, work and connections with one word that they have in common: partnership. Whether it comes to training doctors in Mozambique or farmers in Nigeria, digging wells in Ghana or clearing mines in Angola, the types of projects that require working side by side with other people are many. They come in various types of situations and involve different stakeholders: civil society organisations, the UN or national agencies, ministries, development banks, small local businesses or hyperglobal figures. How can we make them work, to bring together voices and instruments that are so completely different so that they can all play the same tune? Why is partnership so important that it is listed as one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals? In short, what is the value of working together?
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To understand this, we need to take a step back and examine a significant change that occurred in recent history. It dates back to 2008, at the beginning of the financial crisis; more specifically, to the first wave of the crisis. Among its many global effects, it made an impact on international cooperation, which, in broad strokes, can be summarised as follows: a noticeable cut in government funding, only offset in part by the entry of new players (such as China, among others). More urgent requests were made to individuals to get them involved as private donors.
Such was the revitalised global partnership that emerged from the Addis Ababa Conference held in 2015. It was an obvious change in course that all key players experienced in their own way. Many businesses started to finance the projects of governments and international institutions, but that was all they did. Eni went down a different path: it chose not only to finance, but also to do things together. It chose to carry out many social activities related directly to its business contracts, which begin when agreements are signed abroad, and they often include projects aimed at the sustainability of the region. It not only supported things that were run by others, but it also collaborated directly.
Eni: a long history of collaboration
It was no small choice. In part, it’s a question of its DNA: if you re-examine Eni’s actions abroad, even during Enrico Mattei’s time, there were significant traces of an approach oriented not only towards business, but also towards a deep knowledge of the context in which it operated, the relationships that served as its foundation, and its needs. It adopted a particular view of the world, one which, in certain respects, it still holds today. A partnership is a relationship, and that means bringing out the best in someone to put it at the service of others; not only at the service of the population, because in the context of globalization, it is essential to build relationships with the entire local ecosystem. Expanding that view and involving others becomes a significant factor.
Take what was done in Nigeria as an example. Usually, sustainability efforts take place where a company operates, where there are plans and facilities. This wasn’t the case in Nigeria. An agreement with the FAO and the government gave permission to dig water wells not for the citizens of the Niger delta, but for those who live in the northeast of the country, where Boko Haram’s militias and the water emergency of Lake Chad are located. The FAO said it needed wells in that area, and Eni made them there, bringing its facilities and technical skills.
Another case to consider is Angola, where Eni collaborates with local NGO ADPP to develop agriculture. USAID decided to issue a call for tenders to finance proposals on women’s empowerment. ADPP participated with its joint agricultural project and won. The result? Its initial budget grew threefold.
Working together can certainly mean having less control compared to working alone. Sometimes it’s difficult to strike a balance. People need to know each other, understand each other. It’s a slow approach between two worlds that speak different languages and have different driving factors. But this way of working has mutual benefits when at the beginning of a project you can say, “Ok, we’ll work in this country. Who’s there? An international body? Cooperation agencies? A faith-based organisation?” You have to start studying what they do, to understand if a partnership is possible and what kind of projects you can work on together. It’s an innovative approach.
A special structure was created to further develop it. An NGO-like structure was set up within Eni that can more easily communicate with the cooperative world and use the same tools. For example, it creates development plans for each country which are updated periodically. The FAO makes a Country Fact Sheet. Eni has a Country Strategic Plan, and every four years it shares what it wants to do there. It runs continuous scouting efforts to find the best counterparts for the situation. It’s not easy, because the landscape is varied: there are international bodies, like the UN and its affiliates; national cooperation agencies; European bodies; development banks, like the World Bank, the African Development Bank and others. And there is more, including faith-based organisations, universities, research centres, etc. Each of them has local affiliates. Beyond this is the world of civil society organisations and various NGOs. In 2020, Eni signed agreements with four of the largest NGOs (Amref, CUAMM, AVSI and VIS) to launch joint projects, but the vetting continues.
In Ghana: access to clean cooking
Plus, there are of course relationships to be built on the ground, which is what happened in Ghana. Eni only recently arrived there, so it’s easier. Everything has to be built more or less from scratch. Development activities span over four sectors: access to water, education, economic diversification and clean cooking. Everything is built through partnerships, whether through an international agency or local player.
Here’s one example: a project to promote clean cooking, which means using non-polluting methods to cook. Wood or coal stoves lead to millions of deaths per year globally. In a case like this, you have to understand immediately who the counterparts are. You need to humbly map out how everything works. Without thinking about being the first to get there, but keeping in mind that an ecosystem exists, that there’s something else going on there.
In Ghana, this led to an agreement with the National Board for Small Scale Industries, a para-governmental agency that offers training. There was a reciprocal exchange of entrepreneurial ideas in the fields of interest, and the World Bank was involved. There is a goal to work together and satisfy everyone’s intentions: test alternative approaches in rural areas and promote clean cooking. In the search for additional partners, the Ghana Alliance for Clean Sources and Fuels, similar to a local trade association for the sector, was discovered. And initial results were achieved: 600 clean stoves were provided to as many families in Ellembelle, in the west of the country. However, it’s a complex system. A special type of alignment is needed, and it must include trade partners with whom business can be done in the country. It would be unthinkable to act without their agreement. In the end, however, the method or road that is chosen is what really makes the difference, the weaving of relationships, the sewing and mending of stitches.
Empathizing with partners
AVSI is starting an educational project in Mexico. It’s only in the fledgling phase, but it looks promising. In Kenya, a business accelerator is underway: the E4Impact Foundation, together with the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, is incubating almost 40 start-ups (some of which are run by women).
Building partnerships as a company or as a partner is different. Eni has a business plan behind it, and this also means dealing with operational solutions for things like pipes, pumps and excavation. You have to grapple with aspects of real-life. Take what happened in Ghana, for example. A pipe that was supposed to bring water to villages would have to cross through a cemetery at one point. This wasn’t indicated in the plan. There was a discussion with local figures, an agreement was made, and its path was altered to cross at a different point. The cemetery was also closed off. It’s a simple story, but it shows what it means to do this work while keeping an open mind to the other party.
The author: Davide Perillo
Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L' Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.
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