The GCRF Hubs are funded to address complex global challenges through interdisciplinary partnership working. Funders of research for development such as UKRI are actively prioritising equitable partnerships to ensure resources, responsibilities and outcomes of the programmes they fund are shared fairly across partners and that inputs from all partners are included for the best possible outcomes. Putting equity into practice, however, remains difficult, in part due to power asymmetries that characterise the dominant colonial, Eurocentric and patriarchal context in which research for development operates.
Paying close attention to how partnerships take shape, and evaluating equity within and through them could, therefore, generate knowledge and learning to help address hard to shift power asymmetries. This paper presents a cross-case analysis of five GCRF-funded Hubs and assesses their partnership evaluations, their methods and how they unearthed and addressed power asymmetries in order to create equitable partnerships. It makes recommendations for a framework of equitable partnership principles and evaluation measures.
The paper looks at five GCRF-funded Hubs to compare how the findings of their partnership evaluations were used to address power asymmetries between UK and Low- or Middle-Income Countries (LMIC) partners, academic hierarchies and across gender dynamics.
Power asymmetries between UK and LMIC partners
- The evaluation findings in all cases confirmed the existence of power asymmetries early in the life of the programmes between UK and Overseas Development Aid (ODA)-recipient partners. This is partly structural as funding was required to be disbursed and audited by UK-based institutions, leading to UK-based partners dominating the Hubs at the outset.
- Hubs were required to undergo restructuring in response to the 2021 budget cuts and used the findings of their partnership evaluations to shape these restructures taking them as an opportunity to increase equity between UK and ODA-recipient partners.
Addressing Power Asymmetries of Academic Hierarchies
- The partnership evaluations in all of the cases identified that there were power asymmetries experienced between senior and junior researchers in the Hubs. These differences also linked to UK-ODA-recipient partners and gender-based asymmetries, as most senior academics were based in the UK and more likely to be male.
- Further reflections emphasised that hierarchies are not problematic in and of themselves, and indeed they are necessary features of managing large complex programmes. Not being explicit about how power works across a hierarchy and paying attention to how opportunities are created or not through hierarchical relationships is, however, seen to be problematic.
- Findings from the partnership evaluations were explicitly used to develop and implement strategies to mitigate against asymmetrical job security which unequally favours tenured or more established staff over early career professionals, and gives greater certainty to those with ongoing rather than contracted employment.
Addressing Gender-Based Power Asymmetries
- In all but one case, the evaluations found that gender-based power asymmetries were present in the Hub.
- Only the evaluation of the Gender, Justice and Security Hub showed that partners strongly believe that their Hub is gender equitable, as gender equity is both a research focus and organising principle of the Hub’s structure and work.
- One reason why the impact of gender-based imbalances might not have been directly clear in all cases, is that physical science co-investigators were less likely to see gender as relevant to their work than social scientists.
- In response to the evaluation findings of gender-based power asymmetries, activities to mitigate these asymmetries were implemented in the cases, such as: Gender mainstreaming activities through seminars and all-Hub meetings; ensuring equal participation of men and women in activities; and, having a gender champion on the advisory board.
Key findings on power asymmetries and how to address these
- The authors found that there were intersecting power asymmetries, with more UK-based males in decision making positions in the Hubs. In only one case the evaluation found no gender-based power asymmetries as this Hub prioritises gender equity in their organising principles and topic of research, illustrating that gender-based power asymmetries are not inevitable when prioritised.
- The evaluations found that academic hierarchies are not inherently problematic, but that it is about being open about how these power dynamics work and providing fair opportunities across the hierarchy.
- When there is a lack of openness about these dynamics there is a risk of interpersonal power abuses, especially in large-scale research for development programmes that are often characterised by prioritising production of high-quality research over relational aspects of the work.
- The paper recommends a framework for evaluating equitable partnerships which embraces the complexity of research for development partnerships by including operational (funding structures, leadership and MEL systems), relational (informal and horizontal relationships), contextual (engagement with partners’ contexts) and power-related elements of equitable partnership working.
- This framework encourages evaluations of equitable partnerships to go beyond the use of just partnership surveys, rather use multiple methods and especially centre review and reflection processes with all partners to embrace a learning-oriented approach in which the findings from the evaluation are actively used to inform adaptations to the partnership.
- Participatory approaches that involved all partners in developing and evaluating partnership principles ensured contextually appropriate definitions and a focus on what partners value.
- Placing reflection at the centre of a learning-oriented approach ensures that partnership evaluation findings were used to adapt and improve the way the focus programmes operate.