SDG17 (Rethinking) Partnerships for the Goals

By Corrina Grace, Partners Asia Social Innovator

Therese Caouette, center, poses with teachers from a village school in Chin State, while on a bike trip with Partners Asia in western Myanmar. A longtime Seattle resident, Caouette plays a critical role in shaping Partners Asia and advocating for trust-based philanthropy. Photo credit: Tim Schottman/Partners Asia.

Therese Caouette, center, poses with teachers from a village school in Chin State, while on a bike trip with Partners Asia in western Myanmar. A longtime Seattle resident, Caouette plays a critical role in shaping Partners Asia and advocating for trust-based philanthropy. Photo credit: Tim Schottman/Partners Asia.

It could be argued that SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals) is the most important of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The complex and interdependent nature of the challenges we face in the world will not be solved by any one individual, organization, or government alone. There is not a single solution that can be scaled or a transformative public policy to be implemented that can get us to where we need to be. As the voices of the People’s Climate Movement have been crying out for years: “To change everything, it takes everyone.” Achieving the Global Goals and meeting the ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda will require strong partnerships and collective actions that bridge across traditional boundaries such as race, religion, class, gender, and geography. It also required recognition that not all partnerships have been created equally.

One of the places where this is most apparent is in international aid. Earlier this year, the murder of George Floyd sparked a groundswell of demand for racial justice and brought home the deep disparity and inequality which exists in the United States. A few important questions emerged for those of us working internationally: To what extent does conventional global development practice reflect exported systemic racism and structural inequalities? If we look carefully, can we see inequality and power imbalances perpetuated in the way we build partnerships, structure agreements, or give funding? What types of biases exist for deciding whose voice gets heard? Are we naturally curious or quick to judge? Uncomfortable questions. But the good news is that across the global development community and around the world, there is a growing call for change. But how?

We believe it is through the power of partnerships.

Partners Asia is a Global Washington NGO member and grantee partner. Partnership is at our core and it’s what we do. But not just any partnerships. For over 20 years, Partners Asia has been doing aid differently: flipping the power on traditional development dynamics to build deep and equitable partnerships with inspiring local leaders and local organizations. We believe that philanthropy can be an unstoppable ally in shifting power and deconstructing systems that perpetuate marginalization and injustice, but only if we are prepared to deeply question the structural inadequacy of the very systems that continue to fail us.

Over the last few months, with the conversions around racial equity and inclusion in the U.S. and beyond calling for a transformation of organizations, Partners Asia has been asked to share our experience around building equitable partnerships working for the Global Goals. Inspired by these conversations, and in consultation with our network of local partners and advisors, we have come up with the following three recommendations:

Practice Humble Curiosity

Transforming our work means not just changing the face of global development and philanthropy, but deliberately contributing to the change. It means acknowledging where we may have made mistakes or assumptions, and admitting that we don’t always know the answers. In Partners Asia, our mantra is ‘humble curiosity’. Humble curiosity is what allows us to identify local partners who are closest to the problems, and let their wealth of contextual knowledge be the driver of solutions. Humble curiosity is what allowed us to be timely and responsive in supporting our partners through the unexpected challenges thrown at them by the global pandemic, so that they could focus on saving lives.

It is through humble curiosity that we have found the strength to ask hard questions, the courage to acknowledge not knowing the answers, and the ability to listen deeply to others. When we approach relationship building from a place of humble curiosity, we give the space for others to show up fully, and lay the foundation for a strong partnership based on respect and mutuality.

Commit to Determined Renegadism

As one of our favorite books, Time to Listen, concludes: “Every moment of business as usual is a lost moment for making change.” Nothing has ever been changed by conforming to the status quo. Yet conformity is a trap that catches all of us. Creating change means making a daily commitment to doing things differently. Whether it’s a letter of agreement, a project report, or rethinking how we measure impact, we stop to question deeply and ask ourselves – is this practice truly reflective of the types of equitable partnerships that we want to build? Who benefits? Could there be a better way?

We all know that changing systems and structural inequalities to build a better world is a marathon, not a sprint. This means making decisions based on long-term processes and outcomes, rather than short-term projects and short-term results. Doing things this way takes time, trust, collaboration, and a lot of honesty, but it’s worth it. We call this “determined renegadism.”

Build Trust From Within

Partners Asia’s approach falls within what is broadly referred to in the sector as trust-based philanthropy. Trust-based philanthropy is a movement that seeks to change the grant-maker/grantee relationship from transactional to trust-based, building a more equitable nonprofit-funder ecosystem. Partners Asia is committed to inspiring more trust-based practices within global development and international philanthropy. However, in our advocacy work, we have come to realize one important element: you cannot advocate for trust-based practices externally if you do not have the same trust-based practices within. Gandhi’s much quoted statement: “We must become the change we wish to see in the world” is as pertinent today as ever. Is it realistic to expect organizations that are rooted in power structures of patriarchy and colonization, which place certain people’s ideas, experiences and opinions above others, to be able to commit to deep and equitable partnerships with organizations and groups from other countries and cultures?

This is a question of authenticity. At Partners Asia, we have thought deeply about our organizational culture and the dynamics between staff and leadership. We make time for building trusting and respectful relationships amongst the different members of our organization. That is how we can ensure that the conversations, interactions, and relationships we have with local partners will help to build more trusting and equitable long-term partnerships.

Where does your organization sit on a spectrum that has on one end “transactional” and on the other, “deep trust”?

Partners Asia is currently working on a new initiative to inspire a shift away from the traditional methods used in global development towards more trust-based, equitable partnerships. We believe that this shift is vital to get the Global Goals back on track in a more equitable and inclusive way.

If you would like to find out more or get involved, we invite you to reach out to our executive director, Patty Curran (