Nurturing a meaningful partnership is vital for sustaining and implementing positive solutions. We welcomed our guest speakers Dominique Uwase Alonga, Mwimbe Fikirini, Donald Rust and Josephat Langat  to join our discussion in understanding what builds a successful and meaningful partnership.  Drawing on our previous webinar, surrounding the presence of power and privilege, it is clear that there is an undercurrent of the colonial narrative throughout the development discourse / global solidarity1. By addressing this colonial legacy, we want to understand how it has transcended into partnerships. Importantly, our speakers highlighted that it is impossible to create a meaningful partnership without acknowledging the role of the colonial legacy. The infiltration of colonial thinking is so ingrained, unconsciously perpetuated through assumptions and expectations in a partnership. Trying to recognise the gravity of the colonial legacy is difficult. However, once understood, the sharing of six basic principles by our speakers will guide you in building an effective and equitable partnership.

Assumptions and expectations derived from the colonial era

Traditionally partnerships have been built on a hierarchical relationship, where there is a giver who has the most power (usually from the Global North) and a receiver (usually those in low income and middle income countries). Donald described this transaction as an ‘import and export mechanism’. It is often an untroubled dynamic that both entities are seemingly comfortable with. However, this partnership is unsustainable. It is continuing to transgress the colonial power imbalances which will ultimately cause the partnership to break down. But since post-colonialism, what has reinforced this power dynamic in a partnership?

Our speakers highlighted the role assumptions and expectations. The legacy of colonisation has positioned The Global North as the more superior partner, commonly referred to as the ‘expert’. This is because there is an assumption that The Global North has significant wealth and knowledge and will micromanage the whole process. Speaking from his experience, Donald demonstrated how these assumptions can impede the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of partnerships. He found locals wanted to be taught by the so-called ‘expert’ from The Global North. This was problematic because those who were taught did not feel able to pass on their knowledge because they were not an ‘expert’ themselves. As a result, the effectiveness of the partnership was inhibited in several ways:

  • Bringing in ‘experts’ from the Global North undermined the efforts of the local capacity.
  • It inhibited the ability of locals to share their new knowledge with the wider community.
  • Their lack of control and ownership over the intervention caused locals to withdraw from the partnership.

Meimbe also added that those receiving from The Global North can often assume a level of mistrust and inequality that has been leftover from colonial exploitation. The imbalance of power played out in many assumptions and expectations limited the effectiveness of a partnership. Even if you come into a partnership not wanting to be assumed as the wealthy, knowledgeable, these assumptions are so ingrained into the development framework as to be often unavoidable. To build an effective partnership, the power imbalances need to be equalised and the assumptions and expectations reversed.

The six basic principles to building an effective partnership

1. Communication

One way to redistribute power and set in motion the building of a meaningful partnership is through opening up conversations. This includes honest dialogue that does not ignore the power imbalance, rather acknowledges it and specifically targets methods to redistribute it. Through this dialogue, it is important to emphasise that all voices must have equal weighting. This is already stripping back the colonial narrative. As Dominique explains, this can be thought of as handing over/back the microphone. Listening to what your partner has to say, rather than assuming to be the ‘expert’. This dialogue should highlight clearly what the local issues are and what local solutions are already available. Utilising local solutions is far more powerful and effective than implementing blanket Western ideas without a contextual consideration. Coming alongside your partner, rather than maintaining a hierarchical position will help to dismantle assumptions and expectations. This communication will be the premise of a successful partnership as must be utilised in the five other principles.

2. Building shared values

Applying the notions of principle 1, it is important to devise a mutually agreed objective that both partners have agreed on. When two entities come together, it is their shared values and aims that will build the foundations of a successful partnership. Partnerships who share a vision will more likely keep both sides accountable for their work. These values must be transparent, with each party’s aims and values heard and appreciated equally. This will redistribute power. To be sustainable, this vision must take into consideration the longevity of your impact. How will it reach people outside of your immediate community?

3. Appreciating difference

With the foundations of a shared vision laid, it is important to mention that having differences with your partner is okay. The coming together of two entities in a partnership will often be the coming together of different cultures and priorities. Naturally, there will be differences. If these differences can be recognised and communicated they do not have to undermine the shared vision and aims. Instead, they can be utilised as a strength and opportunity for learning.

4. Capacity building

An effective partnership will nurture the sharing of knowledge and learning of those in the weaker power position. Rather than the west taking over, this will come through engaging in the already present local capacity. By looking at solutions that are already on the ground, power redistribution will come into play. Therefore, before devising a solution, research must be done into what solutions are already there. If there is not a local solution in place, then new ideas must be driven locally. Through having community involvement, it gives the community ownership and in turn, it will increase the effectiveness of the partnership. The solution will be more resilient if it is driven by the community. Meimbe expands on this by explaining that sustainable solutions must also look beyond a small community. Implementing a model that can build the capacity of areas beyond, impacting the majority, not just the minority.

5. The importance of representation

As part of redistributing the power, to create a partnership that is of equal weighting, Dominique highlights the importance of representation. Going back to the assumptions derived from the colonial narrative, language choices can also play a role in maintaining power imbalances. A large assumption in the development/ Global solidarity discourse from the colonial legacy is that The Global North is the ‘expert’. But why is the expert always from the North? As we have highlighted, the most successful partnerships occur when local solutions are used. Therefore, we must understand how this representation of The Global North being the expert is detrimental.  Dominique explains that by shifting the language we use to portray our partners we can give the power back. For example, we must think about the representations we use; are you representing your partners as though they are on the same level as you? Decades of development campaigns that have persistently portrayed low income and middle income countries as incapable and in need of Western intervention has helped to reinforce the colonial power imbalance. However, this is ineffective as much as it is untrue. As Dominique explains, from the Global North you need to represent your partner “not as people we want to serve but as people we want to have dinner with”. By using language that portrays your partner as though you are equals and that their voice matters as much as yours does, you are giving back the power. 

6. Utilising diaspora

Diaspora communities can be extremely helpful in communicating with both sides of the partnerships. Their understanding of both cultures can be an effective method of learning about cultural differences and helping communities engage.

When two partners come together, their relationship is on a power pivot that is often unbalanced. With the implementation of these 6 principles, we should begin to see a redistribution of power. Expectations and assumptions that have been so unconsciously enacted reversed, to develop partnerships that can be much more effective. Creating your partnership that is built on trust and equality will not necessarily change the overall power imbalance evident in the sector, but it will help contribute to that narrative shift.


Ellie Millington is a Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel volunteer


1 We are using international development and global solidarity interchangeably throughout this article as these terms reflect the changes in our sector. We are moving away from talking about ‘international development’ to ‘international solidarity’ as we acknowledge that relationships should be built with emphasis on equal partnership and not a colonial, one-sided ‘power over’ dynamic that we have seen from early days of the sector.