Tag Archives partnerships

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Some steps for decolonising international research-for-development partnerships

While partnerships between researchers and practitioners from the Global North and Global South can be and often are intellectually and socially impactful, they remain highly unequal. Coloniality pervades these partnerships, influencing who leads the research projects implemented in the Global South and whose interests are represented. Here, the conveners and panellists of a roundtable discussion on partnerships in academia that formed part of the recent EADI ISS Conference 2021 propose some steps for decolonising international research partnerships. 

Much of the very urgent and timely discussion on decolonising the academe[1] – recognising and changing the colonial relations of power that are embedded in teaching as well as research – has focused on representation, on diversifying the curricula, and on theorising from the Global South. But what about research partnerships and collaborations? This is a slightly overlooked issue in the decolonisation agenda, but one that is no less important.

In the field of international development particularly, but not only, collaborations between academic institutions in the Global North and academic and non-academic institutions in the Global South are often crucial to demonstrate research impact and to generate funding. But these partnerships themselves are fraught by unequal power relations. To truly decolonise research, it is necessary to decolonise every aspect of it – including the way in which we collaborate internationally.

At a recent roundtable at the EADI ISS Conference 2021 called ‘Partnership, participation and power in academia’, we sought answers to questions that included:

  • How do unequal power relations manifest in the design and operation of research?
  • What might we do to challenge these relations?
  • What would it mean to decolonise these research partnerships?

During the roundtable, participants highlighted key issues that arose in how international research collaborations are designed and implemented. These are summarised below. We start with reflections on how coloniality manifests itself through various stages of the collaboration process.

Agenda-setting: whose interests are really represented?

There are a number of programmatic and institutional issues that result in unequal relations between collaborators across the Global North and Global South, both within academic institutions and between academia and practice. Funding sources and structures are obvious culprits here. Not only are funders often situated in the Global North, the criteria for eligibility and affiliation means that these partners need to be the principal or lead investigators. As a result, more often than not, project outcomes and impacts end up being structured and valued by the parameters of funding bodies and university departments in the Global North with little regard for what might be important for partners inhabiting other geographies and institutional environments. So, for example, the inordinate emphasis in projects on high-impact journal publications may be at odds with the priorities of an NGO partner in the Global South.

Constrained research design processes

Moreover, grant applications typically require clearly defined questions, outcomes and outputs – in fact, proposals are often marked down when they demonstrate the slightest sign of tentativeness – and the time between the announcement of grant and submission deadlines can be quite limited. These issues mean that research partnerships do not always have enough time and space to jointly develop a research agenda that accounts equally for interests of partners across the Global North and Global South and to allow for the messy process that robust research often tends to be.

More knowledge is more power (when it comes to agenda setting)

In fact, because researchers in the Global North also have more tacit knowledge and institutional support to make a proposal ‘fundable’, they have more power in setting the research agenda. In such situations, the degree to which partnerships are equitable depends on the discretion and conscience of individual academics. 

Partners in the Global South: mediators or change agents?

There are more fundamental questions that arise from these issues: who is considered a researcher and what does it mean to be a researcher? It is now widely accepted that the ‘lone researcher’ never was – the work of academics has always been enabled by other individuals and networks of support. In the context of many North-South research collaborations, practitioner organisers and local communities based in the Global South often become mediators providing access to field data, data collecting agents and/or passive recipients of research findings. Academics everywhere, but especially in the Global North, need to find ways of sharing power with institutions, communities and individuals in whose name these collaborative grants are often established.

Decolonising international research partnerships: some steps

With these issues and questions in mind, and based on the roundtable discussion, we propose some steps to decolonise international academic collaborations and foster partnerships that are equitable, democratic, and lead to locally relevant impacts.

  1. Decolonise the research ecosystem

First, the research ecosystem of funding bodies, higher education organisations and research institutions needs to be transformed to eliminate systemic biases against research partners from the Global South. More often than not, grant guidelines require that project leadership and budget administration remain with the Northern partners while hiring policies for project staff (e.g. PhD researchers) frequently discriminate against Southern candidates. We propose:

  • Redressing the hierarchies of funding structures: building funding instruments that recognise academic excellence, merit, and local relevance, regardless of researchers’ nationality;
  • Designing funding instruments that prioritise project leadership by Southern partners, both academics and practitioners;
  • Reflecting on the ways in which our own attitudes and practices perpetuate the systemic injustices within the research ecosystem.
  1. Decolonise the research process

