Twelve Years of Partners in the Horn of Africa

John Baigent 2012ish - cropped 2b

John Baigent, co-founder of Partners, the original Executive Director from 2001 to 2012 and still a current Board member recollects our history along with discussing the funding and project management model of Partners in this very informative story. This was published in the Sept 2015 issue of The Advocate, the monthly magazine published by the Law Society of British Columbia, and the 12 years in the title refers back to a previous story he wrote for The Advocate in 2003.

Click here for the full story in its published format with photos

THE ADVOCATE       VOL. 73 PART 5 SEPTEMBER 2015       Page 679


By John Baigent


Twelve years ago, I wrote an article for the Advocate describing Partners in the Horn of Africa (“Partners”), a charity founded in 2002 by several mem- bers of the bar in British Columbia.1 Since then, Partners has raised over $8 million for community development projects in Ethiopia. And I am proud to say that many members of the legal community in B.C.—lawyers, law firms, legal assistants, law professors, arbitrators and judges—have always been and continue to be among the most loyal supporters of Partners. Now, partly out of gratitude and partly out of a sense of responsibility to our supporters, I would like to offer to the readers of the Advocate an accounting of our activities since that first article was published 12 years ago.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Partners works exclusively in Ethiopia, which in many ways is the most interesting and the most needy of Africa’s 50+ countries. For example, Ethiopia is arguably the cradle of humanity (the earliest-known hominid fossils, including “Lucy”,2 were discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia); it is home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian churches, monasteries and reliquaries; it is the only country in Africa never to have been colonized (it preserved its independence by defeating invading European powers); and, as the seat of the African Union, it is the political capital for the African Community of States. And yet, despite its historical, cultural and political significance, Ethiopia is also a country of desperate poverty, with a per capita annual income of $470 and a population of 95 million living in an area the size of British Columbia.

The founding members of Partners came together, not only out of a desire to assist some of the most impoverished people on the planet, but also out of a conviction that we could find better ways to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. You see, at least since the mid-1960s, there has been a growing concern and debate about the reasons why international aid has failed to improve lives in developing countries.3 Our own small group had some ideas of its own about what could be done. We were vain enough to think we could improve the way aid was delivered by developing and implementing a radically different model. Lawyers are, after all, problem solvers, and we saw no reason why we could not bring a new analysis to some of the problems of international development.

So, from the start Partners decided to focus on solving two main problems. First, we wanted to address the inefficiency of aid projects and the reasons why they so often seemed to fail to produce meaningful, lasting results for local communities. Second, we knew we had to find ways to over- come public cynicism about aid projects, especially about the proportion of donations spent on administrative costs.

Our solutions to these problems came in the form of two operating principles. First, we would adopt a “partnership” model in which we would work “with” rather than “for” local Ethiopian communities, and most importantly, we would require that the communities themselves make a significant commitment to the partnership by contributing at least 15–20 per cent of the cost of a project. Second, the founding members would find ways to fund administrative costs ourselves, so that we could promise donors and ensure that 100 per cent of their donations would go directly to the community development projects.

With all Partners projects, the community must contribute 15–20 per cent of the cost either in labour or in cash


Empowering People, Lowering Costs

The “partnership” principle is intended to empower people so that one day they will no longer need assistance. That end goal requires communities to be actively involved in prioritizing their needs and then to play a major role in meeting those needs. To test this part of our model, we visited a village high in the Bale Mountains of Central Ethiopia. The village elders knew we were coming and had already identified five possible projects. They invited us to select one, but when we asked which project they favoured, the elders simply said that any of the five proposals would be fine with them. They took that position because they anticipated that we would want to take on a project that appealed to our sense of development. If they had they pushed for only one project and we didn’t like it, they might lose an opportunity. Better to get any project than none at all.

What followed was instructive. We explained that we would only go for- ward if the community were prepared to share in the project by contributing 15–20 per cent of its cost. In return, the community would become our “partner” and would have a major role in selecting the project and making decisions related to it. The elders’ initial reaction was desultory. How could a village living at a subsistence level ever come up with 15–20 per cent of the cost? But after we explained that the village’s contribution could be in labour, the partnership model started to gain traction.

Still incredulous, the elders challenged us on the basic idea that the community would have a say in selecting the project. We assured them that was exactly what we proposed, and the change in the demeanour of the elders was palpable. As if to test our resolve, they asked if they could revisit the question of which project they favoured. And revisit the question they did. One of the proposals had been for a footbridge over a piddling little creek about 15 feet wide and six inches deep. The footbridge would have been our last choice of the five projects. We had already seen villagers crossing the creek without any difficulty. The elders, however, were unanimous. This was the project they wanted.

