Take a brief look at the websites of any big development organisation and you’ll come across the word ‘partnership’. It’s often used to talk about relationships between northern and southern NGOs. Why do so many organisations feel it’s important to work with partners? Do partnerships help to empower other organisations or are they a tool to promote agendas? This article examines some key questions about working together. For a downloadable fact sheet version of this page, click here.
A brief history of partnership
Some development organisations have long been working through local partners. Oxfam, for example, has tried to work with local partners wherever possible since the 1960s. After the ‘lost decade’ of development in the 1980s, many larger organisations such as The World Bank also started to realise their development work might be more successful if they got some buy-in from local governments and organisations. This is reflected in Global Goal 17, Partnerships for The Goals.
What is partnership?
It’s often used to refer to any kind of relationship between two organisations, but a more rigorous definition suggests the following:
- A long-term commitment
- Mutual dependency
- A relationship based on trust
- A common goal or goals
Ideally, these elements should be expressed in a partnership agreement.
Why find partners?
There are both value-based and pragmatic reasons to work in partnership. Some aims for working in partnership include building mutual relationships, sustainability, strengthening civil society, learning from each other and empowering through participation. In pragmatic terms, local organisations usually already have relationships with communities and are more sensitive to local cultures and conditions. Partnerships can be more powerful together and share costs. However, partnerships can sometimes be problematic, and there can be disagreements about who is responsible for what, for example.
What makes a successful partnership?
The list could be endless but some factors that can contribute towards partnership are:
- Transparency: both partners should share information about strategy, finances, approaches to development and funding sources. This means not having hidden agendas.
- Similarity of mission, values and operating principles and clarity on roles and responsibilities
- Mutuality: partners may contribute different things to the partnership, but it should be based on mutual respect and trust and they should learn from one another.
- Sustainability: there should be the resources (human and financial) to give the partnership the attention it needs to achieve its aims.
Power, equality and partnership
There are criticisms of the use of ‘partnerships’ in development, as the power differences between partners is often so big that mutuality is problematic. For example, when one partner is reliant on the other for funding, they may not be able to express any problems with the partnership for fear of losing their funding. When one partner is more powerful there may be an assumption that they ‘know best’ and so tell their other partner what to do – this is contrary to partnership aims such as empowerment.
How can you create successful partnerships in your organisation?
Partnerships take effort and thought to establish and maintain, and care must especially be taken where there is a clear power difference between partners.
- Are the partnerships in your organisation based on mutuality? Does one partner have power over the other? How is that managed?
- Are partnerships always good? Is it sometimes better to not work in partnership?
- Consider the role of power, equality and personality in your project delivery and partnerships.