Second, it is necessary to think critically about the biases that permeate the research inception process – from articulating the research idea through conceptualisation to funding acquisition. Rarely does it happen that the Northern and Southern co-applicants have the chance to brainstorm the research idea together and articulate their needs and preferences.  For projects to be co-created in an equitable manner, we propose the following:

  • Debunking the myth of research projects as linear and allowing for flexibility, adaptation, and learning throughout the project cycle;
  • Recognising that a certain degree of ‘messiness’ is an indispensable part of collaborative knowledge co-creation and that project priorities, as well as desired outputs and impacts, might change during the project;
  • Creating spaces for informal interaction between researchers and practitioners from institutions in the Global North and Global South where innovative ideas can be developed and discussed prior to grant application submission.
  1. Decolonise the research outputs

Third, research projects in the field of international development are frequently expected to deliver both applied (positive social change on the ground) and scientific (contributions to theory) impacts, but it is only the latter that often determine project ‘success’. This results in a somewhat skewed project logic that prioritises scientific outputs over practical insights.

Research outputs may be decolonised by:

  • Legitimising alternative knowledge systems, recognising the plurality of methodological approaches, and appreciating the indispensability of grounded and localised practitioner experiences;
  • Decoupling academic and non-academic project outputs, as well as recognising their value and complementary nature.

Research partnerships: processes, not actor constellations

North-South partnerships are not an isolated issue – they are part of a complex and dynamic research-for-development system. For this reason, we propose approaching partnerships as a process, as opposed to simply a contract or institutional arrangement. This process starts with decentralised, inclusive, and democratic agenda setting, followed by resource allocation that acknowledges the indispensable and complementary contributions of all partners. Project governance needs to be democratic and fair and, finally, knowledge co-creation must be recognised as leading to both academic and non-academic outputs and impacts. Approaching partnerships as a process can allow us to prioritise locally defined development agendas, to include and appreciate all relevant stakeholders, and to build on their diverse knowledges, skills, and experience

[1] For example, https://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/about/decolonisation/

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Katarzyna Cieslik is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on work, livelihoods and employment in the Global South, in particular in relation to technology/work/environment tradeoffs.

Shreya Sinha is a Lecturer at the University of Reading, working on agrarian political economy, political ecology and critical development studies with a focus on India.

Cees Leeuwis is professor of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation at Wageningen University. He studies processes of socio-technical innovation and transformation in networks, research for development policy, the functioning of innovation support systems and the role of innovation platforms, communication, extension and brokers therein.

Tania Eulalia Martínez-Cruz is an independent researcher and consultant at the Indigenous Peoples Unit at FAO, researching the politics of knowledge, gender and social inclusion/exclusion, climate action, nutrition and traditional food systems.

Nivedita Narain  is Chief Executive Officer, Charities Aid Foundation India, an adjunct faculty member at the Charles Sturt University, Australia and has worked with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) for over thirty years. She has worked on gender, livelihoods, and human resources management for non-profits and setting-up development practice as an academic discipline.

Bhaskar Vira is a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on environmental and development economics; political economy, particularly the study of institutions and institutional change; public policy in the developing world.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

UntitledAbout the author:

Avagay Simpson is a recent graduate of the International institute of Social Studies with a Master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy. Prior to studying at the ISS, she worked with Office of the Contractor-General, one of Jamaica’s key anti-corruption organisations. She also worked for several years in project implementation focusing on enhancing governance locally and nationally in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She also holds a graduate degree in International Relations.

Eight years after the earthquake that in 2010 crippled the small country of Haiti, scores of Haitians still have not been able to rebuild their lives despite billions of dollars pledged in the form of humanitarian aid. Recent research on the dynamics of the Dutch partnership SHO for humanitarian assistance in post-disaster Haiti shows that an overreliance on trust within partnerships decreases operational effectiveness and transparency, and that more checks and balances are needed to ensure that financial aid reaches those Haitians still in need.

The struggle continues

Eight years have come and gone since an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale on 12 January 2010 devastated Haiti and ripped apart its community. The earthquake caused the displacement of millions of Haitians and the death of over 300,000 people, although this number remains inconclusive. It was labelled as the first major urban disaster in recent history, leading to humanitarian aid pledges totalling over US$13 billion.

While eight years have passed since this tragic event, the United Nations reported that by 2017, many Haitians were still residing in camps and more than 2 million people were still in need of humanitarian assistance. Given the disjuncture between the total amount of aid pledged and those Haitians still requiring help, a burning question that scholars, journalists, and humanitarian practitioners have sought to answer is: “Where has all the money gone?”

Partnerships: Too untransparent?

