A few weeks before the annual meeting of the Ouagadougou Partnership (OP) to be held from December 11 to 13 in Abidjan, we interviewed Marie Ba, the director of the Ouagadougou Partnership Coordination Unit (OPCU). Ms. Ba is a powerful voice for the well-being of West African communities, especially women and girls, and has a great passion for the cause she defends. In this interview, she shares with us the partnership’s journey. Ms. Ba lifts the veil on the OP’s successes and challenges, 12 years after its founding.
Aissatou Thioye: This is the OP’s 12th year anniversary?
Marie Ba: Yes, the OP is an initiative we are still very proud of 12 years after its founding because we have succeeded during these 12 years and this success was not obvious in the beginning. In French-speaking West Africa in particular, it is not necessarily the best positioned, but we had the necessary resources and above all the necessary support.
|“I am often asked what the recipe for the partnership’s success is. For me, it is largely the secretariat, to have allocated the necessary resources for this secretariat and to engage the partnership, so that it ensures our many achievements. I think it’s a question of being able to unite people around a common goal, of having the various stakeholders really believe in this partnership.” —Marie Ba
Aissatou: So the successes of the OP have been achieved through the OPCU and its partners?
Marie: Yes, the OPCU alone cannot achieve its objectives. When we talk about success, I always say, it is not the successes of the OPCU, it is those of the Ouagadougou Partnership. And therefore, to have been able to unite all these stakeholders around the Ouagadougou Partnership who believed in it and that everyone’s achievements were able to contribute and that we were able to magnify these results. 12 years later, there are still many challenges in the sub-region. We have had many achievements on contraceptive prevalence rates, the number of additional users, the quality of services, data and products. But there is still, of course, a lot to do.
|“We are very proud that it is for Africans, by Africans, who understand the context, because it is unrealistic to want to import a model from one region to another, from one country to another, even between the countries of the Ouagadougou Partnership.” —Marie Ba
You have a country like Niger, a country like Côte d’Ivoire, both are at two extremes in terms of values, indicators, social norms…. And to have been able to reconcile, not only the differences, but also everything that brings us together and the commonalities we have between the nine countries, is important.
Aissatou: You spoke earlier about success in relation to partnerships—can you give us some examples that really struck you?
Marie: One thing, in terms of partnership, that we are particularly proud of is the very discussion around family planning and contraception which has changed and evolved a lot—having been able to infuse this regional collaboration, but also to see what is being done at the international level. It is very important to keep an eye on what is happening at the global level and be able to adapt it to our region and to our needs. I think the evolution in the discussion around family planning is an excellent thing.
Secondly, we have been learning more and more about integrating young people and their needs into the Ouagadougou Partnership and have been able to renew at the right time the various stakeholders. In a region where about 60% of young people are under 24 years of age, we have ensured that they can find themselves in this partnership and not become obsolete. The inclusion and integration of young people, their concern in this partnership, and the focus we have on them, not only as beneficiaries, but as agents of change, is a great point of pride.
In terms of results too, the number of additional users can seem very modest when we say one million additional users, but you should know that for most countries, it’s really about having sought equity in relation to the nine countries. In other words, we’re not interested in whether we’ve reached our annual target – we’ve reached it and moved on. But we are making sure that each of the nine countries reaches its target every year. For example, there’s Mali, which for almost seven or eight years has never been able to reach its target, due to a number of circumstances.
With all the efforts made, the focus put on Mali, the increased funding, they have managed, from 2018-2019, to overcome all the gaps and they are now a country that constantly manages, not only to achieve, but also exceed its objectives. And that is a huge success for Mali, and for all the partners. We would like to accomplish the same feat for other countries that still fall short in achieving their objectives. I think that these increases in terms of indicators, especially in the contraceptive prevalence rate, meeting demand, will be the next challenge. And, being able to create this demand and increase it is an excellent thing. But, there are still unmet needs that we would like to meet.
Aissatou: What are the challenges now, especially in relation to the 2030 objectives?
Marie: In coordination, it’s never easy to unite everyone.
|“There are always very divergent opinions according to culture, education, perspectives. So, sometimes, it is true that it is a challenge, at least for the coordination unit, to be able to unite around certain ideas. We would like to be precursors as much as possible, but we are also obliged to follow the desires of countries because we are there for their needs, to be able to meet them and not necessarily go too far.” —Marie Ba
But we would like to continue to be a driver for certain aspects of reproductive health and family planning. There’s a lot of diplomacy that comes into play. It’s very interesting, but it can also be a big challenge. In the coming years, it’s something we will pay very close attention to. It’s not about going too fast or too slowly, it’s finding the right rhythm. The other challenge is in relation to the integration of young people. For us, as the coordination unit and not an implementing partner—we do not want to replace their role.
