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

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?


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16 Responses to “Do aid organisations need marriage guidance? Five lessons for better partnerships”
  1. Ian Falkingham

    What a great post. I am really proud of Oxfam when it asks itself tough questions and is prepared to look at how it works and think, “No, we should do better”. off for a day with Trading’s partner Frip Ethique in Dakar. This post has set me up for a good day. Thanks Audrey and Yo.

  2. Alastair Stewart

    A very interesting post. I found the linked guardian article about Degan Ali from Adesso uncomfortably truthful and insightful … “It is humiliating to beg and plead to attend a meeting about your own country and people. You have to try and understand the jargon in a room full of white people – who say they know what is best for you. You are like a beggar standing outside, asking and pleading to get through the door.” (

    Perhaps it would be worth engaging with Adesso and/or the Global Network for Southern NGOs, perhaps in the form of inviting them to lead talks and discussions with Oxfam staff on what the organisation needs to learn about improved collaboration and promotion of the work of our NGO partners (

        • Yoma

          That was me, Yo, with hindsight masquerading as Alastair. I think the little boxes autofilled, I sort of saw it but thought not enough of it, not being one who has ever blogged (before) or commented on blogs (much at all!). But it was me, and I, Yo, think it is a great idea.

  3. What a good post, Duncan. As a donor I’ve watched many of our grantees struggle with how they form and nurture healthy partnerships among their NGO colleagues — both at local and global levels. And, honestly, at times I think we among the donor community have been more of a hurdle than a help when it comes to providing the incentives for productive and capable partnerships.

    After 15 years of reviewing hundreds if not thousands of proposals from grantees, a pattern emerges that seems very “un-partner” like. This pattern largely reflects strategies that are defined within silos versus broader networks, projects versus ecosystem level analysis, and global solutions versus local capacity.

    I think some of the better analysis and writing on this comes from Jane Wei-Skillern at UC Berkeley and Stanford. Her Stanford Social Innovation Review article, The Most Impactful Leaders You have Never Heard Of, argues for a set of values and qualities at the leadership level that creates the platform for greater productivity among partnerships.

    The values and qualities Jane points to are challenging even for the most progressive organizations and leaders. However, I’m convinced the donor community can do far more to support our colleagues among NGOs to be successful in this area.

    Again, thank you for your post.

    • Yoma

      Thank you for your kind comments, and, particularly, thank you for your pointer to the Jane Wei-Skillern article … I’ve just started reading it and I love it already. We’re often way too self-referential so it’s great to look outwards at really good stuff like this. Thanks again.

  4. Roxanne Murrell

    A good place to start is with our language, which reflects our positioning, conscious or not. I doubt many NGO/CSO partners see themselves as “trucking water on Oxfam’s behalf”. Do we talk of working through partners or with partners? Do we think we are supporting partners’ programs or are they implementing ours?

    • Yo Winder

      Thank you, Roxanne, for the reminder about language. It really does bear scrutiny as how we articulate things often sets the tone for how we engage with others. My experience has been that Oxfam runs the gamut in terms of the ‘types’ of relationships it has with different individuals and different organisations. Some, indeed, do see themselves as ‘trucking water on Oxfam’s behalf’, or drilling a borehole where we have all reached agreement that a borehole needs to be drilled. And sometimes this is just fine. Sometimes we might call it a ‘partnership’ and sometimes not, it would very much depend on the context. Calling something a ‘transactional partnership’ might not be a bad thing. What it is important to do is to distinguish it from a more ‘transformative partnership’ where the partnership is central to our theory of change for example and where the overall value and impact of the partnership is greater than the delivery of agreed upon activities. And to be able to be clear about roles, responsibilities and expectations in each case.

      You are also completely right about how we talk about our programmes. Almost, without fail, we talk about the work that gets done as ‘Oxfam’s programme’ … to ourselves and to others and at all levels I am beginning to understand. This is clearly ridiculous and wrong-headed and harmful. So we’re trying hard to tackle this quite big cultural challenge.

  5. Interesting that the issue of engagement with the private sector which the author acknowledged as being uncomfortable has received so little attention. In small countries such as most of those in the Pacific island region, resources (of all types) are often limited and a ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards people who work in the private sector is a quick way to alienating what can be an important source. I have been personally offended by members of the NGO community, that are perfectly comfortable making sweeping statements that characterise ‘business owners’ as racist/exploitative with quite obviously no knowledge of or interest in how members of the private sector contribute to the overall development of the country in which these ‘experts’ find themselves working.

  6. Lucy Morris

    Hi Audrey and Yo,

    Thanks for this great post, and for sharing some of the details of the journey which Oxfam is embarking on. Would love to talk to you about it and to swap some ideas!

  7. An interesting article and a timely topic in the current development debate. The Tropical Health Education Trust (THET)’s entire model is based on working in partnerships. It involves partnerships between UK health institutions and professionals and their counterparts in developing countries, strengthening health systems through mutual health service skills transfer and capacity development. THET has developed 8 partnership principles, which will help ensure quality and effectiveness in health partnerships. However, the same principles could be applied to most partnerships. If interested more details can be found here:

  8. Kate Mayne

    Hi Audrey and Yo,
    Thanks for the great post and for sharing Oxfam’s approach. I agree with your points raised, particularly around building the capacity of staff at country level who are constantly engaging with partners. The new approach within partnerships requires more facilitation and greater communication skills, so great to hear you’re engaging with the Partnership Brokers Association. Thanks again

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