Can we address imbalances of power in cross-sector partnerships?

Working in collaboration brings together different strengths and abilities to the table. Photo by: World Vision International

What does effective collaboration look like when a nutrition program for children involves a government health department, a U.N. agency, and local and international NGOs? Is it even possible for these partners to work together collaboratively and effectively when such different levels of influence exist?

Let’s examine the above scenario, which happened in a rural town in Malawi, where World Vision was working with community volunteers to improve children’s nutrition. Using different approaches, a local NGO, the ministry of health, the Red Cross and the World Food Program were also leading a variety of different interventions in this area. Each brought different strengths and abilities to the table.

Nongovernmental organizations had strong relationships with the local community, WFP had great technical resources, and the government had the ability to make decisions on operations and approaches. Each was doing excellent work, but in parallel rather than together. How would these different assets and approaches, including the power imbalances, play out when everyone involved embarked on a collaborative project?

Before we answer that question, let’s explore the broader issue of who holds power — the ability to influence design, implementation and ongoing decision-making of projects and programs — in development partnerships.

World Vision is currently advocating for a post-2015 development agenda that allows for cross-sector partnerships to flourish, and that will ensure these partnerships focus on reaching the most vulnerable children. However, in the discussion on what will replace the Millennium Development Goals, we have observed concern regarding the potential unevenness of influence between partners in cross-sector partnerships (this and other potential issues and solutions are explored in the World Vision report “Advancing the Debate”).

Imbalances of power exist between organizations in all partnerships and at all levels. Which partner is on the “lesser end” of the imbalance will, of course, vary from one setup to another. It’s important to note that concerns regarding inappropriate influence have been leveled at all sectors, including donor governments over developing countries, through to corporations with perceived influence on the development of government policy. When an imbalance exists, it’s often the poor who are disadvantaged.

The good news is that unevenness of power can be managed and mitigated, while differences in approaches can be turned into advantages. This begins with strengthening the capacity of organizations from all sectors — business, civil society, U.N. and governments — so they are “fit to partner.”

Being fit to partner requires each organization to be conscious of their level of influence and particular expertise — and to recognize the value others bring to the table. This is the starting point from which an agreement can be entered into that allows for a more even distribution of influence; and ultimately a partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts. If one group seeks to dominate a particular project or program, it quickly reverts to a subcontract like arrangement — and invariably the benefits for all partners are lost.

The opposite is also true. We are seeing progressive and well-intentioned companies working with governments and organizations with strong capacity — including strong contract negotiation capacity — and the ability to make sense of how to leverage business activities for sustainable development returns. In partnerships where all groups are able to bring their best, game-changing opportunities are being realized.

Equally important to the success of partnerships is empowering people to hold governments, businesses and aid agencies to account. Accountability is fundamental to mitigating the risks of power imbalances. World Vision, for example, is currently supporting more than 411 programs in 42 countries to implement the Citizen Voice and Action social accountability approach. This approach encourages discussion and helps to transform the relationship between government and citizens.

So how might this work in practice? Returning to the example in Malawi, the partners adopted a partnership brokering approach. In the negotiations that followed, different levels of influence and expertise were recognized, while workshops were organized to explore the complementary contributions the partners could bring to a joint program.

In so doing, “differences” became “strengths” and reasons to work together. A revised, more effective approach and structure for working collaboratively with care groups emerged. Ultimately, each organization had to adapt from its business-as-usual approach. Crucial to the negotiations was keeping an eye firmly on the agreed overall objective — improved nutrition for children.

Having recognized and brokered its way through the potentially disabling differences, including power imbalances, this fledgling partnership is now working cost effectively to tackle the crippling consequences of undernutrition — and most importantly, to save the lives of vulnerable children.

This article is shared in collaboration with the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. Read more expert comment here.

Devex, in partnership with the Shared Value Initiative, FSG and Global Impact, is examining how the world’s largest international nongovernmental organizations are transitioning their partnership strategies from traditional corporate partnerships to more scalable initiatives. We’ll look at how these initiatives accelerate both social impact and a business return on investment, while highlighting engagement in shared value during this special series “The Future of International NGOs.” Join the conversation using #FutureINGO.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Cheryl Freeman

    Cheryl Freeman is senior director for advocacy and justice for children at World Vision International. During the post-2015 process, she has been focusing on the role of multistakeholder partnerships and is the co-author of three papers on their potential contribution to sustainable development.