Sign the Declaration

11 April 2023

Individual relationships are key elements of equitable institutional partnerships

The case for working in partnership is probably so familiar that it need hardly be restated. Even if we didn’t see it writ large across our University strategy documents or regularly compose ‘track record’ statements for grant applications, those of us working in Higher Education know, by some combination of experience and intuition, the value of working with others to bridge disciplines, contexts, cultures, and spheres of influence.

We may, to some extent, value partnerships at a ‘strategic’ or instrumental level, knowing that bringing together complementary expertise – perhaps across the social and physical sciences, researcher and practitioner communities, or international borders – helps to generate novel ideas and address complex challenges. In essence good partnerships can make for successful projects.

But we also experience partnerships at a much more personal level, as a relationship between individuals. And it is at this individual level that we most likely find the source of our dedication to certain partners, our motivation for working with them and our experience of the less-easily-measured rewards of working in partnership.

It is also at this individual level that we might be most attuned to the equitability of our partnerships.

Inequity might manifest in the unequal distribution of effort, the demotion or dismissal of certain contributions, the under-resourcing of a partner, or an imbalance in decision-making power. Of course, what underpins this manifested inequity could be a complex combination of personal and structural factors. Anything from an absence of mutual trust and respect between individuals, to differences in cultural or institutional norms, or even the constraints imposed on one partner by working in a competitive, dysfunctional or exploitative sector.

It follows then that in any given project or partnership there are certain things that might be within our means to do to help ensure that our partnerships are as equitable as possible, but there are also factors that are outside of our means to affect but that we nonetheless need to be mutually cognisant of. And I would suggest that it is our individual relationships that actually give us the best opportunity to bring these structural inequities into collective view and to build a mutual understanding of them.

There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. To get beyond a performative presentation of oneself as a ‘strategic’ partner (from a largely instrumental perspective) and have honest conversations about inequity requires the building of trusting relationships, but that trust might only develop over time and with exposure and understanding. So how do we go about engaging in honest conversations about equitable partnerships?

I don’t have a definitive answer, and it is clearly not a one-size-fits-all question. But across the partners involved in FoSTA-Health, prior to the project, we have tried different ways to build understandings and relationships at an individual level, that have themselves contributed in small ways to institutional change, and I want to briefly reflect on these examples (each with embedded links that you can follow to read more):

  • Individual Exchanges and Fellowships have been organised in a variety of ways across our partners. The Cheney Fellowship scheme has supported Sithembile Mwamakamba to spend time at the University of Leeds to share and further develop her work on multi-stakeholder approaches to policy influence in food systems. The scholarship programme of the Academy for Leadership in International Affairs supported Christian Chomba to spend time at Chatham House to focus on building policy advocacy strategies around crop diversification in Zambia. We have also run split-site PhD projects and researcher affiliations that have allowed early career researchers to embed their research within partner institutions. These exchanges can be really valuable ways of building personal relationships and understandings of different institutional environments, but can also present challenges for the individual themselves who inevitably has to navigate a way between different, and sometimes competing, research cultures, norms and expectations, as we discuss in this recent brief.
  • Triad Mentorship is an approach that has been developed and applied through the FSNet Africa project and it involves early career researchers being co-mentored through a programme of self-directed research, stakeholder engagement and training, by three mentors each from different institutions.The triad that I have been involved in has been a really rewarding relationship to be a part of, and has helped us (my mentee and fellow mentors) to build mutual understandings about the opportunities and challenges faced by early career researchers in a particular context (in this case in Ghana) and better reflect on how these opportunities and challenges manifest in my own context (at Leeds), as well as to co-develop strategies for professional development.
  • Partner Institutional Viability Assessments (PIVA) were carried out as part of the GCRF-AFRICAP project using a tool originally developed by USAID to assess the capacities of partner organisations. Ok, so this is in essence a very instrumental and institutional tool, and may even sound dangerously neo-colonial. But under GCRF-AFRICAP it was adapted instead into a mutual exchange process between individuals within partner organisations to facilitate conversations and share with each other their experiences of capacity, governance, advocacy and administrative challenges and solutions. It is a framework that helped bring to the fore a critical reflection on the structures within which each partner works over the course of multiple exchange visits. However, as an approach I would argue that it remains overly reductionist and the scoring and reporting element of PIVA ultimately pushes participants towards translating these conversations into quantitative metrics that don’t do them justice. It is an approach that I would recommend with a cautionary note about considering how it is implemented.
  • Synthesis Projects that focus not on generating new fundamental research, but on drawing together and sharing lessons from previous ongoing complimentary research projects can be really valuable for understanding how similar problems are interpreted and tackled in different ways (from different cultural, institutional, disciplinary perspectives) and to develop a more nuanced understanding of an issue. In the African Food Systems Transformation and Justice GCRF Challenge Cluster project we sought to share lessons about how partners and projects working on aspects of food system change in Africa had encountered and conceptualised issues of equity and justice. Engaging with this subject, through a series of semi-structured conversations across partners, ultimately led to us turning our lens inwards and reflecting critically on the ethics of our role as researchers, and the equitable nature of our research methods, a conversation which is reflected in this piece by Marina Apgar, Andy Challinor and Chikondi Chabvuta.

In all of these cases, there is an exchange, or series of exchanges, that has taken place at an individual level. It is effort that does not necessarily, and certainly not immediately, generate ground breaking research outputs or score highly on the conventional metrics (e.g. REF) that we use for measuring institutional performance. But they do contribute to a deeper shared understanding of partnership challenges and inequities as well as built trust, the rewards of which (at least at an institutional level), accumulate more slowly and less tangibly. I believe that the initiatives described above, although not perfect have helped those of us involved in FoSTA-Health to work towards a more equitable and enduring partnership that is the foundation of current and future collaborative work.