The global pandemic has brought inequalities in, and de-colonisation of, foreign aid to the front and centre. Researchers from the UK-based think tank ODI called the pandemic an opportunity to de-colonise aid, including development research. In the US, political upheaval and renewed debate about entrenched and unresolved social justice issues have caused a range of actors – policymakers, academics, philanthropists and others – to call for re-thinking the links between domestic and foreign policies. Even the New York Times’ full editorial board, a body that rarely weighs in on international development, did so in mid-February 2021, advocating for more equitable and inclusive aid.
‘The effort to put more money and power over aid into the hands of the communities it is meant to benefit is not new’, said the New York Times editorial. In the civil society sector, collective movements like #ShiftThePower have for several years been trying to make decision-making power less top-down and driven by international non-governmental organisations, and instead have local civil society organisations lead on project design and implementation.
At AidData, successive waves of our own Listening to Leaders survey of elites in developing countries find that developing country leaders want more ‘country ownership’ of aid, but also welcome sustained engagement with Northern partners.
Slightly pre-dating COVID-19, in 2019 AidData, a 35-person international development research lab based at the College of William & Mary, a university in the US, began a programme to invest in several new research partnerships with leading organisations on the African continent.
Through bolstering our engagement with policymakers, influencers, and researchers in Africa, our ultimate aim was to see data and evidence incorporated into public-sector decision making across sectors and at multiple levels of government.
Like many Northern research organisations, AidData has worked extensively across Africa, but has tended to do so on a project-by-project basis. Being based at a public university, AidData’s ability to work overseas has been further restricted by various administrative hurdles that make it difficult to have a long-term in-person presence in-country.
Of course we are not alone: despite much talk about the need for deep and equitable partnerships between organisations in the Global North and Global South, extensive technical collaboration between such organisations is rare and the success stories few.
Support from a Hewlett Foundation grant (2019–2021) allowed us to take a systematic, thoughtful approach to identifying and evaluating partnership opportunities and modalities for more intensive engagement with those who make, influence, and research policy in Africa.
Our aim was to put in place the building blocks for a careful, reasoned courtship and eventual partnering, rather than business as usual: a hasty shotgun marriage to meet the demands of a particular project.
In the next in this series of articles, we will share our experiences of finding two Ghana-based partner organisations and the initial work we have started with each. In subsequent articles, we share some of our key findings from the process of identifying suitable partners, look at some of the main challenges facing North–South partnerships, and suggest a checklist for organisations looking to follow this path.
In sharing our experience and lessons, AidData does not intend to suggest that our path is the best or only way one can approach this task. And full disclosure: our partnerships are still nowhere near maturity, so the thoughts and lessons here reflect our experience having concluded only the initial phases.
What is offered is one just possible pathway for approaching a North–South research partnership, with components that might be adapted, built on, or improved by other organisations. It is also hoped that the experience documented in these articles may provoke further discussion and dialogue.