AidData’s journey to build more equitable post-pandemic partnerships part three: The challenges

15 April 2021
SERIES AidData’s journey to build more equitable post-pandemic partnerships 4 items

In part three of this four-part series, we share some of our key findings and challenges surrounding North–South partnerships, informed by our own journey to build more meaningful, equitable and long-term partnerships

Incentives and time

It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve and capitalise on early wins and sustain progress in a partnership when organisations do not have closely aligned or complementary interests, goals, and activities.

Therefore, ensuring alignment is a critical first step when embarking on a partnership. Given that information on partners is not always easily available – websites can be incomplete and there is sometimes an absence of updated contact information – you have to invest time in finding the right partners (see part two in this series).

But even when aligned, effective and long-lasting collaboration between research labs in the Global North and leading African research and policy institutions is both difficult, and rare.

Research labs based in the Global North have relatively weak incentives to collaborate with African partner institutions in this way. They typically – and wrongly — rely on African partner institutions as data collectors or as contractors, on a project-by-project basis.

Success requires deep and equitable engagement. Partners would like a level, equal relationship in which they are engaged in intellectual creation, jointly develop research agendas, design projects, implement and disseminate findings.

It is important to recognise that the partnership development process is labour-intensive, requiring significant investment to establish relationships, and as much to maintain and grow them. The AidData team did not work on this full-time, but it did absorb a significant amount of their effort over 18 months.


One of the biggest concerns partners we interviewed voiced was money. Technical and human capacity is directly linked to their financial resources. Core funding is not common and as a result many struggle to pursue their own research agenda.

Core funding allows organisations to innovate and pilot ahead-of-the-market ideas, to plan, recruit and retain top talent, and to get data and analysis into the hands of decision makers. Ruth Levine, formerly of the Hewlett Foundation and now CEO of IDinsight, has written extensively about the dichotomy of philanthropies recognising the importance of core funding, but continuing to focus on project-based grants.

Core funding promotes institution-building, which should be the aim of both funders and the funded. But a look at trends from a major development funder like the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes it clear that funding is tight. This applies to both Northern and Southern organisations.  At the same time, within developing countries the pandemic has resulted in decreases in foreign direct investment, remittances, and taxes.

To be truly sustainable, each partner needs to be financially viable, if not prosperous. Ideally the funding to make this happen should be diversified, and at least partially supporting core operations and future growth.

There is a welcome trend towards direct funding of Southern organisations, and Southern-led partnerships and consortia. Joseph Asunka has written about how, early on in his time at the Hewlett Foundation, he experimented with funding local civil society organisations (CSOs) directly, to achieve greater equitability between the CSO and the INGO partner.

For our part, we learned through our interviews that some partners have less full-time staff or capacity to conduct funding source research and prepare funding proposals. As well, there are sometimes language challenges, and fewer qualified administrative staff to complete the paperwork required by bilateral and multilateral donors.

There is also a paradox: organisations often do not have the time or space to seriously work on a partnership if there is not funding in the offing, whereas when project funding does appear, it often comes with demanding timelines for submitting a proposal and implementing the sponsored programme. By then, it is often too late.

Policy engagement

AidData’s Africa strategy aims to support and influence decision-making, particularly by governments, by supplying data and evidence that is fit for purpose. This involves partnerships with locally based organisations.

In-country organisations have invaluable insight into the policymaking ecosystem that is particular to each country. Several organisations we interviewed highlighted that access to policymakers and the decision-making process is difficult without a locally based organisation that the government trusts.

In speaking to potential partners, we found some had close ties with the government – or are part of the government. The access and potential influence that this offers, and insights into research priorities, can be a good thing. However, if the regime is problematic and/or the potential partner is not in a position to speak truth to power, it can be a negative thing.

In case of think tanks, there is much to be gained from an organisation’s real and perceived independence, but this must be balanced with the degree of its access to, and influence with, government.

Elsewhere, establishing that policymakers are a key audience can be tricky when this is also a success metric by which a research partnership is to be measured. It is notoriously difficult to prove causality between research efforts and policy impacts, especially where they can be credited with changing, shaping or influencing policy. Cases tend to be anecdotal – an email from a decision-maker saying a piece of research affected programme design or a resource allocation decision, for example. But often credit is not given in public fora, and examples have to be proactively solicited by the organisation.

Ideally, policymakers everywhere would make greater use of data and evidence and, as importantly for this discussion, would be eager to give at least partial credit for their decisions to data and evidence, as well as to the organisations that work so hard to provide them.

In the next, and final article, we’ve turned what we’ve learned so far into a rough checklist for successful North-South research partnerships.