A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or so we are told. But is it true? Words are powerful and we use them carefully to evoke certain feelings and emotions. For example, the vast majority of international NGOs work in “partnerships”. What does this word partnerships evoke? Shared mutual benefits perhaps? Shared risks? Collaboration between actors who jointly deliver activities, supporting each other and holding each other to account? I would argue all of the above. However, findings from Keystone’s Development Partnerships survey, suggest this is not always the case. With the inherent power imbalance built into these relationships, achieving true and equal partnerships can be hard, especially when money is exchanging hands. The findings are pretty clear.
Almost 5,000 partners from the leading INGOs consistently report that their role in the relationship is overlooked, rarely promoted or recognised and they are rarely involved in shaping the strategy, which guides implementation. Not exactly the warm fuzzy hug we think of when we hear “partnership”.
So why use the word? Well, firstly, there are agencies that do manage to achieve partnerships as outlined above. For example, after taking the Development Partnership survey in 2013, Peace Direct introduced two-way reporting to hold themselves accountable and to keep partners involved. And there are other examples too. Secondly, I suspect some INGOs use the word in an aspirational sense, hoping to steadily move towards walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Thirdly, and somewhat cynically, the word “partnership” sounds good and fits in with the current drive towards localisation. The result of this heightened focus on localization is that the relationships between INGOs and local actors are under increased scrutiny from all corners – with the broader community, donors and local civil society themselves all interested in how the INGO communicates and interacts, and “partnerships” sends the right message.
I am a fan of using language to outline a desired relationship and calling things a “partnership” can drive behaviour. It can also empower partners to push for the kind of mutual support and accountability that the word suggests. That being said, it can also be a source of tension – calling things a “partnership” that will never in reality live up to the name can result in on-going frustration that can detract from the good work being done. I am therefore also a fan of calling a simple contractual spade a simple contractual spade.
The desire to up-sell all relationships to “partnerships” undermines the few relationships that are true partnerships, and while it would be amazing to only have true “partnerships”, this is not likely. So I would urge INGOs to be clearer in how they use their language – work hard to create “partnerships” where they are relevant, and don’t be afraid to define things as contractual relationships, which may not sound as sexy, but can be just as powerful in achieving goals, and is less likely to suffer from the kind of tension and frustration that can come from mislabelling. Not every beautiful flower, after all, has to be a rose.