(Global) Partnerships: the magic key?


Partnership and dialogue have long been considered part and parcel of peacebuilding, statebuilding, and development work by civil society and state organisations alike. Against this background the question comes up as to whether partnership is possible in view of unequal economic and political power relations. Do we have to rethink the notion of partnership, what it means, how we can engage, listen, and create space for listening? Do we have to create a sense of self-awareness on each side first, to become conscious of the power each may have and then try to engage? Are there ways to equip organisations to deal with powerful partners? In a nutshell: Is “partnership” the magic key for the challenges ahead in peacebuilding?

This was the central question of Parallel Session 3 at the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum 2015 in which Ivana Franović (Centre for Nonviolent Action, Serbia), Marcus Lenzen (Department for International Development, United Kingdom) and Lancedell Mathews (New African Research and Development Agency, Liberia) shared their respective experience on partnerships and their enabling or disabling factors.

FriEnt’s Favourites

  • It“s true, it“s still relevant – even if it sounds banal: trust, honesty, presence, the sharing of values and learning together are essential for partnerships. It“s also important not to misuse and play out an existing power imbalance.
  • Theory vs. practice: There is a growing disconnect between the international discourse on “global partnerships” and a loss of space for engagement and dialogue of donors with part-ners due to changing aid policies and modalities (growing aid budgets, shrinking staff num-bers, risk management and „remote control“ in conflict situations).
  • Partnerships, based on international policy agendas, need to be sustainable: Only then can partnerships open up new channels for dialogue and facilitate political, social or economic processes – however, changing agendas and priorities often disrupt these processes.


Partnership needs time to grow…

Partnerships cannot be the magic key to successful peacebuilding as functioning partnerships are not easily established. They have to grow over time as trust, shared values and a sense of learning together as well as making mistakes together have to be developed. The most fruitful relationships are those, in which both sides know the context and their partners“ situation well. Honesty, openness to deal with conflicts amongst partners and abstaining from misusing power imbalances is important according to Ivana Franovic: “There is always an asymmetry between partners, but it should not be misused or played out in power games.”

Disconnect between discourse and practice

Experience of participants and speakers alike, however, rather showed a loss of space – and time – to build trust and relationships due to changing priorities, agendas and aid modalities. While grants grow bigger administrative staff for their management is reduced, leaving less time for dialogue. In this context, civil society organisations are often perceived as „implementers“ or „service providers“, rather than „partners“. This becomes even more acute in conflict situations where not only time is limited but also space: Due to security regulations, international staff is supposed to stay in the capital and cannot reach out to organisations in more remote areas, as Marcus Lenzen pointed out. Partners in conflict situations bear more risks. “With more power comes more responsibilities and we have to think about ways to deal with risks of partners”, he added. The question is whether the 2030 Agenda will open up new space for creative partnerships and dialogue.

Partnerships between international and local partners are often embedded in Western concepts and agendas – and partnership structures are largely Western-driven. However, they may contribute to developments and processes at a national level, an argument illustrated by Lancedell Mathews with regard to Ebola-related work in Liberia: The fact that a number of people from Liberian civil society were members of the Civil Society Platform on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS) conferred on them a certain legitimacy vis-à-vis their own state. This bore fruit on several levels: Space for government and civil society opened up and community-based empowerment was possible in a way not witnessed before. A particular challenge was the link of the health crisis to a post-war/peacebuilding crisis. Here it was vital to sustain relations and discussions and hold national decision-makers and civil society alike accountable vis-à-vis the communities that had to bear the brunt of the crisis. This was all the more important
as with the intervention of European and American organisations upward accountability was stressed once more.

In the ensuing discussion other actors and their role were brought up, most notably private sector actors. Some participants held that the latter cannot be considered as „partners“ as relations with them are not based on the same values and ideas of society as among peacebuilding and develop-ment actors. Other participants insisted on the importance of including them, especially in conflicts in which resources play a key role.

During the discussion, a number of questions was brought up that merit further exploration. What do we make of the very different, at times almost contradictory, understandings of „partnerships“ as to who can be partners, on what basis and what it entails to be partners? How is it possible to reconcile divergent developments: On the one hand, partnerships as a way to face the challenges ahead are high on the agenda, on the other hand a shift away from dialogue and joint analysis, knowledge sharing and problem solving is visible. How do we deal with power relations in partnerships? How can we make sure not to play them out? How to deal with more powerful partners and still make your voice as the “asymmetrical other” heard?

Sylvia Servaes and Natascha Zupan

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Background material

Session outline and resource persons

Blog posts

Ivana Franović: There's no magic key