The complex and interdependent nature of the challenges we face in the world will not be solved by any one individual, organization, or government alone. There is not a single solution that can be scaled or a transformative public policy to be implemented that can get us to where we need to be. As the voices of the People’s Climate Movement have been crying out for years: “To change everything, it takes everyone.” Achieving the Global Goals and meeting the ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda will require strong partnerships and collective actions that bridge across traditional boundaries such as race, religion, class, gender, and geography. It will also require recognition that not all partnerships have been created equally.

One of the places where this is most apparent is in international aid. Over the last few years, philanthropy has faced a reckoning, and the international arena has not been immune. It's an opportunity for reflection, and to consider some important -- if challenging -- questions.

  • To what extent does conventional global development practice reflect exported systemic racism and structural inequalities?
  • Can we see inequality and power imbalances perpetuated in the way we build partnerships, structure agreements, or give funding?
  • What types of biases exist for deciding whose voice gets heard? 
  • Are we naturally curious or quick to judge?

Across the global development community and around the world, the consideration of these kinds of questions has sparked a growing call for change. But how do we get there? 

It starts by aligning with SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals.

For over 20 years, Partners Asia has been doing aid differently: Flipping the power on traditional development dynamics to build deep and equitable partnerships with inspiring local leaders and local organizations. We know that philanthropy can be an unstoppable ally in shifting power and deconstructing systems that perpetuate marginalization and injustice, but only if we are prepared to deeply question the structural inadequacy of the very systems that continue to fail us.

We have a wealth of experience – successes and failures – and we want to share what we've learned with anyone else who is excited about taking a different approach and who is committed to building equitable partnerships. So, in consultation with our network of local partners and advisors, we offer these three recommendations:

Practice Humble Curiosity

Transforming our work means not just changing the face of global development and philanthropy, but deliberately contributing to the change. It means acknowledging where we may have made mistakes or assumptions, and admitting that we don’t always know the answers. Humble curiosity is what allows us to identify local partners who are closest to the problems, and let their wealth of contextual knowledge be the driver of solutions. Humble curiosity is what allowed us to be timely and responsive in supporting our partners through the unexpected challenges thrown at them by the global pandemic, so that they could focus on saving lives.

It is through humble curiosity that we have found the strength to ask hard questions, the courage to acknowledge not knowing the answers, and the ability to listen deeply to others. When we approach relationship building from a place of humble curiosity, we give the space for others to show up fully, and lay the foundation for a strong partnership based on respect and mutuality.

Commit to Determined Renegadism

As one of our favorite books, Time to Listen, concludes: “Every moment of business as usual is a lost moment for making change.” Creating change means making a daily commitment to doing things differently. Whether it’s a letter of agreement, a project report, or rethinking how we measure impact, we stop to question deeply and ask ourselves – is this practice truly reflective of the types of equitable partnerships that we want to build? Who benefits? Could there be a better way?

We all know that changing systems and structural inequalities to build a better world is a marathon, not a sprint. This means making decisions based on long-term processes and outcomes, rather than short-term projects and short-term results. Doing things this way takes time, trust, collaboration, and a lot of honesty, but it’s worth it. We call this “determined renegadism.”

Build Trust From Within

Partners Asia’s approach falls within what is broadly referred to in the sector as trust-based philanthropy. Trust-based philanthropy is a movement that seeks to change the grantmaker/grantee relationship from transactional to trust-based, building a more equitable nonprofit-funder ecosystem. Partners Asia is committed to inspiring more trust-based practices within global development and international philanthropy. However, in our advocacy work, we have come to realize one important element: You cannot advocate for trust-based practices externally if you do not have the same trust-based practices within. We make time for building trusting and respectful relationships amongst the different members of our organization. That is how we can ensure that the conversations, interactions, and relationships we have with local partners will help to build more trusting and equitable long-term partnerships.

One question that we've found useful to ask: Where does your organization sit on a spectrum that has on one end “transactional” and on the other, “deep trust?”

These are just three ways you can begin to transform your philanthropy towards creating more equitable and dignified partnerships. To learn more, get in touch – because that's what partnership is all about!