Graham Bennett is former CEO of One World Action now working as a freelance coach and researcher and currently a Board member for ChildHope
Tell me a bit about your experience with partnership working in international development?
My experience of partnership working has mostly been that Northern NGOs are good at the rhetoric, and even the spirit, of partnership – but the reality there is usually a huge imbalance of power, usually related to the flow of funds from back donors in the North. This is probably a consequence of the concept of international development itself, and its essentially neo-colonial undercurrents. But that’s just my opinion, of course! With One World Action, I do think there was real effort to be a “partner” with social movements and other Southern organisations and groups, and I feel proud of the efforts the staff made to work alongside our Southen colleagues, and to create the opportunity for people to speak for themselves. An abiding memory, though, was an audience with a UK Secretary of State, myself and five lively, articulate African activitists. The Secretary of State turned to me, and asked “What can I do for you today, Graham?”. To which I replied: “What you can do is talk to my friends you see around me, and find out what UK policies are really doing to the people of Africa”. Sometimes it is the attitudes of those around you that make being an equal partner so hard.
What do you think are the key things that need to be in place for a partnership to work well?
Mutual respect is the most important component of true partnership. With respect, it is possible to work openly through different ideological and philosophical differences, and to deal with the practical details that can destroy partnerships – notably funding and reporting!
Can you tell me about an experience you’ve had which you felt was partnership working at it’s most effective?
For me, as CEO of One World Action, the example that comes to mind might seem a little strange to some. But, once when visiting Bangladesh, I remember sitting down for dinner with the Director of one of our civil partners, an organisation with whom we shared a whole range of values. And I felt our discussion, far reaching, impassioned and sometimes argumentative, was truly one of equals – “of partners” – though we lived so many miles apart. That conversation gave me hope that, all around the world, there are people and “partners” who share a vision of a just and equal world. I’m proud to say that he also once came to visit my home in East London, where the conversation carried on, and we ate in a local, very basic Muslim eating place where “partnership” extended to the staff who wanted to offer their views on international development!
Are you willing to share an example of something that you were involved in that didn’t go well?
One of One World Action’s partners was an organisation of blind women in Central America. At some point way too far down the line, I realised we were having an internal argument, between our Programmes and Finance staff, about the financial reports received – or not received – from the women. With horrible irony, we had “lost sight of” what the work was all about, and what amazing things those blind women were doing for themselves and their community. Pressure, real or perceived, from a back donor was giving us a narrow focus – had funds been received, had they been spent, why were there none of the Excel spreadsheets the partner had agreed to? This was the very dynamic of “partnership” that, intellectually, I would reject with every part of my will; and yet here we were, asserting Northern power almost unthinkingly because “that’s the way things are done”
What are the key things you think need to happen to improve partnership practice across the sector?
First and foremost, Northern NGOs need to take a step back and become just a little more respectful and humble in their relationships with Southern “partners”; and really listen. The rhetoric needs to become reality – we need to plan and take action together, Northern and Southern partners, in one huge social movement of equals – not equal in resources, but equal in commitment and legitimacy. An African women told me once that a large Northern NGO had paid for her and twenty of her colleagues to travel to a World Social Forum – and provided branded t-shirts for them all to wear, in the name of the Northern NGO. Stopping such practice, which feels so exploitative and dis-respectful would be a step towards creating real partnership.
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