The European Commission’s Katarína Mathernová explains why partnerships are critical in times of crisis. Photo courtesy: Katarína Mathernová

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By John Donnelly

During the COVID-19 crisis, governments have been leading the responses in their countries, but they also have relied greatly on assistance from many players, including multilateral organizations, the private sector, civil society groups, and foundations. How can these partnerships work effectively and not complicate the response to the pandemic?

Katarína Mathernová is well-placed to answer this question, and many others related to partnerships. She has held senior positions at the European Commission (EC), the World Bank, and the Government of Slovakia. She is currently the EC’s Deputy Director-General of the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations. In this edited interview, she offers her perspective on the challenges of partnerships and what makes them effective.

Q: Let’s start with the European Commission’s main priorities in helping countries respond to COVID-19—essentially how you are partnering with governments.

A: You may remember back in the beginning of the confinement that there was really a perception of Europe being self-centered and looking only after itself—because in the month of March it was the hardest-hit region following China. What we have done is mobilized ourselves to say, wait a second, we need to address our partner countries with a very solid sign of solidarity and put together a package that shows Europe stands with its international partners.

We have gone through our existing as well as recent programming and repurposed and reoriented those programs. A great majority of our work now is a response to COVID-19, and it’s along three lines. One is the emergency assistance, the humanitarian assistance. The second is building support for the health systems. And the third is the whole area of socio-economic support around liquidity risk. Some people call it solvency support to help the economic agents as well as governments now in the crisis. We put together a €20 billion package on these various initiatives.

We also are launching a guarantee program that in the coming years will considerably grow our European Fund for Sustainable Development. That’s the direction we will go, and we will work very closely with our international partners on that.


Q: Who are your key partners right now, and has that changed because of COVID-19?

A: I would say that the entire backbone of our European Fund for Sustainable Development is with the international financial institutions, national development banks, and multilateral development banks—the whole panoply of partners. We work with them because the last thing that anyone would want is for us to support the private sector directly. We do it through the interface of our partners. Our partnerships during COVID-19 have just gone on steroids. I spend the great majority of my time talking to various partners, whether it's EBRD, the IFC, the World Bank, FMO—the Dutch development agency—or the collection of the European development agencies.

It's an intensive engagement. And, obviously, it's not easy. It's complicated. We are all big elephants of institutions. And when elephants need to tango, it can take some time. But I also think that we are all very much bound together, and we are all facing the global pandemic and a global economic crisis. We only can succeed if we work well in partnership.

Q: What have been some of the challenging moments? And how have you worked to bring different groups together?

A: Anybody who has dealt with the European Union and its financing knows that the legal and regulatory and supervisory constraints on our resources reflect extremely high standards and, hence, are onerous. And so, a lot of the challenging moments come from overcoming different expectations and sets of standards that are not as easy to understand to the other elephants in the room. Assuming that each of us is a large institution with its own governance, with its own set of rules, it's not that easy to always come together.

Q: How do you bring them together?

A: I’ll give one example with the health program support to our six Eastern Partnership countries—Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the three caucuses, the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In our discussions we realized that while our program was relatively large for us —more than €30 million—in the big scheme of things it was relatively small. We went back and rethought our own expectations. And we got into a very different discussion and approved the program very quickly. Our partner countries signaled their appreciation for having acted early and quickly to get them the support.

There was a similar issue on funding that goes to small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as to renewable energy and energy efficiency. We significantly scaled up our support and got into a discussion on the whole structuring of governance, and many other issues. But then we were able to discuss this and say, “Hey, hang on a second, we are in the middle of a crisis. Let's just try to do the best we can for our partner countries and firms and the enterprises and individual entrepreneurs.” So, we put some of the bigger questions, which are all very legitimate and valid, on to a future agenda when we are out of the immediate crisis. One lesson during this is sometimes you need to have a very quick escalation mechanism to bring an issue up one level, and then it's going to get resolved.

Q: You mean escalating this to your boss’ attention?

A: Yes. In my career, I have seen discussions between different partners over simple contracts take two years. But if they had taken this to the next level, it could have been resolved in a matter of weeks. When issues arise, more rapid involvement of the management in each of our institutions would help because things need to be resolved fast.

Q: I’d like to talk to you about finding new types of partners. For instance, the EC is now partnering with Global Citizen, an advocacy group working to end global poverty, to raise funds for vaccines. What are your thoughts about multilateral organizations or other established groups partnering with civil society?

A: This is something that I personally strongly believe in. A lot of the causes we work on require involvement with a much broader stakeholder group than just governments. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was on the front stage in the global vaccine summit a few months ago. The key partners included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, GAVI, the Wellcome Trust, along with a huge set of leaders from around the world, and the World Bank. We sent a signal that we want to work with whoever matters in a specific area.

Another example is we are closely working with the Open Government Partnership. It's pushing the agenda of government transparency in public finances. In the Balkans, for instance, we work with a plethora of civil society organizations pushing this agenda. So, as we support or push governments into a reform agenda, we also support reform agents that are outside of the government. Those groups are sometimes very critical, sometimes constructive, but they put the individual governments on their toes.

Q: What are your pet peeves regarding partnerships?

A: I think that to overcome the cross-institutional barriers really takes leadership and top management attention. Otherwise, it's a very often frustrating exercise and takes a lot longer. My pet peeve is that I wish that between the high level of G7 leaders and the people who work on partnerships in institutions, there would be a middle group of determined leadership who promote partnerships. We're not there yet.

Q: What are some of the qualities of partnerships that you admire?

A: What I personally enjoy is the cross-institutional collaboration. Each large institution has its meta language, its own self-perceptions, or its own pecking order. Often you end up talking past each other. So, I appreciate when we can resolve the miscommunications and simply understand each other.

Published in June 2020

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