Multiple explanations have arisen for why responses to the Haitian disaster were ineffective and produced a chaotic post-disaster environment. One of the many views is that the coordination of international relief efforts posed a major challenge to relief efforts, in addition to the lack of accountability in the disbursement of received donations. Partnerships forged between NGOs and international organisations have become commonplace particularly in the humanitarian relief sector due to the belief that such partnerships could maximise economic benefits for partners and strengthen organisations’ individual efforts through collaboration.

However, a number of scholars, such as David Lewis in his book Non-Governmental Organisations, Management and Development, have suggested that civil society partnerships receive less respect than intended due to the degradation of the term ‘partnership’ following extensive scrutiny over the past years. Considering this tainted image of partnerships, Lewis argues that the management of NGOs and the inter-agency partnerships they create need to be reviewed.

With this in mind, my recent research* attempted to provide some answers to questions pertaining to this ‘black hole’ of humanitarian aid in Haiti by reviewing partnerships among civil society NGOs and organisations, with particular attention paid to partnership dynamics such as transparency and accountability. It comprised an analysis of the Dutch NGO emergency relief efforts in Haiti during 2010 by exploring the collaborative processes of Dutch NGOs through the Stichting Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties (SHO) partnership. Network governance theory allowed for a closer look at the governance of this network and the effect of governance dynamics on upward transparency and accountability.

The SHO: Too large to handle?

The SHO is a Dutch platform comprising nine development organisations such as Oxfam Novib, UNICEF and Save the Children that calls for and manages public donations for humanitarian aid following disasters. Following the Haitian earthquake, the SHO raised €112 million through public donations following extensive media campaigns. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs donated approximately €41 million, or one-third of the total, to the SHO for disaster relief efforts.


However, the Dutch public and government, like the international community, questioned the efficiency and effectiveness of the use of donated money for the benefit of disaster-affected Haitians. The Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) with its mandate of checking the efficient and effective spending of public funding in its 2010 expenditure report found that “the funding flows in Haiti are not sufficiently clear and it cannot be determined what part of the aid funds is received by which international umbrella organisations, fellow aid organisations and the organisations’ own field offices” (Court of Audit 2011: 5). This report, alongside the IOB Evaluation Assisting Earthquake Victims: Evaluation of Dutch Cooperating Aid Agencies (SHO) Support to Haiti in 2010 by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB – Inspectie Ontwikkelingssamewerking en Beleidsevaluatie) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were the key foci of this study.

The research found that the SHO in its relief efforts in Haiti made use of a network of 36 organisations that excluded local Haitian civil society organisations, NGOs and government organisations. The member organisations operated in five different modalities. This resulted in a number of issues related to the coordination and implementation of programmes and relief efforts, including: extensive management chains; increased transaction costs; the duplication of activities; value clashes resulting in operational challenges; and multiple accountability disorder due to the presence of multiple principals and agents. This made it difficult to trace the funds and to assess whether they were effectively and efficiently expended.

Overreliance on trust

The SHO network and the independent functioning of each participating organisation in implementing their activities created a complex system that resulted in major challenges related to oversight and a lack of transparency regarding the spending of public funding.

The SHO and its member organisations relied on trust in each other to ensure that each activity was implemented in accordance with the principles of transparency and accountability and to the standards governing emergency humanitarian aid. This strong level of trust ignored the fact that individuals are rational beings that in group settings will not necessarily act in the common interest of the group, but may pursue certain objectives based on self-interest.

The study found that the interests of not only individual actors is of concern, but also those of the individual organisations in the extended network, as their interests may differ from that of the SHO and its members. The lack of strong oversight mechanisms by the SHO to determine if there was a breach and its inability to hold actors accountable or apply sanctions weakened the veracity of the reports and work done, resulting in the questions of transparency and accountability of the aid given in Haiti.



The SHO’s example shows that heavy reliance on trust is a major issue requiring a thorough review by all organisations working in the humanitarian aid sector. The recent disclosure in October 2017 by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) of instances of fraud by officials involved in combating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-2016 amounting to €5.2 million heightens the need for NGOs as well as international organisations to review their approaches and to recognise the need for adequate checks and balances.

In an emergency humanitarian relief context that is complex, uncertain, and often political in nature, sound policies and transparent processes contribute to sound governance. Such measures also control unintended meanings and consequences while simultaneously acting as barriers against the purposeful exploitation of resources that ultimately prevents aid from reaching those in need.

Picture credit: RIBI Image Library

*In partial fulfilment of a recently attained MA degree in Development Studies at the ISS.
Dutch Court of Audit (2011) ‘Accounting for Haiti Aid Funds 2010’, November 2011, The Hague: Netherlands.