Summer Session 1: ‘Power in partnerships: who holds it?’

UK time 11:00 – 12:00 Malawi time 12:00 – 13:00
Location Zoom

On the 22nd June we kickstarted our ‘Summer Sessions’ series with an open discussion on ‘Power in Partnerships’.

As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of our 11 Scotland-Malawi Partnership Principles, we feel it’s important to recognise that behind almost all of these principles is the question of power: who has it and what impact this has. While at times uncomfortable, we think it’s important to not shy away from talking about power if we’re going to support genuinely equitable, dignified, two-way partnerships.

Members and partners, from across Malawi and Scotland, joined us for this informal, discursive conversation, sharing their experience of power and partnerships.

We really recommend anyone interested in this subject watches the video from the event, to benefit from this really honest sharing by Scots and Malawians. You can download the chatbox discussion from this meeting here.

We also invite anyone, member or not, whether you attended the event or not, to continue to share their views on this subject by emailing david@scotland-malawipartnership.org.

In no particular order, here are some of the many brilliantly insightful reflections from members in the discussion:

  • This is a journey. Many of our members who shared their experience said it was only ten years into their partnership that they really felt they understood power and the power dynamics at play, and their knowledge was still evolving. It’s not easy and it’s not quick.
  • We need to be honest and aware that money creates power imbalance. It’s easy to say there’s equal power in a partnership but, if the money is mostly on one side, this is very rarely true.
  • It’s important to look at power, not just between two partners or two project managers, but also between project managers and communities.
  • When there is an unhealthy power dynamic there are very often big assumptions being: ‘this is what they need’; ‘we have the solutions’, etc.
  • Addressing unequal power dynamics requires real investment: investment in strong local structures and investment in capacity building, expertise and knowledge. It is worth making this investment because projects are more impactful and more sustainable when they are locally-led and locally designed. Many great examples were given.
  • It’s hard to see a power dynamic when you’re in it. It requires time, humility and self-awareness to see your own power and privilege.
  • How are we defining power in this context? Sometimes, 'power' is seen solely with negative connotations. Perhaps we need to real define, to ensure we are all talking about the same thing, and whether ‘power’ is always bad.
  • It’s important to understand power imbalances within Malawi and Scotland, as well as between: domestic power imbalances between rural and urban areas, between men and women, between the highly educated and the less educated. Gender power imbalances can be seen here in Scotland in who speaks at events, like this!
  • It is sometimes assumed there are quick fixes to addressing power imbalances, whether through language, systems or structures. All of these are important tools but the reality is it takes time and a real investment in relationships and mutual understanding.
  • It’s important to think about the less obvious, but really important, aspects of how power presents itself. Not just what the agenda is but what time the meeting is and who has digital connectivity to take part.
  • Through Covid, with fewer international visits and a shift to digital, many longstanding unhealthy power dynamics have changed. Too often in the past, decisions were made when the Scot came to Malawi, this is far less often the case now, and more Malawian voices can feed into decision-making. However, digital exclusion remains a serious issue (this is explored in our third ‘Summer Session’).
  • It’s easy for important matters of compliance, like safeguarding, to risk undermining equitable power balances, as strict rules and conditions are imposed from the global north. It is understandable that funders will look to safeguard the money, people and communities involved in a development project but it can be a real challenge to maintain an equal partnership when anything is imposed. It’s important to remember that safeguarding is a priority for both sides of a partnership and that Malawi, like Scotland, has a legal framework to protect rights and safeguard individuals which all in Malawi most comply with.
  • The 11 Partnership Principles are a really useful tool to address power imbalances and to support self-reflection. These principles can be a real equaliser if used well.
  • Different people can have different forms of power, in different contexts and amongst different groups. It’s important to have open and honest discussions with partners about this.
  • Sometimes, paradoxically, funders’ insistence at having strong structures for diversity and inclusion (using language and a mindset, of the UK context), can actually have the opposite effect: excluding and disempowering local partners. However, a good positive example was given: when a funder was recently challenged on this by the local partner of an applicant, the funder took the criticism seriously and really reflected and acted on what was said.
  • The Corra Foundation has done great work in this area, through consultations, really digging into the concept of power and good grant making.
  • To understand the power relationship between Scotland and Malawi, we must understand our history and the colonial past which underpins the contemporary relationship. Malawi is often reticent about talking about this until there is a real sense of mutual understanding and solidarity, but it is there.
  • In thinking about power imbalances, it’s important to emphasise that while money might be at one side of a partnership, often real knowledge (and ownership) is at the other end.
  • Power can be interwoven with aspects of identity. One Scottish member shared that when Malawians knew she had an African husband, she was seen in a completely different light and had very different sorts of conversations, with far greater insight, trust and honesty.
  • Giving up power will at times mean there are decisions made that we disagree with.
  • Issues of potential cultural difference, for example around LGBT+ rights, can often be at the front end of power imbalances (the SMP invited feedback on its recent public reflections in this area).
  • Humility, self-awareness, honest conversations and time are all critical to challenging power imbalances.

During and after the meeting, members shared and recommended:

This is SUCH an important area for our network that this is a conversation that we will always look to keep coming back to. Over the coming months, we’re exploring how best to help our members share their experience and reflections, including from events like this, in really easy and effective ways. More to follow on this…