Partnerships: Handle with Care

(L-R) Yeshe Smith, Keren Winterford, Joanna Pradela at RDI Conference 2017

Yeshe Smith

21 Jun, 2017

This blog is drawn from a presentation made by Yeshe Smith at the Research Development Impact Conference, 13-14 June 2017. Yeshe is the Programs and Partnerships Manager at the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, La Trobe University, and is accredited as a partnership broker and practitioner trainer with the Partnership Brokers Association.

I’ve spent the last nine years focusing on the practice of partnership brokering and training people to work as partnership brokers. I’m on the partnership bandwagon, make no mistake. But I am fundamentally uncomfortable about the way the term is often used. I’m uncomfortable when ‘partnership’ is used as a catch all for every collaboration or organisational relationship. Donor puts $50 million in to a World Bank trust fund? Partnership. Government and a private company build a road together? Partnership. Contract an NGO to provide a service? Partnership. Build a long term relationship grounded in mutual benefit, equity and trust? Bingo, Partnership. What are we trying to communicate when we use the term to describe a relationship, or include it in our job title?

It is important that we are recognising that addressing wicked, complex problems requires multi sector collaboration. But when we use the term ‘partnership’ as a soother, a calmative, to disguise the real challenge and mess and struggle of collaborating meaningfully, we do the concept a disservice. We also do the concept a disservice when we describe it in ways that are only meaningful in the NGO and civil society sector. Talking about ‘walking together’ or ‘sharing a journey’ makes it easy for people to dismiss real partnership as a soft, largely rhetorical exercise, which can be achieved if we are good people with good intentions. A strong partnership should be rigorous, planned, disciplined, accountable, and challenging, and it should allow us to work with people we don’t always agree with.

I disagree with one of the metaphors used in a plenary session yesterday. I don’t think marriage is the right metaphor for partnerships. I am recently divorced, but I promise you that isn’t colouring my analysis. We don’t have to like each other to partner, and we certainly don’t have to love each other. We do have to respect each other, work hard to understand each other, recognise that high quality partnering requires particular skills, and deliberately develop business processes for our day to day work which support, rather than undermine, partnership principles.

It is disillusioning for all of us, and particularly for our ‘partners’ in the developing world, to have business as usual re-badged as partnership. We’re now seeing lots of Partnership Agreements developed, which is very positive, but over and over I see people develop a Partnership Agreement, and then go back to their desks and work the same way they did under a contract. How many of us are working in partnerships where the more powerful partners genuinely make themselves accountable for the quality of their partnership practice, to their less powerful partners? Do we build in time to explain our organisations, drivers, incentives, risks, to each other, or are we too busy for that? Do we conduct regular relationship management health checks alongside our project management assessments? Do we plan standard processes like annual plans, reports, monitoring and evaluation, communication, to reinforce partnership principles, or do we run these processes the way we have always run them? Do we cherish the diversity which draws us to a partnership in the first place, or crush it by applying standardised monitoring and reporting requirements?

And how well equipped are we as individuals and organisations to build strong partnerships? Our personal, professional and organisational cultures get in the way of good partnership practice. Well intentioned western people are trained from early childhood to be task oriented, get through their lists, get things done, and demonstrate their professional worth through reportable outcomes. How does this mesh with the careful relationship and trust building which is required for strong partnerships? Researchers build their careers through individualistic, highly competitive endeavour, establishing themselves as ‘expert’ in their field. Not a set of professional characteristics which prepares people to build strong partnerships. NGOs often assume they are good at partnerships simply because they are NGOs, despite the fact that their relationships with their local partners can mirror, in terms of power dynamics, their own relationships with donors. Government partners rarely relinquish the command and control model which they are used to, and feel entitled to. And for all of us, strong partnership work requires giving up power and/or control, and embracing vulnerability, which is difficult for organisations, and also for individuals.

There are individuals displaying great courage in building good partnership practice, in spite of their organisational cultures or restrictions. And there are whole organisations doing the same thing, going against the grain of standard practice within their sector. But this is hard, complicated, compromising, messy work, which in many ways we are ill-equipped to do. I worry about using the term ‘partnership,’ unexamined, to make us feel that just by using it we are doing things differently, without also thinking carefully about our partnership practice.  

  • Yeshe Smith
    Yeshe Smith

    Yeshe Smith is the Programs and Partnerships Manager at the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, La Trobe University

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