Empowering Local Change: GE and Partners for Democratic Change

May 31, 2013 12:15 PM ET

Local entrepreneurs are the key to capacity-building for Washington, DC–based NGO Partners for Democratic Change.

Few organizations, global or domestic, operate in the remote tribal regions of Yemen, the most deprived areas of the poorest country in the Middle East. Here, a lack of education and services engenders a youth susceptible to violence and tribal conflicts, and competing over scarce resources makes any interaction, already fraught with tension, even more incendiary. Feuds are commonplace. Terrorism thrives; “Al-Qaeda is luring young men with offers of money,” says Wardah, a woman leader working with Partners-Yemen. “They make terrorists out of people,” she says. “Al-Qaeda will spread if we don’t learn to stand up to them.”

Rule of law is a particular challenge in areas like these, especially when the hotbeds of rampant instability are so remote. But the need to build a foundation for stability, growth and prosperity is urgent when the stakes are so high. “Development is not possible in our area until there is stability, and stability is only possible if conflicts are resolved,” says Yasmine, another leader. “People want change,” her colleague Misk continues. “But they need a guide.”

Partners for Democratic Change, a Washington, DC–based NGO and GE Foundation grantee, takes a unique approach to providing such a guide to areas like tribal Yemen that might fall out of reach of traditional aid organizations. Like other organizations, Partners promotes conflict resolution and “change management” to help bring much-needed development to remote areas—but it sets itself apart in how it fully localizes its approach to the socio-economic conditions of each country in which it has operations.

In fact, Partners’ entire model is about building local capacity and leadership; it understands that, in order to be sustainable, responses to the world’s most pressing development challenges require the input and shared commitment of government, businesses and civil society.

For Partners, the key to unlocking and mobilizing these local stakeholders lies in what they call “social entrepreneurs”—local leaders who want to build institutions that contribute positively to social and democratic change. Instead of approaching each country with static solutions in hand, Partners focuses on these entrepreneurs as catalysts, teaching them critical skills—like conflict resolution methods, consensus-building processes, and change management techniques—that they can adapt to their local contexts. These empower them to solve the complex issues in their own communities, all while being strengthened and legitimized by the global network of over 200 practitioners that Partners has built.

GE and the GE Foundation have worked actively with Partners in recent years to support these locally operating chapters, known as Partners Centers for Change and Conflict Management, through the Sustainable Leadership Program (SLP). Beginning with a grant in 2008 and continuing with a second grant in 2011, GE’s investments have enabled Partners to establish new independent Partners Centers in Brazil, Colombia, Senegal, Serbia and Yemen. Local GE staff in each of these countries help them build private-sector relationships and convene dialogues around the serious reforms that are needed in many cases.

The Centers employ more than 50 local staff members, have raised more than $12 million in additional funds from more than 25 donors to support their work, and, as members of Partners’ international network of Centers, are already contributing knowledge and lessons learned for other Centers and good governance practitioners. The funding is also now being utilized to measure the broader impact of Partners’ localized model.

“What makes Partners unique is the entrepreneurial nature of its business model,” said Karan Bhatia, Vice President, Global Government Affairs & Policy for GE. “It has been quite effective in adopting localized approaches to promoting political and social conditions that allow for economic development.,” he continued “We’re excited to learn more about the wider impact of this approach and to assess its scalability. The more we can empower local communities to promote stability from within, the more effective our global efforts to promote rule of law and transparency will be.”

The SLP is growing; Partners will establish two new Centers, in Libya and El Salvador, next. The ripple effect of channeling change through local catalysts continues to demonstrate the value of promoting personal agency and participatory approaches in advancing democratic change.

Back in Yemen, the local team focused on empowering women in conflict management and resolution efforts. Partners trained 75 women; this initial group recruited 800 female volunteers, who hosted 8,000 community meetings, which in turn reached more than 127,000 women. In Wardah’s case, the mediation skills she learned helped her defuse a tribal conflict and keep it from escalating into a full-blown feud. But there are tons of stories just like Wardah’s, which you can learn more about in the video above.

“Many women have changed as a result of this program,” she explains. “One change is that people started to send their daughters to schools.”

Read about Partners for Democratic Change and their work with GE and the GE Foundation on the GE Citizenship website.