We did not know then that 85 per cent of Ethiopians live “off road” and have to walk to nearby villages for all essential services; health care, mar- kets, schools and so on. Nor did we know that the “piddling little creek” turned into an impassable torrent during the four-month rainy season, iso- lating thousands of people from those essential services, or that every year several of the most ambitious students, knowing the value of an education, would drown trying to cross the river so as not to miss classes. Lesson learned: local communities are in the best position to prioritize their needs.

The more important lesson from that day was that the community had become truly engaged only when it was given meaningful input into the project … input for which it would pay with its 20 per cent contribution. The contractor was subsequently selected by Partners and the community together. In addition, the contractor was required to use villagers for all unskilled labour and to “pay” them by providing a corresponding credit on its invoices (the total “value” of 1,000 hours of labour contributed by the community as ascribed by the contractor was just under $1,000!). The rocks for the masonry abutments were collected and carried to the worksite by the villagers, and groups of 20-plus carried each prefabricated section of the bridge, weighing upwards of a ton, from the end of the road to the river. The bridge was built on time and on budget, and the community was exceed- ingly proud of what it had accomplished.

When we returned the following year, we noticed that the community had painted the bridge—an adornment not in the project specifications and which was incongruous in a village of basic huts and shelters, without running water or electricity. The community had also placed a sign on the bridge announcing its role in the construction and declaring that the bridge would ensure that their kids would be able to attend school regularly.

The community then asked if we could join it in another project the following year. Engagement is, of course, the first step towards empowerment and self-sufficiency. The next time we returned to the village the community had already started assembling masonry and eucalyptus timbers in anticipation of two new projects that it hoped to “partner” with us. We completed those two projects, again on time and on budget. And the story has another good ending which I will come to later.

Today, some 12 years later, Partners has completed approximately 275 projects throughout Ethiopia, and all have required a significant contribution from our local “partners”. Interestingly, the percentage of project cost covered by many communities has increased without any prompting from us. It is now common for communities to pay upwards of 40 per cent of a project’s cost in order to secure Partners’ custom. They do that because of the competition among communities to work with us. They appreciate that the more they are prepared to pay, the more likely we are to work with them. Making very poor people pay more may at first glance seem harsh … but only at first glance. The goal of aid is to help communities become more self-sufficient, and covering 50 per cent of a project’s costs takes a community a lot closer to that goal than paying 15–20 per cent. And with increased contributions from our local “partners”, the leverage of Canadian donations is enhanced: Partners is paying up to 50 per cent less for projects than it would if we were working without our local “partners”. From the donors’ perspective, we are doubling the value of donations by halving the costs of projects.

Empowering People, Improving Results

There is another reason for insisting that communities be true partners and not mere beneficiaries. Many projects in the developing world are not sustainable unless the community has a role in their implementation. Nowhere is that more apparent than with clean water projects.

About 50 per cent of Ethiopians have access to safe or improved water. The other 50 per cent share muddy surface water and puddles with livestock and wildlife. This creates huge problems of diarrhea and infant deaths, and results in a host of other water-borne diseases. The solution is straightforward: pump groundwater to community water stations. Not surprisingly, wells are one of the most popular aid projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, Africa is full of broken wells. It has been estimated that 35 per cent of wells are not functioning two or three years after installation. Typically an aid organization will either install wells with its own personnel or hire a contractor to do the job. The installers are skilled and efficient at what they do, and can dig a shallow well and insert a mechanical pump in a few days. Once the system is installed the crew moves on to the next site.

But any mechanical system, particularly one with which people are not familiar and which is heavily used, will develop glitches. In an industrialized community those problems are easily remedied with skilled trades- people, but when they occur in a remote, rural community where skills are confined to subsistence farming, a minor problem becomes a deal breaker. The local folks, who in many cases are a three- to five-hour walk from the nearest town, are helpless. The result is that many wells are abandoned, even though in many cases all that is required to make them operational is the replacement of an inexpensive valve or the repositioning of the pump.

We have learned that empowering a community means more than just providing a facility. Our well projects require that the community establish a water committee with responsibility for the system. The committee assists in choosing the site of the well and arranges for local residents to be part of the installation workforce and to learn the basic mechanics of the system. The committee will also fence the well and lock the entrance so that it can only be accessed when its use will be supervised. The fence will also prevent livestock from soiling the well site or damaging the structure. And often a modest user fee will be levied with the proceeds used to pay the attendant and cover replacement parts.

This is all basic stuff but, again, the operating principle is that it is the community’s facility and its responsibility. And what a change partnering with a community can bring. Every year, Tetra Tech, an international engineering firm and one of Partners’ corporate donors, sends an employee- ambassador from Canada to review the projects Tetra Tech has sponsored. Last year, the ambassador surveyed 63 of the water facilities Tetra Tech had commissioned with Partners over the previous five years. All 63 were found to be functioning and in good shape. So much for a 35 per cent failure rate after three years!


