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Tips for international collaboration

08 may 2019

How do you strengthen international collaborations and work together on an equal footing? And how do you measure the impact of your project within complex contexts? On Friday 12 April, in Mono Rotterdam, the 28 teams currently selected under the Creative Industries Fund NL's 'Inclusive Cities and Societies' programme shared their insights and the lessons learned in these areas.

The teams were selected for the Turkey, Russia, Egypt and Morocco Open Call #1 or Open Call #2. All 28 projects focus on creating new relationships between street culture, identity and public space as well as between the city and the countryside. Eleven teams started their full project last year, while the other teams, selected for the second open call, have just begun the initial pre-research phase. The aim of the session was to learn from each other, to find out more about effects and impact and to exchange experiences concerning the international projects and collaboration.

instructive workshop
Together with Phil Compernolle, strategy and impact advisor, the Fund prepared a workshop session as part of the impact framework developed for the entire four-year programme. In four groups (one per country), the teams shared and discussed challenges they have faced so far, how they responded and what they would have done differently in retrospect. To fuel the discussion, a short partnership survey was sent to all Dutch and main local partners as preparation. Some main local partners were also presented through short videos.

recommendations for international collaborations
More than 75% of the teams mentioned in the partnership survey are intending to continue the collaboration in the future. The main reasons for collaboration for both the Dutch and international partners are to learn from each other and to achieve the project results. The challenges mentioned very much relate to the typical issues of a long-distance relationship. Examples are: dealing with challenges in communications (across borders and time zones), culture (the notions of time or meaning of things) and time management (aligning schedules). Collaboration with other stakeholders was also mentioned as a challenge. However, the teams also shared various hands-on solutions and recommendations with each other for building a successful and trusting international partnership.

Here is a quick summary and 9 tips on international collaboration given by the teams:
1. Take the time to get to know partners and build trust
Explore the richness of your partners and try to achieve project outcomes as a two-way experience for both sides. Trust and a good personal relationship between the core members in both countries are crucial. For example, in situations where conversations are in another language and can't immediately be translated into English, and to allow each other the freedom to work in a way that fits the context.

2. Know your local context
A successful partnership is a genuine one. It's not copy-pasting 'Dutch' solutions, but working in a way that is 'specific to the local situation'. Be prepared for halts and unexpected changes to the trajectory and always have a plan B (or even a plan C). In Morocco, for example, the key word is 'Insjallah'. Be clear, but also flexible, and trust your local partner.

3. Involve others
Focus on building capacity in the country you are working in, rather than just exporting knowledge. Work together from the very beginning of the project in every phase of its development. Also find the right communication partner, so that you can make a story out of it.

4. Visit
Exchange visits are crucial to experience the local context and previous projects carried out by both partners.

5. Listen
Learn to listen and take independent advice from a 'confident' local. The way projects are formulated can already reveal a lot of biases and power dynamics. Don't underestimate cultural differences in communication. It takes time to understand each other.

6. Communicate continuously
Communicate with your partners frequently and openly. Strengthening partnerships depends on constant action. In this context, an informal method of communication is often most valuable: use WhatsApp, a phone call or social media rather than e-mail.

7. Be clear, transparent and realistic
Set clear parameters and give freedom/trust within those boundaries. Establish the basis first (equity, roles) and make it a pleasure to be partners. Also, be realistic (and flexible) financially.

8. Have patience and long-term commitment
It's not about being perfect, because it won't be, but make it meaningful through the way you work and the data you create. Where relevant, make sure the project can still keep going when you leave. Long-term commitment is key, since social (or systemic) change takes time.

9. Reflect on impact
Reflection on the results of your project gives all the participants the opportunity to learn: from the good (success stories) and from the bad (brilliant failures). The most interesting story is how you adjusted the project to make it a success. Be ambitious, but realistic, and stick to your sphere of influence (what effect did the project have on the target groups, given all the other influences).