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Practicing partnership: reflections from South Africa

Posted by Allan Moolman Head of Programme, Tanzania

6th Jul 2016

Karl Schoemaker | OXFAM

LEARNING: Partnerships in development communities require different approaches and practices depending on the relationship between organisations. Oxfam Australia's former South Africa Country Director introduces a discussion paper which reflects on a trip where he met with 40 different partner organisations.  

Partnership is an important idea for the development community. Uncomfortable with the very obvious power differentials that are inherent in the global development system, with some (mostly 'Western', developed country international NGOs) having access to, and control of huge pools of resourcing, and others (mostly 'Southern', developing country civil society organisations) accessing these resources through them, partnership becomes a more power-neutral way of describing the relationships.

Uncomfortable with being seen as a donor or grantmaker, the INGO community has come to prefer calling their relationships with other organisations partnerships. Despite efforts at nuancing it, this catchall term hides more than it reveals, and has resulted in a general anxiety and mushrooming of tools, approaches and guidance to regulate, formalize and control what is an essentially human activity. Uncomfortable with being seen as a donor or grantmaker, the INGO community has come to prefer calling their relationships with other organisations partnerships.

For many years I oversaw Oxfam Australia's work in South Africa. This era came to an end with the formation of the new independent Oxfam South Africa in 2015. A colleague and I went on a road trip to say farewell and to thank all the people we had worked with over the years. We visited over 40 partner organisations over two weeks, connecting and reconnecting with people we had come to regard as colleagues, friends and 'comrades' over more than fifteen years of program delivery in South Africa.

Some meetings were emotional and heavy, others were light and celebratory, but each one told us something about the way we work that made me proud. Time and again, partners reflected that Oxfam Australia was a different donor, a true partner and valued for much more than the relatively little (as one partner put it!) money we made available to them.

I've gathered my reflections from this trip into a discussion paper looking at An Ecological Approach to Partnership. It examines four issues: power, contestation, trust and adaptive practice. It also presents an emergent partnership model drawing on this learning. I have tried to describe and make sense of a 'being and doing' approach rather than presenting a set of principles or guidelines. The paper reflects on partnership practice that is lived and changeable, iterative and focused on making relationships better and stronger. Fundamentally it's about the type of partnership that recognises that development and progress are founded on relationships and that because of this all practice should start and end with people.

These ideas are not new or revolutionary; they are a reflection of the practices of a team of dedicated people wanting to see change happen. They are also not definitive, rather these are ideas based on my personal observations and sense making. Others may see these same processes and ideas differently. It is also not intended to be a 'how to' manual or a 'model'. Rather, I hope it provides a starting point for a few conversations and reflections within your organisations and with partners themselves on your own practices of partnership, what aspects make sense to you, or worry you, or make you anxious or excited?

How you 'do' partnership is, after all, a question of individual practice that has to be developed and approached consciously. 

Read More

Download An Ecological Approach to Partnership

Read our Partnering for Impact series

Download our partnerships toolkit: Putting Oxfam's Partnership Principles into Practice

Read more blogs on partnerships

Photo: Mantho Sehapi, an Umzi Wethu graduate, and her mother Pontso Tsatsi at their home in Port Elizabeth. Credit: Karl Schoemaker | OXFAM

Blog post written by Allan Moolman

Head of Programme, Tanzania

More by Allan Moolman