Real Cost Reductions

As mentioned above, donors are increasingly concerned about the proportion of their donation that is spent on administration. In Ethiopia it is estimated that most NGOs spend about 40 per cent of their donations on administrative costs. To resolve this dilemma, the second principle adopted by Partners was that 100 per cent of donations would go directly to projects in Ethiopia and none to administrative costs.

The 100 per cent principle is a radical solution. How does it work in practice? Delivering on Partners’ promise involves two steps. First, real administrative costs have to be reduced as much as possible. This is not an easy thing to achieve because international aid is inherently expensive. For example, because an NGO has to raise funds in one country while delivering its product in another, duplicate corporate structures are required, one in the donor country and another in the host country, often with expensive donor country staff in both locations. It is ironic that, at a time when corpo- rations are contracting out “manufacturing” to low-cost countries, many aid organizations are doing just the opposite: delivering aid projects in low-cost countries using high-cost donor country personnel!

And yet, part of the solution to that problem is right in front of us. Africa is full of bright young university graduates. (Two recent Partners job postings in Ethiopia resulted in more than 200 applications from university graduates.) Many graduates have extensive aid experience because interna- tional NGOs are major employers in sub-Saharan Africa. These bright young people can be hired at a fraction of the cost of relocating and support- ing donor country staff. Indeed, our Ethiopian office, including a staff of four local professionals and a driver, operates on an annual budget of about $100,000.

Another problem is that many large, well-established NGOs often have entrenched and inflexible administrative systems that prevent them from being nimble and adaptable. In that regard, Partners has an advantage in that we started small and flexible and have stayed small and flexible. This has allowed us to incorporate new technology into our systems without needing to change, reorganize or downsize our administrative structure. Today, electronic communications and the transfer of funds are virtually instantaneous. A staff member in Addis Ababa can scan and send an engineered drawing to Canada and get input on that drawing the same day. Funds can be moved in a day or two. And video conferencing makes communication between overseas staff more meaningful and efficient, increasing opportunities for joint problem-solving in real time. These kinds of technological mechanisms help keep our Canadian and Ethiopian offices lean and integrated.

Eliminating Project Administrative Costs by Other Means

Reducing administrative costs is one thing. Eliminating them entirely is quite another. To square that circle we decided to fund unavoidable administrative costs through a separate, sister organization which would raise funds to cover Partners’ administrative costs. That organization, Friends of the Horn of Africa (“Friends”), relies on a group of corporate and individual donors who understand that their financial support will be used to cover administrative expenses.

In addition, Friends also receives generous in-kind donations from companies, trade unions and other volunteers to cover the costs of basic items such as printing, mailing, office supplies, hardware, and designing and maintaining our website. These donors and volunteers understand that their contributions create enhanced fundraising appeal for Partners by allowing it to fulfill the promise to donors that 100 per cent of their donations will go exclusively to projects. It is that promise more than any other factor that has allowed us to raise significant amounts of money for Partners.

In some cases, we have also recently started to require that a portion of our Ethiopian “partners” contributions to projects be used to cover administrative costs in Ethiopia. This has several advantages beyond assisting with administrative costs. It helps our Ethiopian “partners” appreciate the reality of overhead costs, and it makes our in-country staff more accountable to the community.


So, how has all this worked out over the past 12 years? Partners has now completed approximately 275 projects in Ethiopia, as noted above. Together with our local partners, we’ve built dozens of schools, libraries, bridges and health centres, and we’ve installed over 90 wells. We run three group homes where orphaned and vulnerable young women can attend high school and college, and we help another couple hundred orphans with housing, care and education. We also run other programs to help girls in rural areas have the same opportunities as boys to attend school, and we help hardworking women in urban centres improve their incomes by providing them with micro-finance loans for businesses. We have also introduced irrigation systems, tree-planting programs and fuel-saving ovens which require less firewood and, in doing so, bring two benefits: a decrease in deforestation in a country where only 1 per cent of original forests remain, and a reduction in the amount of time young girls have to spend collecting firewood (and missing school when they do so).

Our Ethiopian partners like our cost-sharing model because they know that they will have a huge say in selecting, controlling and maintaining their project. They also realize that securing their contribution will not be difficult when a project is seen as vital to a community. Recently we built a footbridge across the Nile (yes, that Nile). The community raised $30,000 in a matter of a few weeks, and this in a country where the per capita income remains under $1.50 per day. The reason they could do that was because thousands of families desperately needed the bridge. With 250,000 people wanting a bridge, you get to $30,000 pretty quickly if each family donates $1.

