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From Global to Local: Partnerships Are Critical to Success

February 08, 2013

(Nancy E. Roman is president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank, which she joined in January 2013 after serving as director of public/private partnerships and communications at the United Nations' World Food Programme. Prior to joining WFP, Roman was vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.)

Headshot_nancy_romanMoving from a job with the World Food Programme -- the world's largest humanitarian agency -- to the Capital Area Food Bank, a local NGO, has afforded me a bright-line look at the advantages and challenges of global versus local. The global humanitarian arena allows for scale but little flexibility or agility. The local environment allows for just the reverse: we move swiftly, like a speedboat, toward the problem but must depend on others to scale up our best solutions and practices. But one common theme emerges for both: the importance of partnerships.

Whether tackling hunger or clean water, disease eradication, literacy, or social justice, solutions to the great humanitarian and social problems of our day have eluded us. Both global and local hunger persist, despite the heroic efforts of many. And from both global and local vantage points, it becomes ever clearer that we urgently need to collaborate more effectively with our partners to meet the challenges we face.

For millennia, the human race has been finding ways to help others in need. But addressing social problems through agencies designed and built to tackle particular problems is a relatively new phenomenon. The International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863, is one of the earliest. United Nations organizations such as UNICEF and the WFP are but fifty years old. Many of the largest and best-known NGOs are even more recent players. Founded in 1980, the Capital Area Food Bank was created to end hunger in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Unfortunately, over the last thirty-three years, the need has not diminished. Poverty is on the rise, in our region and nationally. Indeed, we have witnessed a 25 percent increase in hunger since the beginning of the economic downturn in 2008. Today, more than 680,000 individuals, including 200,000 children, in the District of Columbia, northern Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland look to us for help. And while the ranks of the working poor are growing, the middle class is also under stress, as many people who have never needed emergency food services find themselves at the doors of our neighborhood partner agencies and food pantries, which depend on CAFB for food and household items.

There was a time when many of us looked forward to ending the scourge of hunger, poverty, and homelessness. But as days become months and months become years, these stubborn social problems have outlasted our commitment, our resources, and sometimes even our compassion. So we ask: Given that these problems are overwhelming and persistent, might not we fight them more effectively in partnership rather than alone? If that's the case, how can we maximize impact through collaboration? And how should we think about these critical relationships?

At WFP, it became abundantly clear that our work, once deemed the purview of "donor governments," required a broader set of players. Back then, I was focused on engaging the private sector, in particular, to join with government and civil society to more effectively reach hungry people around the world. During my five years with the UN, our unconventional thinking about public-private partnerships became conventional wisdom, as governments began to embrace the idea that they, too, needed partners -- not just for additional funding but for the expertise that private-sector partners often are uniquely positioned to provide. As the UN partnered with Fortune 500 companies and governments to take on child malnutrition, the process of coordinating the work was always harder than we'd initially thought -- yet always turned out to be more worthwhile than we'd expected.

At CAFB, our partners include not only private companies such as Marriott and philanthropic entities like the Philip L. Graham Fund, but also hundreds of nonprofits, from local churches to area YMCAs to Martha's Table, Bread for the City, and other community groups. In working with these partners, however, we have come to realize that it is not enough to address immediate needs in our communities; we must also find ways to create a long-term plan to collaboratively and systematically tackle the problems we face.

To that end, I have just completed a round of conversations with forty or fifty agencies that are working with us to combat hunger in the region. CAFB's role is to provide our partners with leadership, expertise, training, and food resources to meet the needs of children, seniors, and families in their areas of service. But as we think through the challenges of how to do this effectively, we are also mapping the food insecurity needs and the reach of our and our many partners' efforts. When that effort is completed, we will be better positioned to empower and support the community agencies best suited to address these challenges.

Just like leaders in the humanitarian aid field, we grapple with how best to work with our partners. Collaboration and information sharing is critical if we are to repair and weave stronger social safety nets that contribute to sustainable reductions in hunger, preventable diseases, and a host of other pressing problems.

We realize that collaboration, to be effective, will require an understanding of the comparative advantages of our various partners. It may also require bringing them together more often -- not just to share best practices, but to plan better. Finally, it may require demanding answers to tough questions from all of us. Questions like: Which solutions are most effective? Which should be scaled first? Which should be phased out?

In the end, the best solutions are likely to be implemented street by street, block by block, one community at a time. At CAFB, we're convinced that working with our partners to understand what works best and then to share best practices and scale solutions as we work toward our collective goals will make it more likely we achieve them.

-- Nancy Roman

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