What’s the problem with partnerships in international development? We need a feminist approach…

Leila Billing
10 min readSep 9, 2020


When I started working in international development, somewhat romantic notions about the potential of civil society partnerships prevailed. People often spoke about partnerships as a way of building ‘power with’ and ensuring local actors could leverage ‘power to’. Early on, I was lucky enough to work for a couple of International NGOs (INGOs) that seemed to be doing a good job of brokering and sustaining civil society partnerships with local actors — where participatory approaches were in place, accountability mechanisms seemed to be working well, and where partners seemed prepared to stand in solidarity with each other. A few years later, and these romantic notions about collaboration have somewhat faded: I’ve seen many types of partnerships, coalitions, alliances and civil society networks struggle and fail, or ‘just about manage’. As a someone who works on gender issues, I’ve been disappointed by how few partnerships have seemed to embody feminist principles and approaches. In particular, I’ve seen how civil society partnerships set up to tackle issues relating to gender inequality are internally perfectly capable of modelling the types of patriarchal, inequitable behaviours and practices the partners aim to address through their programming or advocacy work.

In this piece, I’ll give some examples of what might be going wrong with our approach to partnerships and propose potential ways forward. To begin, here are just some of the problematic partnership dynamics I have either witnessed or — I’ll be honest here — been complicit in. I suspect I’m not the only one.

· An INGO partnering with a local organisation fails to live up to its laudable partnership principles relating to inclusion, accessibility or transparency. All too often, labyrinthine compliance procedures imposed on the local organisation stymie the potential for equity before the collaboration has even officially started.

· Linked to the above, is the INGO-ization of local actors — whereby governance structures and procedures of the more powerful partner is imposed on a local organisation, which might have had entirely different internal arrangements that worked well for them in the past.

· Power asymmetries between partners quash the agency of one or more of the smaller partners — the less powerful organisations often simmer away in frustration and start to disengage from the work, as they are unable to voice their concerns or rectify the situation satisfactorily.

· Success of the partnership is reliant upon the committed actions of just one or two individuals — when they leave, the partnership falters. (This phenomenon is also — somewhat crudely — known as partnerships failing to pass the ‘bus accident’ test: imagine everyone directly involved in the partnership is killed in a bus accident. Does the work of the partnership continue, or does it falter?)

· The partnership isn’t organic — it’s conceived at the behest of a donor who wants two agencies to work together. And the donor won’t consider funding the type of partnership-building work that could make the collaboration a success.

· The more powerful partner does not adopt an inclusive ‘whole-of-partner’ approach — they’ll select a few ‘model’ individuals from each partner organisation to participate in international events and platforms. This concentrates a transfer of power to particular individuals, rather than the partner organisation as a whole and ends up causing tensions and frustrations.

· In some parts of the sector — I’m looking at you, humanitarians — there’s still a lack of humility from INGOs on what can be achieved by local actors alone. I read the notes from a recent event by a reputable think tank in which one of the recommendations was that local organisations need to provide more evidence to international actors on why more aid should be localised. (Make what you will about my choice of italics here!)

· Lack of an intersectional, movement-based, solidarity approach is common. Too many partnerships are boxed in by ‘formal’ partnership arrangements, and don’t explore opportunities for looser forms of engagement with other actors in pursuit of social justice and gender justice goals, even when to do so is a no-brainer. This reflects the need for those of us working on partnership building to consider how our partnerships are situated in a wider ecosystem for change. For example, those who understand issues like child marriage and FGM/C know that in contexts where both practices occur, one cannot be effectively addressed without a focus on the other. Yet, collaboration between actors working on these issues could be much more integrated and mutually supportive in many parts of the world.

· Partnerships that reproduce difference and solidify inequalities and skills gaps are widespread. I’ve seen many INGOs allocate certain tasks to local organisations and maintain specific, ‘flashier’ areas of responsibility for themselves (e.g. the INGO holds the relationships with the donor agency; the local organisation sticks to community mobilisation). There are sometimes good intentions behind this; many assume they are playing to the niche aptitudes of different partners. But this can result in siloing and consolidation of skills — when we give certain tasks to groups again and again, it helps to build the skills that go with these tasks. And so cycles of inequality repeat themselves.

Where might we be going wrong?

We cannot abstract these partnerships from the wider systems in which they operate: global systems of funding and policy are just two of the factors that limit our ability to forge more equitable civil society partnerships. But I want to widen the aperture here by taking a feminist analysis of power into account. Once more transformative ideas about partnership building have entered development institutions, it seems they have become aligned to the pre-existing objectives and frameworks that already drive an organisation. Furthermore, social relations of power become sidelined in how we approach these partnerships. Social relations of power are inscribed into and reproduced by every type of partnership, but the dominant ways many of us approach partnership building — largely as a technocratic or administrative exercise — do not take this into account. Social relations affect a) how things get done in the partnership b) what gets done c) the resources used and produced by the partnership d) people (who’s in and who’s out) and e) how decision-making operates. Uninterrupted, this can end up reproducing social difference and social inequalities. The tools some of us use to surface power dynamics in a partnership often rely on rather static, ahistorical understandings of how power operates in a given context. So what might a feminist approach to partnership building offer us?

The purpose of a feminist partnership must be the pursuit of social justice and the transformation of unequal power relations in society. There are some useful schematic frameworks we can turn to in order to help us think through how to partner more effectively — the Partnership Cycle, below, being one of them. But a framework like the partnership cycle alone won’t give us what we need to understand and adopt a more political, feminist approach to partnership building. To achieve this, we need to layer on a forensic analysis of the dynamic nature power; and we must consciously apply key feminist principles at every stage of the partnership-building process. In my experience, the application of feminist principles is central to building relationships of trust in any partnership. Without this trust, collaboration will founder.

