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What IS equitable partnership in development?

My ongoing research project highlights the importance of creating equitable partnerships between the Global South and North. As I interview others about their views, I wanted to challenge myself to put my own thoughts down on paper (erm, on computer).

What follows is deliberately broad, as it’s meant to serve as a starting point for discussion. In future,we will delve into what equitable partnership means for different sectors (peacebuilding, education, health, etc), different activities (research, M&E, Technical Assistance, programme management), different levels (international, national, local), and different actors (government, civil society, private sector, and more). The principles outlined below should cut across all of these dimensions.

Without further ado – according to my own vision, equitable partnerships are:

  • Southern-led, not imposed

This idea has been on the international development agenda for a while. Country ownership at the state level is central to both the 2005 Paris Declaration and the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action. This principle was reinforced in the 2012 Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, and widened to include different types of development partnerships. But in many cases this commitment remains in the realm of rhetoric. In addition, the principle of ownership needs to trickle down to every layer of action – signing a Memorandum of Understanding with a government is not a sufficient condition for creating equitable partnership at all levels, especially when those that are targeted through interventions are non-governmental.

  • Crafted with at minimum equal representation from Southern partners

Related to the above, far too often are interventions hatched in Northern cities without equal representation of people from the countries and communities that will supposedly benefit from a particular programme. (Needless to say, this also applies to equal representation of women and men.) I find this to be the case especially in projects that are competitively procured over short-time frames, leaving limited or no time for co-creation to happen. It is easy to revert to the familiar: mounting a largely international team of experts that will design and implement an intervention in a given country, city or community. This must change – it’s not that international expertise is never needed, but  it must be deployed in a manner that enhances Southern-led priorities and approaches.

  • Not based on assumptions of what the Southern partner needs

Speaking of genuine wishes, too often do we make sweeping assumptions about what kind of support the Southern partner (whether it be a government, CSO or other type of stakeholder) actually wants or needs. Elaborate Theories of Change are crafted that unpack whether an intervention will lead to the intended result, often without questioning if the intervention is actually based on Southern partner priorities. From a Do No Harm perspective, it is also important to be aware of the negative unintended consequences that can stem from these assumptions. International actors alone lack the contextual knowledge to be able to predict or counteract such unintended effects, and thus equitable partnership with Southern actors is essential to the success of any intervention.

  • Aware of historical power imbalances

No partnership in development starts from zero. There is a long history of Northern-driven imposition in the Global South, and the structural, racial and gender-based inequalities that resulted from this cannot simply be ignored. Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters writes about this from a Northern perspective, noting that we can no longer fail to acknowledge these power imbalances. If development partnerships today are to be equitable, stakeholders must acknowledge these negative historical legacies and actively work to re-balance the distribution of power.

  • Respectful of the right to say no

The pressure to spend Official Development Assistance budgets, especially in countries with set targets, is well known. This pressure should not, however, trump the right of those receiving money or support to say no if they feel the proposed intervention is not in their best interest. Any approach other than this is necessarily paternalistic (‘we know what’s best for you’) and would violate the first principle on this list. It also reinforces the perception of people in the South as passive ‘takers’ of aid who should be grateful for any intervention, however conceived. The views of Southern partners – those who are the supposed recipients – must not be ‘taken into account’, but prioritised.

  • Monitored explicitly on how equitable they are over time

It appears we often feel that forging a partnership is the hardest part of the process. But nourishing partnerships over the long-term is a far greater challenge, and the question of whether they remain equitable requires consistent and deliberate attention. Accountability mechanisms must be put in place, especially from the South, that explicitly monitor whether interventions are based on a truly equitable foundation, bearing all of the above points in mind. Long-term programming often outlasts government official terms, or the tenure of donor representatives in country, and communities can suffer from this turnover if principles of equity are not carried forward in a robust way across all interventions.


And there you have it, my humble view on how to bring greater equity into international development partnerships of all shapes and sizes. I look forward to adding to this list, and improving it, as my interviews progress.

It goes without saying that there is a lot of good and best practice out there that upholds these principles in a meaningful way – and I’m making it my mission to find these examples and publicise them. Please get in touch if you think this sounds like you, or if you’d like to recommend someone for me to interview.

So what have I missed out?

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