Addressing power dynamics and inequity in institutional partnership models

IIED is engaging in research and learning about partnership models with the aim of developing a good practice framework for ethical and equitable partnerships. Tracy Kajumba highlights some of the barriers that prevent fair partnerships and sets out five steps to overcome them.

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Insight by 
Tracy Kajumba
Principal researcher and strengthening partnerships team leader in IIED's Climate Change research group
13 February 2023
Three women chatting

Discussions taking place at COP27 closing plenary (Photo: UNclimatechange, via FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Partnerships require long-term investment to allow organisations to share knowledge, resources, expertise, innovation, credibility and impact. As the world grapples with rising inequalities, the climate, nature and debt crisis, the need for equitable partnerships cannot be over-emphasised.

But partnerships today are shaped by a long history of inequalities driven by post-colonial relationships and structural inequalities that need to be examined.

IIED is exploring how to strengthen ethical and equitable partnerships as part of our wider work on addressing global inequality through gender and racial justice and decolonising our ways of working.

This work builds on IIED’s years of experience working in partnership with others. IIED’s 2022 annual review shows the breadth of IIED partnerships, highlighting how we work with more than 120 partners in over 80 countries.

We come to this with a recognition that we are part of the system, and we’re aware of our positionality as a Northern-based organisation.

What IIED is doing to reform partnership approaches

Partnerships are at the heart of the way we work; we are challenging ourselves to develop a shared vision, values and principles that can guide partnership standards embedded with principles of equity and fairness.

In our current impact learning research, we are exploring what others are doing, facilitating internal reflections on our partnership model, and critically reviewing our policies and guidelines to assess how they hinder or foster equitable partnerships. We are documenting case studies and aim to facilitate deliberative dialogues with partners and funders to enrich this process and find solutions together.

Our research has identified a number of barriers.

Five challenges to fostering equitable partnerships

1. Lack of clarity on what ‘partnership’ means

We have found that the term ‘partnership’ is sometimes used to smooth over power dynamics – even when there is no equity in the partnership. Partnership terminology is used in multiple inter-institutional relationships that are unequal.

Some institutions enter into partnerships for accountability reasons, or for validation and credibility and not for value-based reasons. As a result, defining what constitutes good partnerships remains a challenge.

2. Colonial mindset – focused on results rather than relationships

Current partnership practices are steeped in the colonial legacies that shape aid. Some practices and norms reinforce colonial dynamics.

White saviourism is exhibited in communication, images and language, as well as the positionality of Northern ‘experts’ working in the global South. Power and control are still held by global North organisations and international organisations.

3. Unequal access to resources and decision-making power

International partnerships are usually resourced through the global North.

There is a trend towards emphasising joint projects between the global North and global South organisations. But Southern partners have little input into proposals; often, they are selected at the last minute by Northern organisations who make all the project decisions. Global South organisations rarely push back because they need funding to survive.

4. Partnerships are framed by funders’ requirements rather than values and common objectives

Partnerships are characterised by onerous processes, including contracts with unclear legal language, nebulous accountability mechanisms and burdensome due diligence, with risks being transferred to partners.

Organisations like IIED get caught in the middle: they want to act as a values-based partner, but they also have commitments to donors.

5. Hierarchisation of knowledge and expertise

Hidden expressions of power through the hierarchisation of expertise make the global North expertise seem superior to the global South. Institutions in the global South have observed that when research is funded and led by overseas scientists, they arrive with fully formed research questions that either don’t address local people’s concerns or disregard their customs and traditions.

Local researchers often have little involvement; in some cases, they are not given fair credit for their contribution. Epistemic injustice in research continues to frame current partnerships, making them extractive in nature.

Addressing inequity in partnerships

Our initial findings show that there is a drive towards shifting power in partnerships, but organisations are struggling to answer the question of how to be good partners. Below are some thoughts on what needs to be done:

  • Nurture long-term relationships that are based on shared values and objectives. The charade of calling every organisation a ‘partner’ to look good should end. Equitable partnerships are built over time, and they should be reciprocal, respectful and value each partner’s unique contribution.
  • Address power imbalances and decolonise partnerships. It is time for global North organisations and funders to accept the uncomfortable truth of colonial legacies that have maintained inequalities. This means being open to sharing power and reassessing their positionality. 

    This requires being humble, working in 'business-unusual' ways, being open to risk and trusting that global South partners share similar values and objectives as global North organisations.
  • Define ethics and normative standards with clear partnership principles. Most partnerships are formed on an ad-hoc basis with no clarity on shared objectives, roles, or responsibilities. For most organisations, survival depends on accessing quick funding; this means there is no time to nurture partnerships.
  • Build accountability mechanisms in partnerships. There is a need to build accountability processes to ensure that core principles, including joint decision making, respect, trust, transparency and sustainability, are at the centre of the partnerships.
  • Address epistemic injustice in partnerships. Global North researchers and development experts need to value and respect knowledge and communicative practices of the global South. 

Trivialising local expertise leads to extractive partnerships; global South institutions should be recognised and included in shaping ideas, in leadership roles and decision making.

We are committed to reforming how we work, re-imagining more effective partnerships and working as allies to influence funders and others that we interact with.

About the author

Tracy Kajumba ([email protected]) is principal researcher and strengthening partnerships team leader in IIED's Climate Change research group

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