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Corporate partnerships - can they create long-term change?

By Caroline Overton, Senior Associate, Allen & Overy London 



After two overnight long-haul flights we emerged from the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam. Washed-out, we smacked against a wall of tropical heat. Inching through rush hour traffic in the Amref minibus, we took in the melee of textures, colour and vibrant life playing out around us. Cheery chaps convincing us to buy knitted hats and scarves in national colours, serene ladies gliding gracefully past with fruit balanced upon their heads, tuck tucks weaving hazardously between pavement and highway. Here we were, eight representatives from four global offices of Allen & Overy LLP, keen to see for ourselves what had been achieved through our firm’s two year partnership with Amref to promote sexual and reproductive health education amongst young people in rural communities. 

Whilst the vibrant metropolis of Dar felt a world away from our various Allen & Overy global offices, we were soon to experience culture shock mark two. We flew to Mwanza on the banks of Lake Victoria, and then continued our journey by land cruisers. After an hour the tarmac roads stopped. We kept driving for another few hours into the rural district of Meatu. Bouncing around in the air-conditioned capsules, our drivers navigated the bumpy obstacle course between cows, goats and potholes. Each time a vehicle passed a dust storm rose, briefly obliterating the surroundings. The parched river beds and dirt tracks thirsted for the imminent rainy season.
Why would an international law firm funnel its resources into this remote region? With such a dispersed rural community, is partnering with Amref the most effective way to make the most meaningful long term impact? Would simply writing a cheque to a mega-charity and leaving them to it be better all round? Over the following days as we visited the projects and beneficiaries, I began to understand what makes a partnership like this so successful.

Firstly, the partner charity is an expert in the field of public health. Amref is the largest African-based medical charity and is led by doctors from the region. These inspiring individuals understand the root issues in the communities and the need for sustainable activity in order to bring about long-term change.

No programme is reactionary, but all are instead planned with a sensitive eye to long-term sustainability with a deep understanding of the health needs of each community. 
Secondly, every activity funded by the partnership is built on the foundation of local ownership. That’s to say, it is through the beneficiaries having ownership of the project and drumming up interest and excitement that it achieves results. For example, sexual and reproductive health do not feature on the school curriculums, and pregnancy typically leads to expulsion from school and the end of formal education for a girl. We were privileged to visit Neng’obhoko Secondary School and celebrate the achievements of the Seguro Health Club. The pupils took membership very seriously, and designed creative ways to educate their peers on sexual and reproductive health issues. There have been no expulsions since the club was introduced. We had small breakout sessions in single sex groups where we discovered first-hand how low the bar was in terms of knowledge, yet how great the commitment and desire was to learn more. The school had ownership of this programme, we could sense their pride in its success and we could appreciate how this programme could outlive the duration of any formal partnership and continue to provide vital education to the students.
Thirdly, the projects worked on the basis long-term change is built through on-going relationships rather than short term investment. We visited a health facility at Mwabuzo. At the start of the project 18 months previously, members of the local Taturu ethnic group had been asked to identify their community’s development needs. They had responded with a request for clean water so as to be able to wash their instruments to perform female genital mutilation on their young girls and reduce the risk of infection. Through the project, a deeper relationship was created with this group. In June this year Amref representatives learnt that a cutting festival was due to be held imminently, with 16 teenage girls due to be cut. Through their relationship with the community elders, Amref were able to engage and educate the leaders and parents as to the short and long-term traumatic health consequences of the practice, how it breaches a girl’s right to bodily integrity, and why it should no longer form a part of their traditional and cultural practices. As a result, the local elders agreed to cancel the planned event and not to cut their girls. Community change of this nature requires generational commitment, with the next generation of girls also choosing to abandon the practice of FGM. There has to be long-term community relationships to support this magnitude of change.
And finally, we appreciated that partnerships don’t have to be financial in nature. While we are proud of the financial support the firm has been able to raise, we were able to view the valuable contribution that had been made by our firm’s lawyers using their professional skills. The firm produced an advocacy toolkit for the Amref project managers to enable them to better advocate for changes in sexual and reproductive healthcare at all levels of government and establishment. Amref hope to share this toolkit with other charities engaged in similar work, and so contribute to the broader skills set of the local charitable sector engaged in this sector.
There is a well-known African proverb that goes: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  While a partnership involves time, effort and commitment on both sides, we were left in no doubt that this method of working is an effective way to produce long-term results, it can bring together finances, skills and local expertise, and the foundations laid will produce lasting and meaningful change.

By the end of the Allen & Overy / Amref partnership, 170,000 young people will have been reached in Handeni and Meatu, Tanzania. Take a look at this short video documenting our achievements.