Our Partnership: towards inclusivity and empowerment

Juliet Thondhlana, University of Nottingham

Attribution: Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/ by Original Author: Nick Youngson http://www.nyphotographic.com/

Our study was enriched through working with diverse partners including academic partners as co-researchers and NGOs as advisors. In planning our partnership we engaged with the concept of participation through a critical consideration of who participates and what is the level of this participation, drawing on ideas that White (1996) advances. In this regard North-South partnerships have been traditionally marked by imbalances with partners from the North identifying as white; holding power; leading on funding and controlling the budget; responsible for setting targets and managing the production of outputs;  and leading knowledge creation and distribution in a clear show of power. Conversely, partners from the South have been defined as “the Other”; powerless; funding sharing but having no control of the budget; doing the “work”; being sources of information; being knowledge recipients and consumers of the same. Our experiences working in North-South project teams  had shown us that such a model was not productive for all involved and we were seeking a more inclusive and empowering model that would foster a collaborative environment that would enable us to cultivate more fulfilling and long-term relationships with our partners as expected of collaborations.

In this scenario South identities may be silenced or marginalised in practice to the extent that the concept of partnership is distorted in their case and it was therefore our intention to consider how through an adoption and application of White’s framing questions we could aim to do more than simply and vaguely ‘involve’ South colleagues in our study. Our aim was to ensure ‘that they participate in the right ways’ (page 14). In order to achieve this we aimed to consider ‘on whose terms is the current agenda and whose interests are really at stake?’ (ibid). White demands that we critically reflect on planned projects of participation through the lens of three questions. First, is the recognition that participation is a ‘political issue’ and that we need to consider on whose terms we were asking South colleagues to be involved in the study. Second, White’s framework enables us to critically analyse the ways in which we are framing the interests of those invited to participate, and third, it draws attention to the need to recognise the power relations in our partnership design. White’s (2010) work on holistic wellbeing was deemed important for our project because, like her previous work, it draws on the capacity to aspire as a framework for empowerment and inclusivity. Her work reminded us of the influence and interconnection of social-cultural constructs. As we put together our expansive research team which included a UK principal investigator (PI) and three UK co-investigators (Co-Is); a co-investigator (Co-I) and research assistant at each of the three African sites (South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe) and NGO partners, we observed these interconnecting subjectivities and recognised the complexities of relations through lived exposure to different socio-cultural practices.

We considered that our South colleagues were not passive but knowing and agentic taking into account White’s work on critical and holistic inclusivity as an important addition to the development of our team and project. We aimed to partner and interact with our South colleagues in a transformative way  that would allow for power sharing in all aspects of the project. In doing so we were however also aware of the limitations and complexities imposed by donor funding dynamics which would not allow for South leading in matters of project lead role and responsibility for the budget. Nevertheless we made significant strides towards achieving equity as explained below.


  • By having Africa-based sites driving the project on the ground we transferred/shared power to/with them. However, UK Co-Is who were attached to each of the sites inevitably appeared to be monitoring the activities of the site co-Is;
  • While the overall budget was managed by the UK principal investigator, South partners managed their own site budgets while reporting expenditure to the UK PI. This again helped to release significant control and power to South partners.
  • Knowledge was co-created and distributed with South partners having a free hand to decide outputs and outlets. They engaged with participants, NGO partners and policy makers in ways they deemed appropriate thereby giving them substantial control over what could be done, how and when.
  • There was significant solidarity building with virtual meetings allowing for inclusivity and the fostering of a shared voice.
  • Local NGO partners played advisory roles thereby allowing for more South-North power sharing.  

Overall, while the North still had significant control, it is clear that our efforts enabled meaningful disruption of inequalities on this project. It should be noted that all except one of the North partners were members of the African diaspora in the UK. Questions can therefore be raised about the role of the diaspora effect on this project. It would also be interesting to investigate how the team found the chosen partnership style.

White, S. C. (1996). Depoliticising development: the uses and abuses of participation. Development in practice, 6(1), 6-15.

White, S. C. (2010). Analysing wellbeing: a framework for development practice. Development in practice, 20(2), 158-172.

%d bloggers like this: