In the final article of this four-part series on AidData’s experience and learnings from forming partnerships with two Africa-based organisations, we share a rough checklist for successful North-South research partnerships. Derived from our own experiences, as well as drawing on the writings of others, it is intended to be a working document, a starting point.
Embed resource mobilisation strategy early on in the partnership.
Fundraising cannot be left to an afterthought. In a long-term strategic partnership, all partners should be prepared to jointly fundraise and invest in the skills that bring in revenue. You can:
- Share previous ‘best practice’ proposals, conduct joint prospect research.
- Have designated staff undertake grant writing (and grant administration) trainings as needed.
- Ensure online and digital presence and identity is current, professional and compelling, and consider joint elements in design or content.
- Ensure partners are registered in appropriate vendor databases, and have up-to-date information like audited financial statements, organisational charts, etc.
- Avoid situations where ‘Northern institutions usually select partners who are well-known in the development sector … who speak good English or have studied in Western universities’. This practice risks leaving out many worthwhile partners with valuable local knowledge.
Invest time in building relationships.
This will be dependent on a range of soft skills: respect, reciprocity, trust, collegiality, understanding, flexibility. The On Think Tanks Exchange notes the importance of familiarity, understanding, knowledge, and trust in creating ‘meaningful exchanges and collaboration’. Consider:
- Commitment: it is important to get the whole organisation bought in to the partnership, not just an individual team or researcher. Partners should practise a shared commitment to meeting deliverables and reporting deadlines to policymakers, funders and other key audiences. Partners should clearly delineate management responsibilities and accountabilities, and should not be lenient in relation to deadlines and milestones for specific pieces of collaborative work.
- The partnership should include jointly developed communications, presentations, and media outreach. Partners should commit to publicly sharing datasets and data derivatives.
- Collaboration should be continuous, from identifying the challenges the researchers would like to solve, through debriefs and evaluations.
- It is worth exploring the range of mechanisms and models by which relationships may be built. The effects of the pandemic may mean less travel, fewer person-to-person interactions in coming years. This could pose a challenge to developing strong partnerships. In AidData’s case, it already prevented us from working alongside our new partners in a substantive way. All things being equal, and budgets permitting, partnerships may benefit from people-to-people modes like embeds, exchanges, fellowships, and secondments between the partner organisations. In the past, AidData has found that pilot projects are a useful way to acquaint oneself with the skills, expertise, culture and compatibility of a partner organisation.
Be transparent and honest about the degree of rigour you are seeking in research.
There is often a dichotomy between what policymakers want and need, versus what peer-reviewed academic journals are looking for.
At one extreme there may be policymakers who require timely or near-real-time information fit for purpose, or project deliverables on a tight timeline demanded by a funder. At the other end of the spectrum, where time may be less of a factor, there may be peer-reviewed journal standards of research, where publication may take months or years, where innovation is the incentive, or where quality and sample size of data trumps currency, for example.
Some research organisations may want – or have incentives – to produce both journal articles and policy research outputs, or may prioritise one over the other. Funders may also unwittingly play a role in this: viewing the strength of a proposal, for example, on the academic publication record of the principal investigator or project director.
Determining partner compatibility on these issues will be crucial as, among other things, they will impact the time, investment and direction spent on capacity strengthening, for example.
The Evidence and Lessons from Latin America programme, which conducted inter-regional comparative policy research between Latin America and Africa, has a useful discussion on this.
Be sincere in efforts to build equitable partnerships.
In a climate where funding decisions will increasingly be de-centralised, and where emphasis will be placed on encouraging projects to be led by Southern primes, it will be important that partners do not treat each other as window dressing in order to make proposals more attractive and win awards.
Valuable lessons come from the experiences of an ODI venture several years ago. In-country partners complained of feeling ‘used’, asked to ‘fill in text boxes’ rather than collaborating in research. The Northern organisation’s business model ‘meant that it was generally forced to take a contractual approach in its interactions with members’.
It is also important to avoid ‘“parachute science” in which investigators from developed countries merely collect samples and data, return home and publish papers’.
- Team composition, dynamics, expertise. Is the team gender-balanced and from a variety of backgrounds (racial, geographical, cultural)? If not, what impact could this have? What are the power relations and decision-making roles of those involved in the research? See this Chatham House toolkit.
- Is there a level playing field between the partners? Are in-country partners treated only as contractors or data collectors, or as equals?
- Are all partners equally vested and invested in the partnership? Are they equally intellectually engaged in developing the research agenda?
- Do they assign comparable and proportionate resources to the partnership? Are resources shared equitably?
- What are the agreed upon measures of success, according to each partner? Perfectly matched incentives will be difficult to find – but are the respective incentives compatible, complementary to each other?
- As time passes, do the partners find the relationship rewarding?
Who will be authoring the analysis and other final outputs? Who will be reviewing, approving final content? Partners should put in place processes and practices that signal clear communications and equitable distributions of authorship and budgets. In the ODI venture, partners complained that some outputs to which significant contributions had been made by in-country network members, ‘were packaged and presented as ODI research products rather than co-branded or under EBPDN’s [the network’s] own branding’.