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Women in Kachin State, Myanmar, participate in a focus group discussion on mental health and psychosocial support services conducted by researchers from Community Partners International. Credit: Community Partners International.

Recently, the question “What makes for a strong research partnership?” has been on my mind. As a research funder in the humanitarian health space, Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) has been experiencing the ramifications of multiple shocks, which have had an indirect impact on the research-practice partnerships we support. COVID-19, squeezes on humanitarian financing, and the war in Ukraine have had a range of impacts on both academics’ and humanitarians’ resources, timelines and ways of working. Leads of international research teams have found partnerships more time-consuming and difficult to manage and even saw projects fail to deliver intended outcomes as a result.  

However, many R2HC-supported research partnerships have, impressively, managed to weather the storm, producing high quality research while maintaining positive relationships. Here are four principles we see such partnerships upholding, with some illustrations of good practices. 

1. Responsibility towards project vision: A shared ‘why’

These partners share a willingness to connect on a human level, understand each other’s motivations, and connect over the ‘why’ of their work, building a shared vision that they are each responsible for. They articulate the shared ‘why’ in partnership agreements, and build it into research strategy. Shared values and goals help to keep partners engaged in the success of the project – even through delays (like long waits for IRB approvals) – and help develop the trust needed to overcome conflicts and challenges. Such partnerships can articulate goals for their work beyond a single partnership (some have long-term MOUs). These partners make time and space for shared reflection on any outcomes not delivered, and evaluate and take stock of success, recognising that this learning will benefit their shared goals over the long term.

2. Transparent communications

Everyone wants to be heard, and everyone wants access to information that concerns them. A major source of ineffectiveness and conflict in research partnerships is low quality or infrequent communication. As well as the negative impact on relationships, if partners do not talk well, or talk enough, both project opportunities and risks can be missed, leading to poorer research outcomes. 

R2HC partnerships are, intentionally, diverse international and often multidisciplinary teams. They frequently communicate using limited bandwidth in several languages and time zones. The ones who do best make the effort to establish transparent and open communication from the outset. They discuss and agree roles, tasks and timelines. They talk regularly, using WhatsApp or text to maintain contact when email is difficult and create shared online workspaces to allow everyone access to materials. One team we know uses Google Translate and closed captions to ensure full participation in meetings, as well as sharing translated minutes diligently. Teams who communicate well also manage changes, such as methods amendments or project timeline shifts, more effectively. As a funder, we see it as a good sign when all partners are looped into important emails, or in calls with us to discuss challenges. Leaders of strong partnerships will tell us, if necessary, that we’ll have to wait for a decision while they consult the partners (and we’re usually happy to wait!). Such decisions are more often workable and acceptable for all.  

3. Mutual benefit

Teams that establish clear communication from the get-go also have a clear idea of each partners’ expected benefits from the project (as described in this article about the development of an R2HC study). If all partners can articulate the expected value they hope to gain from their participation and then see these benefits realised, along with opportunities to contribute substantively to the project at most if not all stages of the work, it ensures that partnerships are a positive experience for all and importantly are ethical, not extractive. If benefits are not realised, it can leave a sour taste – reducing trust between partners on the project, and over time, the quality and diversity of international research partnerships. 

4. Equity and fairness

Partnerships which enable all partners to contribute equitably  – as befits each partners’ skills and expertise – acknowledge and work to address inequities, particularly important when partnerships comprise actors from the global North and South as many R2HC-supported partnerships do. Lead partners who occupy positions of privilege can take steps to redress the inherent power imbalances in such partnerships. Those who strive for equity recognise that all partners have valuable contributions to make and include them in proposal development, research design and decision-making. They tend to share opportunities, such as conference speaking slots, with partners. They will highlight the good work of partners in their own networks, to nudge additional opportunities their way. They share authorship and credit. Partners treated equitably feel trusted and empowered to communicate key messages of research to the stakeholders they have relationships with, often leading to greater external impact. This was apparent during COVID-19 when partners often needed to step up and lead more activities than originally planned. 

It’s the small day-to-day efforts, too. In meetings, lead partners who care about equity make space for partner’s voices in the conversation and agenda, and rotate time zones for meetings (taking turns getting up at 3am). They are humble and open to learning: asking their partners for guidance on decisions, not assuming needs. Lead partners who care about equity advocate to us, the funder, on partners’ behalf (we were delighted to have a project lead write and ask for funds recently to enable their Bangladeshi co-PI to take up a conference speaking opportunity). They are available and supportive during due diligence, budgeting and contracting; and budget for funds they need to support participation, such as partners’ travel, training or software.  

Conclusion

In the past few years, various shocks, including the global pandemic, have brought international research partnerships both opportunities and challenges. Paying attention to four key principles – equity, mutual benefit, transparent communications, and shared values  – can help keep an international research partnership going strong when times are tough. Developing a partnership agreement at the outset can help partners establish these principles and good practices. 

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