Ideas and experiences regarding equal and authentic partnerships
Despite growing insight into inequitable power dynamics, achieving equity in partnerships appears to remain an elusive goal, particularly between partners based in the so-called Global North and South. Such partnerships have numerous benefits, for example, in terms of enhancing understanding of, and responses to, complex problems. Yet power dynamics within these partnerships are often grounded in colonial legacies, which are reinforced by rigid monitoring and evaluation processes, funding cycles and other bureaucratic structures. Local actors are often left out of agenda-setting processes, particularly those that can be considered most ‘local,’ or ‘peripheral’. Existing hierarchies and dependencies are thereby perpetuated. Critically, these practices reduce the quality of both research and interventions.
In light of the above, the VU-Athena Institute and Oxfam Novib conducted an exploratory study (September – November 2021) to investigate ideas and experiences regarding equal and authentic partnerships, both looking at their own experiences and the knowledge and ideas already developed (1). This issue is of central concern to both institutions given their involvement in North-South partnerships and engagement with issues about ‘international development.’ Moreover, both are actively engaging and/or trying to make steps towards more equal and authentic partnerships. This blog presents our preliminary results, in the hope to reach new actors, especially in the Global South interested in joining forces to examine how ‘decolonisation’ of collaboration and ‘international development’ can be done and furthermore, done well.
Exploring authentic partnerships
The study comprised a literature review, in-depth interviews and a workshop with academics and practitioners involved in North-South partnerships. Participants came from a wide range of contexts, and fulfilled an equally diverse range of professional roles, from researchers to human rights activists and embassy representatives. The full report can be found here. It provides insight into a broad range of issues around equal and authentic partnership. Below is a summary of the key findings.
The role of funding
Funding underpins a variety of critical challenges in and to partnerships. Donor-recipient relationships usually indicate a top-down approach that influences most decision-making processes. Practitioners reflected on the highly politicised funding ‘landscape,’ characterised by regularly shifting substantive foci. Changing administrations in donor countries could lead to sudden changes in funding priorities and an abrupt end to financial support, for example. Participants spoke of often complying with required changes for fear of losing funds.
“Our international partners [meaning donors, ed.] come up with multiple literature reviews, they are certainly prepared. But when we go on the field, things are different. You must learn about the circumstances. Sometimes when we go on the field things don’t work out as we have planned. The donors have their own plan […], but things don’t work accordingly because it’s different over here.” (Participant – NGO)
“There is money only to run the projects, and due to the lack of resources, the staff of the local NGOs have much less commitment to the organization, this is inherent in the project approach. Because you are an NGO, you are not generating any money, and some sources are very politically motivated, and it can finish any moment” (Participant – NGO)
Partnerships often fail to include measures to strengthen local organisations, but focus largely on achieving project outcomes, thereby perpetuating dependency on actors in the Global North. Competition for funding at different levels among local partners and INGOs negatively interferes with existing relationships and dynamics – leading to the development of unhelpful hierarchies between ‘local’ organisations, for example.
Epistemic privilege and justice
Knowledge production is mainly managed by funding parties in the Global North. Positivism, randomised control trials, and narrow conceptions of inclusion in research define norms of ‘good’ science and evidence, leaving behind context-specific ways of producing and sharing knowledge.
“[It is about] the ways of knowing or how we generate the knowledge. When protocols come, we can’t really introduce new ways of gathering this knowledge because we are sort of using what has already been developed by our northern friends, strict guidelines. For example, African cultures are very rich. People express a lot with dance, do we have a method to understand that kind of knowledge that is being performed? Do we have the tools in these guidelines?” (Participant – Academic)
Authorship and ownership
Publications or other materials tend to be owned and managed by funding partners. Not only can the format and language of the publication be exclusionary, but often local partners are included only to collect samples or contact participants but are not recognized as co-researchers.
“To just have access to that information, maybe to analyse or write something about it. It’s a lot of work. I have to write so many letters to so many people. Why do I have to go through such trouble to access it? Because someone else is funding it, this data doesn’t belong to you, but to someone else, even though it’s about your lives, your diseases, or your own community” (Participant – Academic)
As the above quote highlights, even after a project is concluded, there is a lack of ownership and access to data by local researchers or organisations, let alone by communities where research was conducted.
Receipt-ivism and lack of trust
Participants expressed feeling overwhelmed by the excessive monitoring required. Not only did the level of required reporting and supporting documentation suggest a lack of trust in Southern partners, monitoring requirements also entrenched hierarchical and vertical relationships.
“Why is there so much monitoring of local NGOs? This is totally out of proportion […] For every project though, the proposal must be approved. For every small activity here and there, you need to get back to them […] there should be a balance between how many resources you are spending on monitoring and how many on actually doing the [work] […] We read it in the books that projects should be flexible, but this flexibility is almost not there. It’s much more corporate now.” (Participant – NGO)
What comes next?
As Dr Oliver Mweemba (University of Zambia) argued during the workshop, we might be able ‘to open doors that were shut a long time ago,’ if we actively create and hold space for different forms of knowledge and knowledge creation. Tackling the colonial vestiges underpinning donor-recipient frameworks will take much longer than a single project. However, it is possible to create changes in the short(er) term by identifying the changes we can make in our current ways of working. We hope to find more partners, especially from the Global South that would like to join us in this journey and propose steps forward.
If your organisation is interested, please contact Marije Nederveen.
(1): Authentic partnerships can be defined as ‘mutually enabling and inter-dependent interaction[s] with shared intentions’ (Matenga et al. (2021: 51) Reference: Matenga, T., Zulu, J. M., Corbin, J. H., & Mweemba, O. (2021) Dismantling historical power inequality through authentic health research collaboration: Southern partners’ aspirations. Global public health, 16(1): 48–59