Do aid organisations need marriage guidance? Five lessons for better partnerships

July 20, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

YoWinderAudrey LejeuneAudreyLejeune1 (right), Programme Learning Adviser and Yo Winder (left), Global Partnerships and Accountability Adviser, both of Oxfam, introduce Partnership for Impact – a series of reflections by its staff

Oxfam works in partnership with almost 700, often very different, organisations: academic institutions, UN agencies, national and/or sub-national NGOs and Civil Society Organisations – some of whom will be lobbyists, some of whom will truck water on our behalf, local government entities, private sector enterprises, this list is not exhaustive.

Being the best partner we can be is the task Oxfam is setting itself for the next few years.  Which will mean some big changes to the way we conceive of ourselves as a partner, how we understand the part we need to play and how we actually behave.

Development work mirrors life, we have different relationships in our life and they bring different joys and challenges, but in most situations the best outcomes always happen when we are thoughtful, mindful, flexible and kind. So we’ve asked ourselves, if Oxfam is aiming to be the best partner it can possibly be (a nice person to be around) what do we need to change?  Here’s what we’re going to work on:

Acknowledge and promote the work of partners: Partners do most of the work and yet we only really talk
Partnership 2
about ‘Oxfam’s programme’ and the work that ‘Oxfam does’ – both to ourselves and to others.  Intellectually we understand that ‘[we] work with others to relieve poverty, distress and suffering’ but, it appears, we also rather like to hog the limelight.

Our colleague Sekou Doumbia from Oxfam’s Mali programme wrote a thoughtful piece on this during a recent retreat for Oxfam staff who work with partners on a daily basis to reflect on and capture the challenges and experiences.

Oxfam is experimenting with encouraging partners to join our Policy and Practice community via this webpage and are aiming for this to become:

  • a place where we can actively showcase the work the partners do
  • a way of achieving greater transparency by providing all our policies, tools and guidance that govern how we work in partnership
  • somewhere partners can come for ‘added value’ from Oxfam – with links to others’ work on partnership, calls for funding proposals, direct links to relevant research etc.

Check our attitude:  greater humility, taking up less space, not always being the ‘expert’, really listening to what others think the answers might be.  What might this look like in practice? We’re really excited by this (non-Oxfam) initiative – Somali women demanding change and demanding more power.

Illustration copyright Christine Harrison:

Illustration copyright Christine Harrison:

Aiming for equity rather than equality: one size does not fit all.  We work in partnership with a plethora of different types of organisations, and in a myriad of different ways.  Or we should.  What we contribute to our partnerships should be dictated by the context and what needs to be done.  Partners do not always want the same deal from us (equality) they deserve the best we can give them to have a fair chance of getting the job done (equity).  We need to seek ways to make our approach more adaptable and appropriate; for example our colleague Dunstan Macharia in Kenya argues that more flexibility in how we apply business processes could bring positive change to the way we increasingly work in consortia.

Understanding our role in networks:  working in networks can improve a programme’s effectiveness.  That is when it’s done well.  We already have significant experience in networking and we continue to learn.  Thomas Dunmore Rodriquez, a National Influencing Advisor, says his experience is that it is important to “be prepared at some points to step back and let others define the agenda and lead.”  Oxfam’s current vision is that we should become expert facilitators and convenors rather than our default position of funders and experts.

It is hugely exciting to create the opportunity to work with unusual suspects, sometimes those we have been a little wary of in the past (*cough* private sector *cough*). For many of our staff, this is a new and exciting way of working.  “When I attended my first Tajikistan Water Supply network meeting, I found a room full of people and dynamism. I was also curious to know who came up with the idea to gather together all these people and make them share ideas, knowledge and skills” Writes Bekhruz Yogdorov, Networking/Partnership Project Officer in Tajikistan.

Building the capacity of our staff:  Oxfam’s staff at country level are being called on to find, select, build,Partnership 1 negotiate, nurture and learn from a myriad of different types of partnership.  Doing this well demands an exceptional range of skills from convening, brokering, to conflict resolution and using different communication approaches.  “Power imbalances, knowledge gaps, and absence of trust and respect can damage relationships with partners.” argues Ashish Kumar Bakshi Programme Manager in Bangladesh.

Since we don’t have all of the resources internally to build and nurture the types of partnering skills we need for the future, we are working in partnership with the Partnership Brokers Association.  ,

In conclusion

If “partnerships are relationships.  Just like marriage and other relationships they need revival, excitement, continuous engagement, and more for them to survive and remain beneficial to the parties involved” as our colleague Mutinta Nketani from the Zambia team argues, then is Oxfam in quite some need of marriage counselling?

Anyone wish to offer us some marriage guidance counselling?  Is this the right analogy?  Have we selected the right things to focus on? What’s your experience, what can we learn from you?


July 20, 2016
Duncan Green