Intersectionality, Power, and Lessons Learned: Avoiding Paternalistic Partnerships

November 8, 2018

In last week’s post, I revealed how, the summer of 2016 after my freshman year, I embarked on an internship in Nicaragua that worked with youth in a residential center. This internship was funded by my college’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, which – under new leadership, a review of ethics, and a re-calibrated mission statement – has since discontinued its partnership with the youth residential center. The experience itself taught me a lot of things, particularly about the way I and others view myself in different contexts, about biases that we all hold and must challenge (as well as how one participates in other-ing), and about the ethics of partnerships (particularly those formed between the global North and global South). One of the lessons  that struck me the most and that I continue to revisit even years out from the experience, is that it is essential to identify what makes an ethical partnership. This lesson is one that is continuously developing as we, as a community, continue to look for ways that we can act most ethically with one another in and between communities. However, there are some key chapters to the overall lesson which I will share here in hopes that we as a community may continue to learn together, create together, and move on together.

Frameworks I wish I Had Known About: Clearly Defining Reciprocity

I now believe that in order to achieve the most equal partnership possible, one must understand different types of reciprocity. Lina Dostillo’s Reciprocity: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say, highlights three different types of reciprocity: exchange, influence, and generative. In exchange reciprocity, the idea is that participants give and receive, partaking in an interchange of things such as benefits, actions and resources. This exchange may be unequal, due to differing motives and may be based on prior behaviors (Dostilio et al., 22-23). For example, if a partner organization is seen as ineffective and lazy by a donor organization, they may cut funding or aid without trying to figure out why there is a delay in the projects being pursued.

The second type of reciprocity is that of influence. In this level, relational connections are formed in such a way that they are founded on personal, social, and environmental contexts. Different factors influence reciprocity that are not necessarily stable or equal over time. Additionally, one may feel themselves to be sufficiently informed or knowledgeable on something like power dynamics, but that does not necessarily mean that one would act in such a way as to dissipate those inequalities. One may, in fact, be taking advantage of those inequalities (Dostilio et al., 23-24). While in Nicaragua I witnessed influential reciprocity first hand. For a week, an incoming group of high school volunteers continuously took the youth away from their chores, schoolwork and workshop classes to play frisbee or soccer. Though this seemed like a harmless activity, the volunteers undermined the authority of the staff at the youth center, where the kids paid more attention to the new and exciting high schoolers than the staff which had the best, albeit more boring, interests for the youth in mind (read: homework and workshops). This incident reminded me of how one could not just be the fun person who came and distracted them, one had to think of what was best for the organization in the long run, which meant nagging kids about homework from time to time and withholding arts and crafts supplies until chores were done.

The third type of reciprocity is generative reciprocity. This is seen as the ideal form of reciprocity, where participants produce something new together that would not have been possible individually and emphasizes the interrelatedness of all participants, the world and the society around them (Dostilio et al., 24-25). In a perfect world, equal partnerships would not only achieve generative reciprocity but would even achieve interdependence.

By using the language of interdependence, organizations make it clear that they are speaking of a sense of collectivity that goes beyond exchange, joining communities in such a way that they encounter difference as a resource and a strength (Keith 18). Reciprocity, especially when used in the context of exchange, can only be sustained between those who can and will reciprocate, relying on the more powerful  group’s (usually the donor organization’s) definition of reciprocity and equality of exchange. If the donor organization perceives a lessening of effort or product from the partner, they may cut resources or pull out altogether. Interdependence ensures that the partner organization is not unsustainably dependent on the donor organization, but rather is seen as an essential and equal collaborator in the partnership.  In her essay, Keith argues for the need of rooting dialogue centered around social justice rather than univocal meeting of community needs, in this way both communities are supported and both of their needs are actively being strived to be met (Keith 19).

Unfortunately, though the language of interdependence is appealing, one could argue that a powerful Northern donor agency may never fully be dependent on a Southern partner organization. As much as this shines light on the inherent inequality of partnerships, power dynamics and the question of how necessary a visitor’s presence is on foreign soil, there are some ways that a Northern NGO may be somewhat dependent on a Southern partner. Hands-on service learning, cultural exchange and the true realization of what it means to be a global citizen are among some of the things that a Northern NGO may have a harder time realizing by itself. Due to this dependence, it is important to be deliberate and purposeful in the ways that we establish partnerships by taking the time, work, communication, transparency, and effort to build trust needed. It is also important  to be conscious and aware of the power dynamics and resource disparities inherent in these partnerships – so as to work best with each other without one taking advantage of the other. Acting in such a way will help to ensure reflection in every step of the partnership process and constant re-evaluation and questioning of the direction in which the partnership is heading, so that it may benefit both parties as best as possible. An example of such actions is outlined in a meaningful and promising framework named Fair Trade Learning. This guideline is one way in which we may be able to achieve Keith’s goal of partnerships of collective interdependence.

Frameworks I wish I Had Known About: Fair Trade Learning

Though truly equal partnerships in North and South relationships may be an unattainable ideal due to power dynamics, access to resources and several other factors, Fair Trade Learning (FTL) is one template that provides equal partnership best practice guidelines. FTL was born out of a partnership in Jamaica in which the partner organization voiced the specific needs of the organization, as well as insisted on transparency and agency in the partnership (Hartman 215). After some failed attempts at partnering with organizations in an effort to further economic development using a model of community tourism, the Association of Clubs (AOC) in Petersfield, Jamaica partnered with Amizade Global Service Learning. Amizade listened to the exact needs the community in Jamaica actively pursued, was informed through people’s experience in the community, with the economy and the government, and grew from the decades-long relationship that had been cultivated in the past (Hartman 218). FTL was conceived out of this experience.

The goal of FTL is to set a type of guideline and rubric for engaged ethical community-campus engagements, with the originators envisioning it as a standard, a designation which would indicate a partnership that was committed to community-driven principles (Hartman 230-231). FTL emphasizes simultaneous attention to community and student development, an active community voice and direction at every step, multidirectional exchange built on commitment and sustainability, transparency (especially when it comes to economic affairs), long term views on footprint reduction, long term views on environmental and economic sustainability, intercultural learning, global community building and the proactive protection of the most vulnerable populations (Hartman 225-230). Through these guidelines, FTL hopes to build strong relationship with partnerships in which both sides are being valued, listened to, given a voice and given agency as well as opportunities to act. The end goal is the bettering of both organizations through the achievement of something that could not have been done individually, and in this way FTL harnesses the power of generative reciprocity.

Even though it may be unavoidable to bring subconscious and conscious biases and stereotypes with you on your trip, it is important to embark on your experience with several concepts in mind. You should think about the type of reciprocity you will strive for and keep best practice methods such as FTL in mind. By doing so, you will hopefully not only experience a life changing experience for yourself, but also might engage ethically throughout your experience, demonstrating your capacity to  listen, question and move forward together with your partner organization. In this way, we may create a network of communities building together and communicating together in order to advance ethical partnerships locally and abroad.

Dostilio, Lina D., et al. “Reciprocity: Saying what we mean and meaning what we say.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2012, pp. 17-32.

Hartman, Eric. “Fair trade learning: A frame work for ethical global partnerships.” International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities, edited by Marianne A. Larson, Taylor and Francis, 2016, pp. 214-34.

Keith, Novella Zett. “Community service learning in the face of globalization: Rethinking theory and practice.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2005, pp. 5-24.


Originally from Argentina, Maria Padrón is in her senior year as a psychology major at Haverford College. 

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