(Internews project in Gaza - Souktel - is a case study in this new set of guidelines.)
By Jacob Korenblum
When disaster strikes, the ability to reach victims quickly, and at scale, is key to saving lives. Yet in most crisis zones, the reality is frustrating: The key players are in place; they’re just not talking to each other.
At one end of the table sit aid agencies with significant knowledge and experience—but often lacking robust outreach channels. On the other side sit mobile networks, who can reach almost every corner of a country—even after a hurricane or explosion—but who lack a deep understanding of crisis response. In the absence of good guidelines for working together, these groups often don’t—and the ability to save millions of people is put at risk.
To bridge this gap, GSMA Disaster Response and Souktel have unveiled an ambitious new guide: “Building Effective Partnerships In Complex Environments.” It’s a first-ever resource to help mobile network operators join forces with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) more rapidly and effectively.
The guide begins by breaking down myths about the aid and telecoms sectors – such as:
- “The private sector is all the same”
- “The NGO sector is slow, it takes ages to get anything done”
- “Mobile Operators are not working to support humanitarian initiatives”
- “We can’t partner with them, they have a different operating model/values than us”
- “We have to wait until an emergency to work together”
Mobile networks, we learn, are as diverse as the countries where they operate—and many have specific teams dedicated to crisis response. NGOs, in turn, often have rapid-response funds and processes which let them move quickly after a disaster.
The guide then offers a real-world checklist of best practices, gathered from consultations with mobile operators like Ooredoo, hardware leaders like Ericsson, and non-profits like Internews. This is a hands-on resource, not abstract analysis: The guide includes ready-to-use Partnership Agreement templates, and a printable summary of the “Ten Commandments” for effective partnering.
- Timing – Start partnership conversations as early as possible, ideally prior to crisis/disaster
- Manage expectations – Understand the industry/sector you want to partner with, both their strengths and limitations
- Mutual benefit – Do you benefit from this partnership? Do your partners benefit? If the answer is no, is there a compelling reason to proceed? Define this
- Sustainability or exit strategy – Build in sustainability for greater impact, develop an exit strategy to preserve positive impacts and positive partner relationships
- Clearly defined roles and responsibilities – Understand what your role and that of your partners
- Evidence for partnership need – Why is the partnership necessary? Avoid partnerships for the sake of partnerships
- ‘Language’ barriers – Overcome barriers caused by misunderstanding
- Financial support – If the success of the partnership depends on financial input, directly or in-kind from partners, highlight this prior to commencing
- Partnering agreements – Record the agreement to capture its details and ensure signoff
- Review with honesty – Review partnerships at regular intervals to make sure intended inputs are translating to required outcomes. If they aren’t, react and adapt
Successful partnerships between MNOs and NGOs are those which at their foundation are beneficial to both partners, leveraging the subject matter expertise and content of the humanitarian sector and pairing it with the core communication competency and scale that mobile operators possess.
As extreme weather events persist, and as bombings continue in cities from Lahore to Beirut, the need for aid providers and mobile networks to work together is only growing. These guidelines answer key questions and dispel doubts; now we must act on them.