Picture from The Partnering Initiative

Here are some tentative ideas for how we can start to integrate feminist approaches into different stages of the partnership cycle. These are particularly pertinent to civil society partnerships where one or more partner holds the balance of power.

Scoping and building

· Two-way due diligence is important. Partners should open up their work and organisations to mutual interrogation and exploration. Consider if both partners are sharing their internal policies and procedures with each other? Many INGO partnership assessment processes are supposed to allow for this to happen, but the processes often become performative ‘form traps’ whereby the intention behind the process is the opposite of the way in which the less powerful partner actually experiences it. We must no longer rely upon static processes to be able to surface and transform these power dynamics.

· Self-reflexivity about our own organisational cultures is a must. Simply put, how can you decide whether you’re a good match with a local partner without first reflecting upon your own organisational culture, processes, policies, principles, practices, and politics? How do the gendered ‘deep structures’ — i.e. unspoken ways of doing things, organisational norms and practices — show up in our individual organisations and how might this affect our expectations of our partner organisations or the success of the partnership itself?

· Be vigilant about extractive processes and relations at this stage — whereby the less dominant partner is providing swathes information to the more powerful one in order to prove they are ‘fit for partnering’, with little in return. Consider how this process could be more mutually empowering — how will the less dominant partner benefit and be exposed to valuable learning or resources at this early stage. Learning and resources could mean ensuring that local partner is connected with an INGO’s other existing partners so they can get the lowdown on what it’s really like to partner with that INGO.

· Use approaches of deep, generative listening to build understanding and empathy for partners. This approach can help you not just to understand and build trust with the other organisation, but will also give you some of the analysis you need to adopt a more redistributive approach to power within the partnership in the future. It will also help you to understand the structures, processes and systems that have positioned the partner unequally with your organisation. In the most successful partnerships I’ve been involved in, the partners were able to answer the following questions about each other: What facilities does this organisation have/not have and how does that affect their work; what is a day like working there: what are the stresses that come from working for this organisation; what constraints do the employees face; what are their fears, hopes and aspirations; how is this organisation perceived by others in the wider ecosystem; how might the organisation and its employees be affected by intersecting oppressions?

· Deep interrogation of mutual principles and values — this is about more than just exploring how the partnership will embody feminist values like empowerment or accountability (though in my experience discussions about values are whizzed through or confined to tick-box exercises). Development is often a struggle of concepts, meanings and priorities which arise out of a different world view on the ultimate goals of development. A conversation about the ultimate goals of development with a prospective partner is not an academic luxury; I’d argue it’s a necessity that should be within the purview of early partnership-building work.

· Explore each other’s appetite for risk. Feminist partnerships serve the purpose of transformation of power inequalities — and this doesn’t come without risk. I’ve seen some partnerships founder because the partners’ appetite for risk was not aligned. It’s essential to have conversations about risk, backlash and how the partnership will manage this from the earliest stages.

Managing and maintaining

· Adopt transparent, inclusive decision-making procedures rooted in collective leadership. Ask yourselves, who is and isn’t represented when decisions are taken? How are decisions made? How is information shared? What happens when we cannot agree?

· Destigmatise conflict — and avoid avoidance. Tell stories about times when disagreements ended up being fruitful for the trajectory of your partnership. Feminist leadership approaches to conflict and consensus building can really add value here.

· Valuing the knowledge and expertise of all partners can help to disrupt unequal power relations. Gender and other forms of inequality are so often reproduced by our dominant ways of ‘knowing’. Not all forms of knowledge are considered equal. Feminist partnership approaches require us to regularly assess whether there is a meaningful circulation of knowledge between partners.

· Local partner organisations stress ad nauseum the need for embedding flexibility into partnership arrangements — yet so often partnership compliance arrangements continue to constrain the ability of the partnership and partners to be flexible and adaptable. These arrangements must be redesigned to accommodate change and adaptability.

· Feminist partnerships must nourish the heart, head and body — which means they must actively seek to support the care and well being of individuals and groups within them, and ensure they are able to stay connected to the core feminist principles and values. This means promoting cultures of mutual care and empathy for the challenges that each organisation is facing. It also means supporting local organisations to deal with the risks they might face as a result of their work on gender equality , that the INGO does not.

· Centering those at the margins is key, as is making redistribution of power an objective of the partnership. Dominant partners should be focusing upon how they can transform power imbalances by e.g. giving the less dominant partner(s) a platform, access to influencers, different types of resources, as well as by publicly validating their capabilities.

Reviewing and revising

The process of reviewing or readjusting a partnership has to be with, for and owned by all participants.

· Co-create review processes — both partners should use shared reporting frameworks and be encouraged to report on indicators that are meaningful to them. Easier said than done when donor funding is involved!

· Explore whether power relations within the partnership are shifting. Who has voice in the partnership? How are relationships of trust expressed?

· Consider the benefits of adopting smaller, more dynamic evaluation throughout the partnership cycle, rather than one large summative evaluation — how might smaller, more dynamic learning exercises be of greater benefit to all involved?

· Ensuring each partner has agency to act on the recommendations generated by review processes.

· Reframing ideas of ‘efficiency’ — which all too often align with neoliberal approaches. Remember that dominant conceptions of ‘efficiency’ may come at considerable costs to the local partner organisation.

The above is an attempt to describe how we can start to tilt the balance of power in our partnerships. It is also an approach that recognises work needs to be done at the systemic level to create a conducive environment for partnership building. Yes, it is a complex, political process. But in global development, what isn’t? As practitioners, we must be able to hold and navigate this complexity, as well as be open to the potential for individual transformation in the process.

Leila Billing is a freelance gender consultant. She specialises in partnership and movement-building, feminist leadership and violence against women and girls. Follow her on Twitter @leilabilling