Strategic partnerships looking for new ways to support local ownership

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As the development sector is pioneering new ways for shifting power to partners in the Global South, Partos seeks to contribute to these efforts. In 2020 we developed the Power Awareness Tool, which has been used by many in the months since its publication. This tool helps international civil society partnerships to analyse the degree to which power is equally distributed (or not) in their mutual relationships. Together, partners find answers to the question, which partners are most influential in taking the most important decisions in the partnership? So far it appears that in most partnerships, the Northern based civil society organisations are the most powerful. Whilst this does not come as a surprise, Partos seeks to capitalize further on this knowledge by starting an active Community of Practice for changing these outcomes. The aim of the Community of Practice (CoP) Shift-the-Power is to identify practical solutions for achieving more balanced power relations in international partnerships for development.


In last year’s kick-off meeting of the CoP it was concluded that the factors leading to power imbalances are, to a large extent, systemically embedded in the way the Power of Voices, and similar programs, are set-up. A couple of systemic aspects that contribute to this imbalance have already been identified by the community and their use of the Power Awareness Tool. For example, in the PoV application and selection process, Dutch NGOs have an information advantage.  Therefore, they are more likely to be the initiators of a partnership and are thus in a better position to claim decision making authority.

Another systemic issue that was identified is the degree to which the current system of development funding allows for local ownership to truly be realized. In the current practice, support to community groups starts with the donor deciding which type of funding will be channeled for which type of interventions, implemented by which type of partners, etc. Subsequently, lead partners (mostly Dutch) select international, national and local partners using criteria that are biased towards minimizing risks rather than maximizing the likelihood of change. The selection of community initiatives is at the end of this chain of decision making, meaning the recipients of development have little to no agency over the criteria which their initiatives should meet. In this system, support is directed to community projects that fit the funding regulations, rather than the other way around. This raises questions about the legitimacy of the interventions, and whether projects and their outcomes can be truly locally owned in this approach.

Related to this is the question whether the selected ‘local partners’ really represent and understand the community they seek to support. Threshold criteria against which project proposals, including the selection of local partners, are vetted, are very restrictive. The threshold criteria exclude national and local organisations that may have promising potential to contribute to change, but that lack a track record required for becoming eligible partners. This thus leaves only a select few local partners available for cooperation, and potentially rules out true local participation of community initiatives.

In the Community of Practice Shift-the-Power, the challenge to find practical solutions for achieving more balanced power relations is divided into three sub-challenges, each to be addressed in a dedicated working group.

  • The first working group will focus on understanding the system and any problematic features it contains. This working group will further elaborate on the analysis of the system as described above and will seek to support the findings with comprehensive data from development practice.
  • The second working group will focus on identifying measures that can be taken to counteract the systemic factors. Despite power imbalances caused by the current PoV application and selection process, several alliances have adopted corrective measures for shifting the power over time, consisting of step-by-step approaches. This working group will make an inventory of corrective measures being undertake and will seek to recommend appropriate measures for structural change.
  • The third working group will focus on system change. The question to be addressed is, how to the change the system in a way that it supports community led development. Working group three will develop a policy paper with recommendations for the next generation of Power-of Voices programmes.

If you want to join this conversation please do not hesitate to get in touch, we would be very happy to add your voice and experience to this debate! For more questions about the CoP Shift-the Power, and to register as a member to this CoP, contact Anne-Marie Heemskerk (amh@partos.nl).