By Oyebisi Babatunde Oluseyi – Executive Director of the Nigeria Network of NGOs

This is an opinion piece. The opinions expressed are the author’s own. CONCORD has not had any influence on the author or their views and on any opinions or conclusions drawn in this post.

If there is any lesson the global pandemic has taught us, it is that no one sector has all the answers to issues of development and that more than ever before collaboration within and across sectors is unavoidable. Speaking about collaboration, the landscape for north-south partnerships has been shaky for the last two decades. While we continue to see progress in conversations around shifting the power, it seems these have been largely driven by the perception of how local nonprofits see their international counterparts.

There exists the narrative that northern civil society organisations have dominated the development market in resource -poor countries and economies with expertise imported and exported rather than retained. On the other hand, local CSOs have been accused of weak capacity and structures to account for both human and financial resources including ability to deliver on development outcomes for the poor.

Both arguments are valid.

Civil society is inherently contested space with both northern and southern organisations jostling for power, influence, visibility and impact around their vision and mission. Balancing confrontation with collaboration will be key for the future.

How within this contestation – which remains the sector’s realities and an important element for civil society – partnerships are formed and sustained is an important imperative. If the power imbalance conversations are anything to think of, it is that northern and southern actors must pay close attention to how power is shared between and amongst each other. Power sharing also means empowerment – ability for southern organisations to claim agency both on the demand and supply side of power including ability for northern organisations to be conscious of any privileged access to the corridors of power.

While local actors seem to be “crude” in their messaging and criticism of government and private sector their northern peers have mastered the act of diplomacy and sound judgement which has continued to make them the bride of critical stakeholders within the development ladder who often are more interested in engaging with them than the locals. Of course, they also come with the grant dollars to address the issues.

Within this, yet again, are fine opportunities for improving north-south civil society engagement or relationship focusing on how influence and visibility advances the cause in a shared manner and opens the door for an improved civil society government engagement. This will not necessarily be easy as the temperament of senior leadership of southern organisations largely determines whether they are confrontational or participatory in nature. While no one strategy is right or wrong in engaging stakeholders like those in the public and private sector, supporting organisations to find the balance is a master stroke.

Recognising and respecting, indigenous knowledge and capacities especially the community trust and assets that southern civil society organisations bring to the table will enhance the north-south partnership now and in the future. Staffs of northern based civil society organisations must work on the arrogance that comes with their engagement with their southern colleagues. They must always remember the ubuntu spirit “I am because we are”. The need to meet deadlines, measure impact and show value for money must be met with empathy, respect, patience, mentorship, and coaching.

The need to support and organically grow a supportive civil society infrastructure heralds a new order for the future of north-south civil society partnerships one that can enable local voluntary and community organisations to flourish through establishment of local infrastructure organisations that help groups to develop and learn, coordinate their own activities, represent their interests based on locally developed agendas, connect to resources and decision makers across the full spectrum of public, private and civil society sector.

The willingness of both northern and southern civil society organisations to cede some territory to each other is at the heart of conversations on the future of partnerships between the two. How quickly the ceding can happen is left for time and maybe another unforeseen occurrence.