Building equitable partnerships in international research

Lynda Keeru summarizes what was learned at a recent webinar on building equitable partnerships in international research programmes.

International research has increasingly been taking on an equitable partnerships approach – an intentional tactic that clearly articulates the distribution of resources, responsibilities, effort and benefits within consortia. This approach also includes ethical sharing and use of data which responds to the needs of communities where the research takes place. Equitable partnerships are based on mutual respect guided by values like trust, accountability, transparency, active communication, constructive engagement and mutual learning. At the core of this approach is the importance of acknowledging the different inputs, interests and desired outcomes of all involved

The UKRI GRCF Action Against Stunting Hub hosted a webinar ‘Equitable Partnerships in international research’. The meeting sought to explore how different Hubs and institutions build, maintain, and evaluate equitable partnerships and help ensure that research outcomes are beneficial.

So, what makes for a good partnership? Some of the reflection made during the webinar included that good partnerships include:

  • Joint agenda setting
  • Clarity of roles and responsibilities
  • Fair recognition of incentives and interests of all partners
  • Building trust which requires transparency and accountability
  • Regular communication to avoid assumptions
  • Structured time investments in the partnership because building and maintaining relationships is a long term process
  • Regular reviews of the health of the partnership
  • Dispute resolution systems

Fairness and equity were identified by the UKCDR community as key factors that help to mitigate the risks of exploitation, abuse and harm. They not only reduce power imbalances but also ensure that all key stakeholders are consulted and engaged in the research process.

Chris Desmond, a Co-director of the Accelerate Hub spilled a number of gems including that even the most well-intentioned interventions have their own challenges such as systematic racism, how to make the process meaningful and not a tick box exercise and being realistic about what can be achieved during the five year horizon of most research partnerships.

Sally Theobald, the Principal Investigator of the ARISE consortium and Linet Okoth of LVCT Health shared their experience of the ongoing journey of promoting equity in partnerships guided by their theory of change. To be most effective, they agreed on shared values right from the start at the proposal writing stage and ensured that there was ongoing review of these values throughout their partnership review process and made adaptations to systems and structures as appropriate.

Equity in voice, power and resource mobilization, commitment to ethical interactions at all levels of the programme and transparency and accountability in all processes are some of these guiding values. In addition, they have put in place management structures that ensure that all partners can propose and lead sessions during monthly webinar series and partnership meetings. Their executive committee also comprises of a representation from all partners with a rotating chairing position and membership from the early career researchers’ network. Additionally, they have created thematic working groups to ensure shared responsibility and they are co-convened and led by partners from both the North and South.

Linet discussed how the ARISE safeguarding process has been developed with a focus on equity and partnership, learning and sharing, and an iterative, ongoing learning journey that is critical, reflective and inclusive of vulnerable people.

In conclusion, strong partnerships require strong foundations with clear management structures and joint responsibilities that ensure ownership. Flexibility, focus and openness are vital for strengthening partnerships.

Webinar Presenters/Contributors:

Chair: Professor Claire Heffernan, Principal Investigator, Action Against Stunting. Speakers: Sian Zarkow, UKRI, Chris Desmond, Accelerate Hub, Sally Theobald, ARISE and Linet Okoth, ARISE.