(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)
'There is zero governmental openness about budgets. Indeed, it's seen as corrupt to keep all the money from a deal for yourself. Your partners down the line expect their share of the cash, like unofficial taxation.
So, NYOI could only have existed internationally, and online. Iraqi banks took a long time to credibly re-establish themselves. Transparency of transactions through various Western organisations, which showed our funding was going 100% to the orchestra, kept us credible and alive to our international partners over five years. The British Council and the German Friends played a huge role in ensuring that.'
From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin
The above quotation emphasises the obvious importance of maintaining transparency and credibility, especially when seeking to collaborate with partners within complex and challenging contexts.
But it also emphasises a less often appreciated but at least equally important aspect. This is the ability to exist both within and outside of a collaborative context at one and the same time: to be able to keep a safe distance from the potentially damaging aspects of your theatre of operations but still work with people effectively within it. Achieving this balance enhances transparency and safeguards credibility.
It was obviously essential for Paul and others involved with the NYOI to collaborate 'on the ground' with partners within Iraq. This enabled the orchestra to gain the profile, support and resources necessary for it to establish itself and become sustainably successful.
However, this exposed the NYOI to the risk of becoming enmired in the dark side of Iraqi life with its acceptance of corruption and the assumption that any progress was conditional upon payment of 'unofficial taxes' down the line of local partners. If this risk had become reality, or had even been suspected of becoming reality, the NYOI would have lost its independent identity and the distinctiveness and power of its ideals and approach. International and Iraqi partners alike would have perceived the NYOI as yet another feeder vehicle for the greedy mouths of Iraqi corruption and self-interest; very quickly, all credibility would have been lost.
The way Paul and his colleagues avoided this outcome was by giving careful thought to which activities needed to take place, and be seen to take place, outside Iraq. Raising money and financial management were obvious selections as was the audition and selection process for players, which was done online through YouTube. Also, some (but not all) of the recruitment for key posts was done outside Iraq.
Recruitment needed to be done carefully to ensure that Iraqi partners and stakeholders felt fully involved and that, as alluded to above, the NYOI had people well-placed within Iraq who could liaise with and influence local authorities to gain support and resources, provide updates about progress and give timely warnings of potential problems.
As Paul says elsewhere in his book, it is likely that the NYOI could not have existed any other way, successfully at least, but as an online organisation with its key functions spread across the world. This inside/outside quality of the NYOI's organisation insulated the orchestra from accusations that it was becoming just another way of lining the pockets of corrupt Iraqi fat cats: that it was becoming part of the problem to which it was seeking to provide a solution.
So remember the following: when collaborating within challenging contexts which present risks to credibility, find ways to be both inside and outside your theatre of operations. Start by identifying those activities and functions most threatened by the environment within which you are working. Then find ways to place these outside your theatre of operations without diminishing your collaboration's presence and creating a lack of involvement from local partners and stakeholders.