Sometimes it’s about perception, but we really want to stay in coordination and instill in our partners the ability to increase the employability of young people, having activists and young people in an even more inclusive way and to cast as wide a net as possible,because we don’t always address the same target. This is a challenge in recent years, 2021-2022. One of the advantages of Covid is that it has forced us to use digital platforms. We were still able to reach people, entities, structures that were not necessarily targets, who have different opinions, who have different ways of seeing things, who are from different regions, and have even more inclusiveness in relation to the movement. There are also all the socio-cultural barriers. When we want to create demand because we have achieved our goals and we are even more ambitious, it means that we will have to arouse attention and interest while always maintaining the true needs for women.
This is what we have heard—to not enforce these methods or this way of thinking on women in the region; if they need these methods, we want to create demand, and if they respond to it, we want to be able to cover their needs.
Aissatou: What are the levers on which the OPCU intends to rely to promote the financing of youth organizations engaged in FP/RH?
Marie: As I mentioned, we want to act heavily on their employability. What we realized when we were doing the OP youth strategy was that many young people were in the sub-region, working with the partners, but it stopped at a certain stage. That is to say, they went to conferences, they learned as much as possible, sometimes there was training, but then, when they had to return to work life, we lose them because they need an income, and it is not possible to keep them as volunteers.
A big shift we have made at the OPCU level is to insist that their work should be paid, based on their skills and knowledge. We have started recruiting youth leads who are paid with health insurance and all the benefits that go with it. But we also aim to encourage the partners as much as possible to do the same. As I said, we cannot be in a region where we want or claim to support young people, that we give them training but then, we do not consider them capable of integrating into our institutions and organizations. Another point, one of the barriers we have heard a lot is the problem of financing youth associations and organizations. This is one of the reasons why they are unable to obtain direct funding. It sometimes goes through civil society, but very often we have heard, they just don’t connect.
|“Because we treat them like children, they are not able to move as freely as they would like. We’ve discussed whether there could be trust agencies for these youth organizations who may not necessarily be involved in family planning. That’s a lesson learned at the OPCU level. When your host is in the same field as you, there is immediately this competition that is created.” —Marie Ba
This is a way to remove this spirit of competition that is sometimes created and to be able to have them trust agencies that are only there to ensure that the funds are used wisely, to be able to have audits and that donors and implementing partners can have trust. These are conversations that we started but we did not evolve as much as we would like. At the same time, there should also be institutional capacity building for youth organizations, for example, in resource mobilization. However, there is no point in learning how to mobilize resources if you do not also know how to apply, spend, and integrate them.
We’ve often heard their heartfelt cry: “Trust us, trust us”. As I tell them, donors and the like are all beholden to their taxpayers, and we can’t take any chances. So there has to be some work done. Going beyond “trust us”. At some point, you have to say to them, okay, but can you sit down and form an organization? What are you missing to have a legal status? What are you missing to…, etc.?
And then there’s all the work they’ll have to do, because it’s going to be complicated. Some partners may be able to do it, but as I say, if we want to take our destiny into our own hands, we have to come to the table with an idea, to express what our needs are. To be able to register as a legal entity, to be able to have a financial manager, an accountant who will do the follow-up, how to carry out an audit and all these questions, to understand that these are their needs, to see who could finance this institutional strengthening and then in the first few years, let’s say, with a fiduciary agency that would help them manage their funds. But then there are the programs behind them, the operations. It’s a really big job, and maybe sometimes we don’t realize it. And then, to be able to finance all that. For me, it also goes to employability. I think that direct funding of youth organizations is a real challenge that the OPCU and its partners would like to better coordinate and collaborate on.
Aissatou: As you mentioned, the OPCU is not an implementing body, but rather a coordination organization. You collaborate with stakeholders in the region. How does the partnership contribute to the success of the OP, alongside the OPCU?
Marie: When we list the different stakeholders, there are donors, government representatives, primarily from the Ministry of Health. There are also civil society organizations that focus on young people, religious leaders, and implementing partners.
The interactions are very different depending on who we are addressing. We shape interactions according to their needs and our needs. We know that we need implementing partners to help inform us of what is happening in the sub-region. They need visibility, they need credibility, we also need it. In these partnerships, we need to know what they do and report the information that we can cross-check through implementing partners and government representatives. And to be able to report this to the donor. This is a recurring challenge faced by maternal and child health ministries every year. We are organizing a meeting with the nine maternal and child health directors who often critique that they do not have visibility on what partners are doing in the field.
