A global pandemic has had and still has this world firmly in its grip. So, while we experience the freedom of access to life saving vaccinations already in the third round as a priority, our partners are bracing themselves for renewed waves of infections and vaccination rates. Countries like South Africa, Rwanda and Paraguay still lie in between 20 and 30% of fully vaccinated citizens (2 doses), while low income countries have less than 8%. Nothing about this feels comfortable or egalitarian, it does not feel morally right or fair. Also, it feels nothing like a real partnership.

In our work, we partner with local organisations in our project countries directly, often on a very grassroots level and we invest resources and energy into getting to know the organisations, the people within them and their institutional history. Which means that it is clearly a priority for us to accompany our partner organisations through these difficult times, despite the fact that they were and are not able to implement their projects as planned. These last few months have also meant that we have had time to reflect upon partnership as a concept but mostly around how we interpret it from the perspective of a north organisation, based in Germany, imbedded in a social business construct and receiving almost all of our steady funds through our strong partner the Lemonaid Beverages GmbH which in turn means not having to fundraise in the classical sense like other NGO’s often have to do.

Partnership – just a word.

Within the development cooperation discourse, partnership has been a major buzz word. While top down, western driven approaches have been at the core of the industry from the beginning, in the late 90s a shift in language suggested that now governments and organisations partner with each other instead of being helped, saved, or taught. However, has this change in articulation around the relationship that north-south organisations have with each other actually altered the nature of them? Many would argue that this is not the case. Now from a power critical perspective there is a lot to unpack around paternalistic structural systems in north-south collaborations, but we would like to focus on what it means for us and want what we learned along the wary and which might be ways to learn to move towards more honest, fair and equal relationships.

Partnership unpacked.

So, the one question that is important to look at here is, what actually makes up a real, good and healthy partnership? In the corporate world it might look like a business deal where both parties profit equally from the sharing of resources. In other contexts, it simply describes a dependency situation, and is purely transactional. We however, decided to look at partnership from a relational point of view. While we were looking at our mission, vision and values, we felt strongly that we wanted to unpack the term partnership in order to really evaluate whether or not we are actually accomplishing what we say we do. Therefore, we looked at what are expectations that we have towards the people in our lives that we call our partners? It might be the life partner, best friend or colleague.

What do we expect and what are we willing to give? The key words that we associated with partnership were:

  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Patience
  • Respect
  • Mutuality
  • Equality
  • Listening
  • Understanding
  • Empathy
  • Openness
  • Reliability and good will.

Letting this sink in, we then thought about how we look at north-south relationships and what they are based on. We sat there and realised that many of the practices that we apply in our professional project coordination and partnership management processes, are nowhere near the expectations that we have of others and ourselves in partnerships. It really shifted something for us in terms of how we viewed our own role, and the way that we treated the local organisations that we work with.

From review to action.

We continued to grapple with these questions and then decided to do a partnership survey in order to double check our own assumptions but also to receive some feedback. In the next step it felt only right to broaden the conversation to include the most important voices: our partners. We asked our partners everything. From how they found the application process, to whether or not they felt communicated with as equals. We were absolutely ready to hear some hard truths. Of course, inherent power balances within our relationship might prevent partners actually being ‘brave’ enough to tell us like it is, but we tried to be as insistent as possible that any feedback wouldn’t result in negative standing around possible further funding and would be received anonymously. We emphasised that we wanted to become better at what we do and how we do it.

The results were on the one hand satisfying because it showed that many of our partners felt seen by us, and on the other hand of course reflected that we still hold most of the power. We did well in open and prompt communication and our partners trust us. They feel well advised and do not hesitate to contact us. But our processes simply take too long. Further, the fact that we are only equipped to work in English, German and Spanish, and not yet French or as most prefer in one of the local languages of the countries we work in was mentioned as a draw back. Overall, we felt very smug after the feedback because we realised, we do a lot of stuff right already, but we also felt incredibly thankful that some of our partners felt strong enough to give us honest feedback, cause only then can we evolve together.

Where do we go from here?

Well, we continue to reflect and try and be mindful of how and with which intentions we listen to our partners. We attend partnership dialogue seminars and exchange assumptions and ideas with like minded organisations and networks. All with the goal to become better partners, to be become better at supporting the organisations that we work with because we think its our duty and or privilege to work with the resilient organisations that find their way to us. We try and acknowledge that many of our partnership start out ‘fear based`, meaning that the lack of funding, and fear of the loss of operational capacity drives organisations to fundraise. But once we decide to go part of the journey together, maybe some of that fear can be set aside and we really truly are open to learn from each other, and see each other as a whole and not just as donor and receiver. Putting the learned into action, we have worked on a partnership manual that clarifies our perspective on partnership be more transparent on our process and asks new organisations to share theirs with us. So, we manage expectations right from the start to set the tone for potential growth and allows us to engage value based right from the beginning. It’s not easy to reflect and review constantly, but at the end of the day we are committed to contribute towards a more equitable world and place this at the core of our approach to partnerships and hopefully have all the docuemnts in Kinyarwanda or isiXhosa or Guraní.

Team member Luzanda Menze Neda, South Africa meets Agnes Fritz of Lemonaid & ChariTea e.V. (© Noah Felk, South Africa 2017)

Cover photo: Meeting with the Dream Factory Foundation (© Jodi Windvogel, South Africa 2020)