It’s OK to compete! Just let it all out…

There is a common thread that comes up again and again in the last weeks. I talk with people in HIV prevention, infant feeding, nutrition etc. and they tell me about fierce competition between some organizations for having the “one right solution” that solves the problem once and for all. A lot of energy goes into distinguishing yourself from people with other solutions and proving that they are incompatible and maybe even plain wrong (evil?).

It leaves me confused because one would think there is a bigger “common enemy” out there, e.g. “childhood malnutrition” and in theory most agree that you would get furtherest if you worked together on a solution. And to the uninitiated outsider the differences between the various solutions often seem marginal as compared with their commonalities – like the difference between Colgate and Sensodyne toothpaste, which may have some different ingredients and effects but mainly, let’s face it, are some kind of paste you use to keep your teeth clean. Using either of them will get you much better results than not brushing your teeth or brushing them with Nutella.

Now when Colgate and Sensodyne compete, no one will bat and eyelid if they found out that these brands are competing for the consumer’s money. It’s called healthy competition and we hope it will get them to make their products better or cheaper or maybe even both.

Now imagine the people development organizations could sit down and plainly, without guilty feelings say: “One of the reasons we disagree is that there is limited funding in our field and if we want to survive as an organization, as an approach, we need to convince the people with the money that our approach is the best.” Sounds straightforward and logical to me. But I see all kinds of NGO coordination bodies and other multi-stakeholder forums, where we have to pretend that there is no competition about money or visibility. So the structures are set up ignoring one of the most important incentives. And, surprisingly (really?) they fail to deliver.

I’m convinced that it would get you further if you could say to your competi-collaborators: “I know we compete about this. I also know we would get further on XY in collaboration. How can we work together so that we achieve our individual and collective goals?”

You might not find a way to keep your cake and eat it. But at least you won’t find yourself caught in an unexpected cake fight that leaves no slice of the cake for your clients.

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