For example, one of the Directors of Maternal and Child Health informed us that it wasn’t until a project had ended that they were notified of the project’s closing. They did not know that this project was intervening in the country, they did not know their geographical area. It wasn’t until then that they realized that some of the interventions were very similar to another project being implemented in the exact same region. And it is this lack of coordination among donors that is the problem. Donors are financing the same programs, sometimes in the same countries. They are the ones who have the funding, and that’s where the power comes from, so they are the ones who need to insist that their implementing partners always work under the leadership of the Ministry of Health.
The partners must coordinate, and as the coordination unit, we have to remain as neutral as possible. Sometimes it has created inconveniences for us, but neutrality means that we take the information from the implementing partners, that they know that we are there for the good of the region with government representatives, with donors, with young people.
|“I think one of the reasons why the partnership has worked is that there is trust with the different stakeholders, and that the ultimate goal is really the well-being of women and girls in the sub-region.” —Marie Ba
When you have the same vision, when everyone contributes, we can piece the puzzle together as best as possible. It’s not perfect, but that’s how you keep the interest of each partner. There are also risks when working in a partnership—you may have partners who are interested in it up to a certain point, then their strategy changes. But I think there is something behind it, there is a cause in which they really believe and that is where the support of donors has really been fundamental to keeping the interest of the different stakeholders. If you want funding, if you want technical support, let’s try to see how everyone contributes to this partnership. And that is what really made the machine work.
Aissatou: Decentralization, equity, inclusion. What does this mean to you—especially at a time when there’s a lot of talk about localizing healthcare, how will OPCU position itself in relation to this?
Marie: In terms of decentralization, we were lucky in that from the beginning, we set up a West African structure for West African women. So there was already this idea of localization. We have a lot of autonomy in relation to donors, for example, in terms of the implementing partners’ work not being dictated to us. So this idea of decentralization is already foundational to the Ouagadougou Partnership.
In terms of equity, we’ve made an effort to be very honest. Equity in the partnership: you have the nine French-speaking West African countries and you have the donors. It’s true that there was a time when there was a slight imbalance in relation to the donors, because they’re the ones with the power and the money. But they themselves have recognized that we need to give the countries a bigger role in this partnership.
And this is where, beyond the Costed Implementation Plans for family planning, we’ve started to get more voices from civil society within the partnership bodies. On the board of the Ouagadougou Partnership, there is a very good representation of countries, civil society and young people. It was really for this idea of equity between donors, between countries, that there should be no imbalance.
|“I think that for the OPCU, me as an African woman, it’s always very important to be able to give women a share. I mean, in terms of minorities, women, Muslims, Africans, Francophones, I don’t think you can get much more minority than that. But for example, two or three years ago, we had to make a shift from being hosted by IntraHealth, which is an international organization, to Speak Up Africa, which is a local organization. And all this was in the spirit of delocalization and of being able to centralize a little more in West Africa. These two entities are run by West African women who understand the context. It’s in this sense that I think the coordination unit itself, in its functioning, in its operations, really embodies this idea of decentralization.” —Marie Ba
From the very beginning, people would sometimes ask me “How did you create the project?”, and I would say, “From the start, it was always meant to be a partnership and not a project.”
And that’s where I come in, because for me, a project is unbalanced from the start. With projects, you have this idea of a donor who provides funding and who wants results, who has determined their objectives. This can be done in tandem, but it’s still the results that have to be reported to the donor. The partnership, on the other hand, has all been defined together. And I think that’s where we really have this idea of inclusion and equity.
Aissatou: The next OP Annual Meeting will be held from December 11 to 13 in Abidjan. What can you tell us about it?
Marie: Every year, since the beginning of the partnership, it is really an opportunity to bring together all stakeholders around our common goal, see where we are and then define a theme that, we would like, remains in our minds for the whole coming year, so 2024. This year’s theme is about gender and reproductive health, but really with a focus on youth.
In Côte d’Ivoire, 2023 has been declared the Year of Youth by President Ouattara. So when we asked them, and the nine countries agreed, they decided that Côte d’Ivoire should host this annual meeting. And the instructions and guidelines we received were really that we should focus on young people. In any case, this is in line with our strategies. So here we are, building the agenda, being as inclusive as possible and having this meeting in the best possible conditions from December 11 to 13 in Abidjan.
This article originally appeared in French and has been translated into English. The audio interview was also originally conducted in French and has been made available in English through the use of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered voice cloning software. While reasonable efforts are made to provide accurate translations, Knowledge SUCCESS cannot guarantee the accuracy of the translated text. Automated translation may miss context, the full meaning may be lost, or words may be inaccurately translated.