Our donors like our model too. Partners has raised about $8 million over the past 12 years. This is in large part because of the way we have been able to separate project costs from administrative costs. It is hard to say how much Partners would have raised if we spent donations on administrative costs, but it would have been a lot less. It has been difficult to raise funds for administrative costs, but we have managed to do so and we have been able to keep those costs relatively low.

At the same time, our capital projects are relatively inexpensive because of the low cost of labour in Ethiopia and because the community covers a portion of the costs. For example: a community water facility costs about $4,000; a school library, with books, about $15,000; a footbridge over a river that will save lives every year, about $15,000–$20,000; and a four-classroom schoolhouse costs about $35,000. Those low costs make it possible for very poor communities to cover their share of a project’s cost. They also make it possible for some of our Canadian donors to sponsor their own Partners project and, in many cases, visit them after completion.

The number of successful, cost-effective projects completed by a charity is one measure of the charity’s efficiency. But it is important not to overlook the kinds of positive impacts on individuals and communities that are more difficult to reduce to statistics. For example, a young Ethiopian girl named Ayalnesh first came to our attention when she joined our orphan fostering project, which places vulnerable or orphaned kids (and HIV has created thousands of such children) in an extended family setting, which we subsidize. The subsidy elevates the living standard for the extended family and is designed to get the child through elementary school when the subsidy ends. At this point the girls are exceptionally vulnerable. With no family to look after them and no decent job prospects, at age 14 to 16, girls are forced to marry too early, in order to obtain economic security, or take a dead-end job in the local market or worse.

To address the predicament of vulnerable young women exiting our foster program, Partners set up a girls group home where girls could live safely while attending high schools. Ayalnesh was one of 12 girls in our first group home. Just before being selected for the group home she had been carrying firewood for sale to local markets, a menial job and a risky one. Ayalnesh thrived in the group home and was a very good student, although we did not realize quite how good. After four years she sat for national exams which determine who goes on to university. Typically, a grade point average of 2.2 out of 4.0 is required to qualify for university and about 20 per cent of students are successful. Ayalnesh was one of a handful of students across the nation to achieve a perfect score of 4.0!

A third Partners program then kicked in to subsidize Ayalnesh at university. This year she will graduate from medical school. The last time I saw her, she told us that she had decided to work in public health and that her decision to do so was inspired by Partners’ commitment to Ethiopian com- munities. Two other girls from that first group home also went on to university—one to become a schoolteacher and the other an accountant. The other nine went on to obtain diplomas in various fields that provided them with skilled jobs. And the young women were not the only ones to benefit. With girls’ education in the Third World, “If you educate a girl, you also edu- cate her family.”

As for the positive impacts on communities, let me return, as promised, to the story of our original footbridge. A few years after the bridge was completed the government built a highway bridge big enough for cars and trucks right next to our original footbridge, instantly rendering it redundant. Gov- ernment officials approached us about dismantling the footbridge and reassembling it several miles downriver so it could be used by another community. We told the officials that we had no objections but reminded them the bridge was not “ours” and that dismantling and moving it would need the agreement of our “partner”, the local village. The village demurred, explaining that although the bridge was no longer necessary, the community wanted to keep it. “Good things for our community started to happen after we built that bridge,” they said. Our first project had become a talisman and a confirmation that our model for delivering aid is part of a “process” that allows communities to take ownership of their own development.

All in all, I believe that the past 12 years have confirmed our ideas about how charities can function more effectively. Ethiopians are anxious and ready and very capable of helping themselves when we are willing to treat them as partners. And only in that way will they one day be empowered to do without our assistance. In addition, the past 12 years have confirmed my faith in the good will and good sense of the legal community in B.C. On behalf of Partners and our local Ethiopian partners, I would like to take this opportunity to offer all of our supporters thanks for your generous contributions, your constant encouragement and your shared commitment to improving lives by empowering partnerships.

Readers can get more information about Partners in the Horn of Africa online at:



“Partners in the Horn of Africa (There are Partnerships and then There Are Partnerships)” (2003) 61 Advocate 691. The founding members of Partners included Marguerite Jackson, Q.C., John McAlpine, Q.C., John Baigent, famed labour arbitrator Vince Ready, and Brooke Sundin, then president, UFCW. Forty per cent of the skeletal remains of an Australopethicus afarensis female, discovered by scientist Donald Johanson and grad student Thomas Gray on November 24, 1975, was named “Lucy” after the Beatles’ song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, which was playing loudly and repeatedly on a tape machine at base camp—Ed.

For some recent entries in the debate, see Jeffrey D Sachs, The End of Poverty (New York: Penguin, 2005); Stephen Lewis, Race Against Time (Toronto: Anansi, 2005); William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden (New York: Penguin, 2007) and Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).

For more information and statistics on rural water supply projects in Africa, see online at:  < http:// >.

by Partners in the Horn of Africa