Creating equal partnerships calls for a paradigm shift

While it is widely known that few partnerships between African and international organisations benefit all the parties involved, how to change that imbalance remains a key challenge, but one that the recently launched Alliance for African Partnership, or AAP, is determined to tackle.

Participants of the Michigan State University AAP initiative, which was launched in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania grappled with this question under the theme ‘Putting vision into action together’.

“In the Alliance we have embarked on a journey to bring about a paradigm shift in the way we think about and practice partnerships,” said Thelma Awori, AAP board chair and president of the Sustainable Market Women’s Fund in Liberia.

“We need our combined strength to succeed. We need to have the courage to confront some of the age-old myths that have brought [about] the way we think about partnerships and have impeded our success,” she said.

One of these impediments was accepting the demands of funders without tackling real problems at stake so that African partners would not lose international funding.

“There is such insecurity about financing … We as African partners end up accepting programmes that are not dear to us …Whatever we do has to change the lives of the people,” she said.

Awori called for change in the way partners have been thinking about knowledge – Where is knowledge? Where is it created? What is scientific knowledge?

Different ways of knowing

“We need to know that there are different ways of knowing. We have to take pride in our own [way of] knowing,” she said, adding that the world was now hungry for new ways of working together.

This could only come about through learning from each other, even beyond specific projects, she said. Ensuring the transformation of institutions in order that they become receptive to new thinking should not happen only in Africa, but outside the continent as well.

Bongiwe Njobe, independent board member of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, or RUFORUM, said the organisation was looking forward to making a concrete contribution around the best ways to use partnerships learnt from projects such as Ag-Share, a digitised higher education platform to share agricultural learning material.

Reflecting on the first Africa-China-World Bank Education Partnership Forum held from 10-15 July, Njobe said African universities should establish clear guidelines and timeframes to ensure greater self-reliance in partnerships with the Global North.

She noted that the CGIAR Independent Science and Partnership Council published a study in 2015 on good practice that argued that different partnership models and innovation should be applied in different contexts for different problems and impacts.

A need for an equal stake in the outcome of the partnership and a need for clarity of roles were equally called for, she said.

A means to an end

“Partnerships need to be employed as means to an end, not as an end themselves. It is imperative that there is a shared vision and a clear definition of what it will look like in the end,” she said.

Njobe said responsibilities and accountability must be spelt out clearly for all parties and allocation of costs and benefits should be based on the principle of equivalence.

“Local partnerships for development are complex and they require foresight about the endgame. They also require clear principles to guide the process, the structure and resolution of disputes that may arise even during the process of negotiation around partnerships or in the actual implementation,” she said.

Addressing global challenges through local partnerships necessitated an evolution of new types of leaders with creative ways of doing things, leaders who were scientific and could facilitate innovation and offer well-developed inter-personal skills, she said, noting that developing this kind of leadership remains a challenge for successful partnerships.

She said it would be interesting for RUFORUM and Michigan State University to assess the experience the two partners have had over the past decade in terms of transforming institutions and individuals.

“As we rethink how to strengthen partnerships in line with AAP, we all need to commit to doing things differently to improve our individual and collective activism to achieve greater impact,” said Njobe.

Asking the right questions

Taking a cue from Eliyahu M Goldratt and Jeff Cox’s book, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, Njobe said: “An expert is not a person who gives the right answer but someone who asks the right question.”

“As scholars and academics we need to think how we can effectively focus our most useful contribution to the development of human capital by asking the right questions within society, because we know the best partnerships are not only dependent on a common goal but on a shared partnership quality and no small amount of passion.”

According to Chance Kabaghe, executive director of the Regional Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes or ReNAPRI, shakers and movers across the value chain, who include business people and politicians, will be needed to drive the partnerships agenda.

Jamie Monson, co-director of AAP and director of the African Studies Center at MSU, said she hoped to continue to have an opportunity to engage with stakeholders to ensure effective partnerships.

“We want to have partnership relations that will in turn motivate relationships on the ground,” she told University World News. “How you begin and set the stage is critical. I believe very strongly in the process, in inclusivity.”